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McFarling: Cavaliers stumble in quest for elevation

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Virginia North Carolina basketball

North Carolina guard R.J. Davis (center) drives against Virginia forward Kadin Shedrick (left) and Virginia guard Armaan Franklin during the first half Saturday.

The elevator moves quickly in the 2021-22 ACC. You’re up. You’re down. You’re overrated. You’re overlooked. You’re a threat. You’re a bum.

With Saturday’s 74-58 dismantling of Virginia in Chapel Hill on Saturday, North Carolina made a pretty strong case that it is the second-best team in the conference behind Duke. But then you remember what the Tar Heels looked like just three days earlier, when they lost at Notre Dame, and you might not be sure what to believe.

Just relax and watch that elevator fly. It’s only getting started.

AP voters underscored the craziness this week when they, for the first time in 40 years, voted for only one team in the ACC. Not that they only ranked one ACC team, mind you, although that’s true, too. But only one ACC team — No. 2 Duke — garnered any votes at all.

So games like Saturday’s, where UNC was a modest 5-point home favorite over the Cavaliers, were watched with interest throughout the league as two potential contenders tried to separate themselves.

One did.

Trailing by a manageable six points at halftime, the Cavaliers suddenly found themselves facing their first double-digit deficit less than two minutes into the second half. It was pretty much over from there, as UNC post player Armando Bacot bullied his way to 29 points and 21 rebounds.

“He certainly had his way,” UVa coach Tony Bennett said. “If you’re out of position or you can’t get a quality body on him and just try to get him off the glass, he’s going to make you pay, and he certainly did. … Their frontcourt really took it to us.”

Bacot and backcourt gunner Caleb Love give the Tar Heels star power that most of their conference peers envy. And if they play like they did Saturday, they’ll be the ones to put the greatest pressure on Duke. But that’s no given — something UNC fans would be the first to tell you.

The lopsided nature of the result leaves the Cavaliers wounded just when it appeared they were working their way into that “best of the rest” discussion in the ACC. Back-to-back road wins against Syracuse and Clemson — two tough places to play — had moved them to 3-1 in the league, just behind Miami (4-0), Louisville (4-0) and Duke (2-0) entering Saturday.

“I told the guys you’ve got to keep your head up,” Bennett said. “But you’ve got to open up your ears and your mind to what just happened.”

What happened is the same thing that’s likely to happen over the next two months: wild oscillations in results. A single hot shooter might be able to propel a team five or six spots up the standings in a week. An ill-timed COVID strike could transform a third-place team into a ninth-place one.

The upshot of all this is that the league should stay interesting through the end of February. This coming Wednesday’s matchup between Virginia Tech and UVa in Charlottesville will feature two teams predicted to finish in the top five of the league in the preseason.

Off to an 0-3 start in the conference, the Hokies will be desperate. But so, too, will the Cavaliers after what just happened in the Triangle.

The crazy elevator will be waiting for both.

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