Jan 23, 2018; Charlottesville, VA, USA; Virginia Cavaliers center Jack Salt (33) knocks the ball from Clemson Tigers guard Shelton Mitchell (4) in the second half at John Paul Jones Arena. The Cavaliers won 61-39. Mandatory Credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

After Tuesday’s annihilation of Clemson, Virginia has reached unprecedented territory on the defensive end. They held the Tigers to 0.58 points per possession in a 61-36 win, improving their adjusted defensive efficiency to 81.6, the best mark in the KenPom era (dating back to 2001-02).

Tony Bennett has quietly built up one of college basketball’s best programs. The Cavs are headed for their fifth straight NCAA Tournament, and through 20 games they’re on track to finish in the KenPom top-six and earn a No. 1 or No. 2 seed for the fourth time during that stretch.

Bennett’s teams have always been known for his defense, dating his back to his surprising run of success at Washington State. But this team has taken Bennett’s staple to a new level. Cincinnati is having quite a season itself defensively with an adjusted 85.6 points per possessions, which would be the best mark since 2014-15 if not for Virginia. But the 7.1-point difference between No. 1 Virginia and No. 3 Purdue is equal to the difference between No. 3 Purdue and No. 37 East Tennessee State.

The current record-holder for defensive efficiency is 2008-09 Memphis, featuring Tyreke Evans. That team allowed an adjusted 84.2 points per 100 possessions, nearly three points more than this Virginia team has allowed. 2012-13 Stephen F. Austin holds the raw defensive efficiency record at 84.3 points per 100 possessions, and Virginia, despite playing in the ACC instead of the Southland, is still outdoing that gritty gang of Lumberjacks at 83.6!

If there was a year for Virginia to take a step back, this was it. The 2016-17 team was really good, but not great like the teams of the three prior seasons. The Cavaliers struggled to score all year, earned a No. 5 seed in the NCAA Tournament, got demolished by Florida in the second round 65-39, and finished No. 12 in KenPom.

That team lost four key players, including its two leading scorers, so they naturally didn’t get much publicity early in the season. They (embarrassingly) did not even crack my preseason Top 25 for The Comeback.

The Cavaliers offense has surprisingly improved despite the roster changes, but the defense has turned them into a heavy ACC favorite — KenPom projects UVA to win the conference over Duke by three games — and one of the favorites to reach the Final Four. Virginia has faced three top-30 offenses, and here’s how they fared:

North Carolina, 17th-ranked offense — 49 points in 59 possessions

Davidson, 25th-ranked offense — 60 points in 63 possessions

Virginia Tech, 28th-ranked offense — 52 points in 68 possessions

Virginia will face its toughest test of the season Saturday at Duke. The Blue Devils boast college basketball’s second-most efficient offense, and we’ll see if the Cavaliers can live up to their record-setting numbers against their firepower.

About Jesse Kramer

Jesse is a writer and editor for The Comeback. He has also worked for SI.com and runs The Catch and Shoot, a college basketball website based in Chicago. He is a graduate of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. Follow Jesse on Twitter @Jesse_Kramer.