Virginia’s path to the championship: ACC Tournament preview

The No. 1 seed Cavaliers start play Thursday

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The Cavaliers will attempt to win the ACC Tournament for the second consecutive year.

Courtesy Virginia Athletics

Last year, Virginia hoisted the ACC Tournament Championship trophy in Brooklyn, N.Y. The Cavaliers defeated North Carolina 71-63 in the championship after winning the regular season title. This year, the No. 2 Cavaliers have won the regular season title after an impressive 16-2 record in ACC play, only losing twice to Duke. Now, they will attempt to win their third ACC Tournament Championship in five years — Virginia also won in 2014. If they win, the Cavaliers would be the first back-to-back ACC Tournament Champions since Duke won the tournament three consecutive times from 2009 to 2011.

The venue for this year’s ACC Tournament is the Spectrum Center in Charlotte, N.C. No. 1 seed Virginia comes into the tournament red hot with eight consecutive wins. The Cavaliers have a deep, balanced attack. Three Virginia players received All-ACC accolades Monday, with sophomore forward De’Andre Hunter and junior guard Kyle Guy on the first team all-ACC and junior guard Ty Jerome on the second team all-ACC. The Cavaliers also have a great coach in Tony Bennett — Bennett won ACC Coach of the Year Monday for the second consecutive year, and his defensive philosophy has produced yet another stellar Virginia defense. Virginia allows a nation-best 54.6 points per game.

As the No. 1 seed, the Cavaliers received the double bye and will not play until Thursday afternoon. They come into the tournament as one of the favorites, but their path will be anything but easy in a loaded ACC field. Duke will likely present the biggest challenge for Virginia. The Blue Devils have been the only thorn in Virginia’s side this year as the only team the Cavaliers have failed to beat.

The other contenders notwithstanding, Virginia is in good position to repeat as ACC Tournament Champions. 

The schedule:

Thursday, March 14 at 12:30 p.m. — No. 1 seed Virginia vs. the winner of No. 8 seed N.C. State and No. 9 seed Clemson

Friday, March 15 at 7 p.m. — No. 1 seed Virginia vs. TBD — ACC Tournament Semifinal 

Saturday, March 16 at 8:30 p.m.: No. 1 seed Virginia vs. TBD — ACC Tournament Championship

All games will be televised on ESPN.

The first matchup:

In the Cavaliers’ first matchup, they will face the winner of the game between No. 8 seed N.C. State and No. 9 seed Clemson. Virginia beat both teams once this season on the road.

Against Clemson, the Cavaliers struggled offensively in the first half, scoring just 27 points, but dominated in the second half en route to a 63-43 win. Good defense was key for Virginia in that game, and it will be if the Cavaliers face the Tigers again. Clemson has a solid defense, allowing just 64.0 points per game, and the first contest between the two teams was a battle of attrition. The two primary scorers Virginia has to worry about are senior guard Marcquise Reed and senior forward Elijah Thomas. While Reed is the Tigers’ leading scorer, he shot just 3-14 from the field against Virginia, and the Cavaliers have a plethora of perimeter defenders to shut him down. Thomas gave Virginia more problems, and the Cavaliers must stop his interior scoring.

Virginia struggled much more against N.C. State than against Clemson. It took all of overtime for the Cavaliers to take down the Wolfpack. N.C. State Coach Kevin Keatts’ fast-paced, heavy offense style provides an interesting contrast to Virginia’s measured approach, and it showed in their first matchup. The Cavaliers maintained a slight lead throughout most of the contest in a rowdy road environment but let their lead slip towards the end of regulation. While they pulled out the win, there were several points of concern — most glaring was the Cavaliers’ 16 turnovers, an outlier for a team that averages just 9.1 turnovers per game. If the Cavaliers face N.C. State Thursday, they will have to do a better job taking care of the ball. In addition, they will need to do a better job containing N.C. State’s perimeter scoring — senior guard Torin Dorn, junior guard C.J. Bryce and junior guard Markell Johnson stand out. With better defense and more patient offense, Virginia should be able to beat an inconsistent Wolfpack team.

Other contenders:

The ACC Tournament has a loaded field. That said, Virginia handled most teams in conference play and will likely only struggle against a few other contenders. While N.C. State and Virginia Tech could be dark horses and prove to be difficult matchups for the Cavaliers, North Carolina and Duke are the two other main teams in the conversation for the ACC title that will give Virginia a tough game.

No. 2 seed North Carolina has a share of the regular season title with the Cavaliers and is a very complete team with experience and talent. Senior forward Luke Maye’s post game is stellar, and he anchors the Tar Heels with extensive experience. Senior guard Cam Johnson, first team all-ACC, is a prolific scorer who is shooting 46.9 percent from three. Virginia made its comeback against North Carolina when Johnson was out with injury. Freshman guard Coby White is another great scorer, and the Tar Heels have several other skilled pieces. If they end up playing each other, the Cavaliers wouldn’t face North Carolina until the championship game.

Duke is the other matchup that is sure to be difficult for Virginia. In both games they played against the Blue Devils, the Cavaliers struggled to stop Duke’s scoring. In the first game, it was the inside scoring of freshman forwards R.J. Barrett and Zion Williamson that caused problems, and in the second game, it was Duke’s prolific three-point shooting. Whether or not Williamson returns from a knee injury will be key in how well Duke performs in the tournament. In games he played, Duke was 23-2. After his injury the Blue Devils went just 3-3. Regardless of Williamson’s impact, Virginia will be well-prepared to take on the Blue Devils if they meet in the championship game Saturday.

Path to the championship:

The double bye puts Virginia in great position to repeat as ACC Tournament Champions. With a well-balanced attack led by the “big three” of Guy, Jerome and Hunter, the Cavaliers are strong on offense in addition to defense this year. While North Carolina and Duke are the two opponents who should challenge Virginia the most, the Cavaliers cannot overlook earlier games. All eyes will be on Charlotte for the next few days as teams compete in one of the best basketball conferences in the country. The Cavaliers will look to use a good draw to their advantage and emerge victorious again.

Correction: The article previously stated that the championship game on Saturday is at 7 p.m., but it is actually at 8:30 p.m. It has been updated to reflect the accurate time.

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