Virginia's win at Duke shows Cavaliers are at top of ACC, not just in current standings

This might be an ACC record. It's Jan. 27 and the league race is already, essentially, over.

No one -- not the super-frosh Duke Blue Devils, not the reigning champion UNC Tar Heels -- can catch the Cavaliers this season.

Saturday's game against second-ranked Virginia and fourth-ranked Duke set up as the game of the weekend, maybe the matchup of the season so far. UVA won 65-63. Virginia did what Virginia almost always does. The Cavaliers played at their pace, choking offense out of their opponents' lungs and forcing a Blue Devils team averaging 91.7 points -- the most in the country -- to walk off the floor with a season-low 63. 

All told, it was worth the watch, but the biggest takeaway is not the result, but what the result means for the ACC and college basketball. 

A surprising stat: Saturday's victory was Virginia's first at Duke since 1995. By winning in Cameron Indoor for the first time in 18 attempts and 23 years, UVA effectively just secured the ACC's regular season for the third time in five years. Tony Bennett has 65 ACC wins since the 2014-15 season. That's eight more than Roy Williams and nine more than Mike Krzyzewski. Bennett is this league's landlord, and he looked right at home on Duke's stomping grounds Saturday. 

We're halfway through the conference's schedule and it's already a wrap. After NC State took UNC out of the picture and Virginia did Duke in, the ACC finds itself low on drama. UVA is now 20-1 overall with a 9-0 mark in the ACC and has a three-game cushion in the loss column on the Blue Devils, who they will not play again in the regular season. The team closest to UVA is Louisville, which sits at two ACC losses and will get Virginia on its home floor -- yet is still not projected to beat the Wahoos at the KFC Yum! Center.

Virginia, which was foolishly unranked in the preseason, is projected as a favorite in every game remaining on its schedule. KenPom has the Cavaliers most likely finishing at 16-2 in the ACC. The next closest team is Duke, with five losses by the time the ACC tourney is assembled.  

Given the way Virginia's established itself as an elite team this season, and with the ACC practically decided, we can now also realistically project Virginia on the top line. The Wahoos have been sitting as a No. 1 seed in Jerry Palm's bracket for a while now. If the math plays out, UVA finishing atop the ACC's regular season -- be it with zero, one or two losses -- would assure it of a No. 1 seed. 

And on Saturday, the Cavaliers again looked the part of one of the four best teams in the country, if not the best. Villanova is ranked No. 1, and it has the best offense, but I'm more inclined to think Virginia's defense would win out if the two teams faced in a seven-game series. But this is college basketball, and thankfully we get the frenzy of do-or-die postseason. Perhaps we'll get Wildcats-Wahoos in San Antonio. I'd love to see it. 

This season is coming together in a dominant but also lucky way for the Cavaliers. I assure you -- because Virginia's not made a Final Four under Bennett and because so many abhor the Cavs' technique -- that you will hear critiques of a conference schedule Bennett had no control over. I write "lucky" because Bennett's team only has to face Duke, North Carolina, Clemson and Miami once. Those four teams are the ones, you know, "just" beneath Virginia in the ACC standings (along with Louisville, who they face twice). If you want to keep scrolling down the league ledger, North Carolina State, Florida State and Notre Dame are also only playing against the Cavs once apiece. 

They're all happier about that than Virginia is, I'm sure. 

Bennett has one of his best teams and is capitalizing on that with a favorable schedule. This is why the ACC race is over. Duke is dominant in flashes but almost certainly fatally flawed. (Grayson Allen only scored five points Saturday? Not good enough.) UNC has the veteran backcourt with Joel Berry II and Theo Pinson but not the pressure defense to get back to the Final Four.

Louisville's doing solid in an unexpected season of transition, but it's obviously two levels below what Virginia is. Clemson took its shot at the Cavaliers this week. The Tigers finished with a mortifying 36 points

A tougher schedule might induce one or two extra losses, but at this point, barring cosmic aberrations, there's nothing that would convince me Virginia's overrated. The retch-inducing defense of Virginia is effective. The team is methodic and improved on offense. They move the ball and work opponents into fatigue, which then becomes a compounded issue when teams have to muscle their way into finding the cracks in Virginia's defense every. single. time. down. the. floor.

Duke made its run and took the lead late in the second half. Then Virginia casually grabbed it back and didn't relinquish it. 

You think Virginia is boring? I won't fault you if so, but if this dominance is dull, then you have to admit it's also soul-crushing. That aspect is what makes UVA so fascinating. Opponents morph into molasses when they play that pack-line defense. It's spellbinding, really. There is no mystery to Virginia. They play slow, squeeze opponents out, and will keep doing that en route a No. 1 seed in March. We can debate their national championship credentials in a few weeks, but for now let's stop to acknowledge that Bennett's built a powerhouse program in a different style than anyone in major-conference college basketball. 

Winning at Duke leaves no room for debate. Virginia has not become one of the best programs in college basketball; this season has reminded everyone that UVA's maintained that status for a long time.  

CBS Sports Senior Writer

Matt Norlander is a national award-winning senior writer who has been with CBS Sports since 2010. He's in his ninth season reporting on college basketball for CBS, and also covers the NBA Draft, the Olympics... Full Bio

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