When most people envisioned Virginia’s road to redemption in the NCAA Tournament this season, their minds likely flashed to the team’s Big Three willing the Cavaliers to victory game after game. All season, junior guards Kyle Guy and Ty Jerome and sophomore guard De’Andre Hunter have led Virginia (31-3, 16-2 ACC) past its strongest competition with remarkable consistency.
In Virginia’s two tournament victories, however, the supporting cast has proved to be just as valuable.
Virginia’s fourth through seventh scoring leaders have all made critical plays when called upon in two gritty victories. With star shooter Guy only scoring 12 points in total after averaging more than 15 per game during the season, the Cavalier supporting cast has kept the team afloat with big performances.
When the No. 1 seed Cavaliers take on a red-hot No. 12 seed Oregon in a Sweet Sixteen date Thursday, the supporting players all have skills to help push Virginia to the Elite Eight. The Ducks (25-12, 10-3 Pac-12) have the size and defensive prowess to upset the Cavaliers, so the team must once again have all hands on deck.
Looking at the supporting players’ contributions so far, I analyze how each can once again make their mark in the Thursday night showdown.
Junior forward Mamadi Diakite: Breaking the zone and protecting the paint
Without much debate, Diakite has been the most important player on Virginia’s roster in the tournament because of his presence in the paint. He has scored a total of 31 points across the matchups while protecting the rim with nine rebounds in each game.
Adding to Diakite’s tournament value has been the fact that the Cavaliers have not been themselves from three-point range. After shooting over 40 percent from deep during the season, the Cavaliers have hovered around 30 percent during the NCAA Tournament. Once Diakite started scoring inside against Gardner-Webb, the game swung in Virginia’s favor immediately.
The Cavaliers likely won’t be able to get completely comfortable from long range against the Ducks. Their pressure zone is built to lock off perimeter shooting, leading to the team ranking sixth in the country in three-point defense. Diakite can help get the Cavaliers comfortable pushing the ball inside to score one-on-one and can possibly pass from the post to the perimeter to open up the three-ball to Guy, Jerome and Hunter.
Coach Tony Bennett will likely also need Diakite to lock down defensively as he has so far in March Madness. After a rough start against Gardner-Webb, Diakite clamped down and limited the Bulldogs’ inside scoring before posting the best defensive rating of any Cavalier against Oklahoma.
With four of Oregon’s starters standing at 6-foot-9, Diakite’s size will be needed to protect inside looks. The Ducks have a duo of forwards in senior Paul White and sophomore Kenny Wooten who shoot over 60 percent at the rim, so Diakite will likely be tasked with shutting both down if they look to push the ball late in the shot clock.
Junior guard Braxton Key: Rebounding and driving to the hoop
While Key’s minutes have been scattered by Bennett based on matchups, he showed against Oklahoma just how valuable he can be in crunch time. The junior scored nine points without missing a shot and pulled down nine rebounds in 21 minutes.
Key’s presence as a rebounder has been felt all season as he leads the team with 5.5 per game. Though he is slightly undersized as a guard, Key’s great hands and jump at the basket have allowed him to claw for some tough boards, which can prove to make a huge difference against Oregon’s length.
Offensively, Alabama transfer has struggled with finishing at the rim this season, shooting just under 50 percent. However, the Oklahoma game may be a sign Key turned a corner. He often likes to push the ball in transition or drive when the lane is open, and his ability to convert buckets in both areas can help Virginia break the tight zone.
Sophomore forward Jay Huff: Stretch the floor
There aren’t many players in college basketball that accomplish more in limited minutes than Huff. In just nine minutes against Oklahoma, Huff scored five points — on a three-pointer and a thunderous driving dunk — en route to posting the highest offensive rating on the team.
With the stature of a center and the range of a guard, Huff can be used to space out the Ducks’ zone by drawing their big men outside. Oregon’s game tape shows it prefers to have multiple big men in the paint to keep teams from scoring easy baskets, but that may prove impossible with a floor-stretcher like Huff. Using his unique set of tools to his advantage can help make the Ducks’ zone uncomfortable and create one-on-one looks for Diakite and Hunter in a more open paint.
Freshman guard Kihei Clark: Ball-pressure defense
With his short stature and occasionally questionable decision-making garnering some criticism from Cavalier fans, Clark has responded with two very solid tournament games. After locking down the shift guards on Gardner-Webb and contributing four assists and five rebounds, the freshman scored nine points Sunday as he slashed the Sooners’ defense.
Bennett may task Clark with locking down Oregon’s most important player — junior point guard Peyton Pritchard. Pritchard has scored 37 points in two tournament games and dished out 15 assists as the team’s only true ball-handler. The 6-foot-2 Pritchard won’t be a complete matchup problem for the 5-foot-9 Clark, who has played solid pressure defense against similarly sized players this season. Pritchard takes over half of his shots from deep but only makes around a third of them, so Clark’s pressure can help force him into bad shots as well as limit his ball handling comfort on the perimeter.
Oregon is not your average No. 12 seed, as they’ve vaulted themselves to the 29th ranked team in KenPom during a 10-game winning streak. Coach Dana Altman will be planning to shut down Virginia’s star players, but big, early contributions from Virginia’s supporting cast can help thwart the Ducks from an upset bid.
The Cavaliers’ first Elite Eight berth since 2016 will be on the horizon if they give another balanced team effort.
Virginia next plays Oregon Thursday. Tip-off is currently scheduled for 9:57 p.m at the KFC Yum! Center in Louisville, Ky.
Alec Dougherty is a Sports Columnist and was a Sports Editor for the 129th term of The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.