DOUGHERTY: Breaking down Virginia’s first NCAA Tournament opponents

The Cavaliers get favorable draws, but each opponent has the stars needed for an upset

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The Virginia men's basketball team will have to advance past Gardner-Webb and either Ole Miss or Oklahoma to reach the Sweet Sixteen. Courtesy Virginia Athletics

For the third time in four years, the Virginia basketball team enters the NCAA Tournament as a one-seed in its region. 

The Cavaliers (29-3, 16-2 ACC) begin their title quest in Columbia, S.C., Friday as the top seed in the South Region — one that features some of the tournament’s toughest defensive teams and last year’s tournament champion, Villanova.

Before facing any elite squads, the Cavaliers must make it out of the first weekend, which has never been a given despite their recent regular season success. Coach Tony Bennett has only led one squad to the Sweet Sixteen in the past four seasons despite the team’s high seeds.

Standing in Virginia’s way to getting through to the next weekend are its 16-seed opponent Friday, Gardner-Webb, and two at-large teams from Power Five conferences — No. 9 Oklahoma and No. 8 Ole Miss — as potential Round of 32 opponents. Each brings different strengths to the tournament and will all be ripe for an upset of a number one team.

Let’s break down each opponent and some key potential matchups we may see over the wildest weekends of the year. 

No. 16 Gardner-Webb (23-11, 10-6 Big South)

The Cavaliers draw the Bulldogs in the game that can avenge their infamous upset at the hands of 16th-seeded UMBC in last year’s tournament opener. The Bulldogs nabbed their first ever NCAA Tournament appearance by winning the Big South Tournament over top-seeded Radford last week.

The win over Radford and a semifinal victory over Campbell show that Gardner-Webb can be dangerous in a tournament setting. Against Campbell, the Bulldogs held the nation’s leading scorer, senior guard Chris Clemons, to only 9-24 shooting while making almost 60 percent of their own shots. Senior forward DJ Laster then willed the Bulldogs to the conference title by dropping 32 points against Radford in an 11-point victory. 

Though not the team’s leading scorer, Laster looks to be the Cavaliers’ largest problem Friday. He is the team’s biggest starter at 6-foot-6 and 230 pounds and shoots 45.1 percent from beyond the arc, so look for him to stretch the floor and draw out Virginia’s big men.

The rest of Laster’s team also is adept from long range, with its 39.1 percent three-point percentage ranking 12th in the country. Gardner-Webb’s leading scorer, senior guard David Efianayi, hits at a 41.4 clip himself and chips in 18.4 points per game, making him a dangerous threat across the floor for the Bulldogs. Bennett will likely task freshman Cavalier guard Kihei Clark with pressing on the 6-foot-2 Efianayi to run him off the three-point line and take tough shots.

Gardner-Webb’s offensive pop aside, Virginia should be able exploit their subpar and overmatched defense. The Bulldogs have the 251st-ranked defense in the country according to KenPom, and with no consistent players over 6-foot-6, Virginia should have little trouble scoring inside. Sophomore forward De’Andre Hunter should see a lot of time playing the four and pushing the ball inside, and the team can feed junior forward Mamadi Diakite for post-ups against mismatched Bulldog forwards. 

No. 8 Ole Miss (20-12, 10-8 SEC)

A year after going a dismal 12-20 and finishing last in the SEC, Coach Kermit Davis has quickly turned the University of Mississippi basketball team around in a 20-win campaign this season. Though the Rebels only went 10-8 in SEC play and lost five of their last seven games, wins over tournament teams in Auburn, Mississippi State and Baylor show they can hang with high-caliber opponents.

Davis, the SEC coach of the year, is the main reason not to count out the Rebels in the NCAA Tournament. As coach of Middle Tennessee State in 2016, he orchestrated one of the biggest tournament upsets of all time when his 15th-seeded Blue Raiders took down No. 2 Michigan State in the opening round. He is no stranger to being an underdog and has a deep team poised to make a run. 

Ole Miss has won mostly with efficient offense this year, ranking 35th in KenPom adjusted offense. Junior guard Breein Tyree and senior guard Terence Davis lead the team in scoring. Tyree averages 18.2 points per game and is an all-around efficient shot-creator, averaging over 46 percent from two-point range and over 38 percent from deep. 

The X-factor for the Rebels will be their depth in scoring beyond their main guards. Sophomore guard Devontae Shuler can light it up from long range, making almost 40 percent of his threes, and senior forward Bruce Stevens can give an inside spark with 8.5 points and 1.3 offensive rebounds per game.

On paper, however, Ole Miss just doesn’t match up well with Virginia. The Rebels have one of the worst three-point defenses in the country — allowing opponents to shoot 37.2 percent — while the Cavaliers are the fourth best shooting team in the nation. Furthermore, though the Rebels are a very efficient team shooting at the rim and from the free throw line, Virginia’s pack-line defense is built to limit opportunities on the inside. If Diakite and senior center Jack Salt can clamp down on the inside for the Cavaliers, Ole Miss could have a tough time scoring.

No. 9 Oklahoma (19-13, 7-11 Big 12)

Sooners Coach Lon Kruger has housed some of the best talent in the NCAA over the past few seasons in Buddy Hield and Trae Young, but even without a bona fide star this year, he has led Oklahoma back to the NCAA Tournament. It’s been far from a perfect season for the Sooners after going 7-11 in the Big 12, but some strong non-conference victories and a big win over juggernaut Kansas were enough to vault Kruger’s team into the field. 

Whereas Ole Miss wins with offense, Oklahoma shines with even better defense, coming in at 22nd in KenPom adjusted defense. Two-point defense is their calling card, as the Sooners are 25th in the country in opposing shooting percentage inside the arc, as well as 20th in defensive rebounding. Since Virginia’s style of play limits possessions and favors getting back on defense over offensive rebounds, it could run into trouble if shots aren’t falling and Oklahoma grinds out possessions. 

Luckily for Virginia, Oklahoma is nothing special offensively. The Sooners were the second worst three-point shooting team in the Big 12 and only attempt a third of their shots from deep, so they aren’t a huge threat to stretch the floor. Senior guard Christian James leads the team in scoring at 14.4 points per game but isn’t a very efficient shooter, though sophomore forward Brady Manek could give the Cavaliers issues. Manek stands at 6-foot-9 and can score at multiple levels, making over 56 percent of two-pointers and shooting over 35 percent from three. 

Hunter would likely be tasked with shutting down Manek, while junior guard Ty Jerome would take on James to shut him down with length. Limiting their inside shots and making threes of their own should be enough for the Cavaliers to oust the Sooners. 

Overall, Virginia has favorable matchups across the board in the first weekend, but upsets are never out of the question in March Madness. Shooting threes efficiently, getting the ball into the paint when shots aren’t falling and leaning on their suffocating defense was the winning formula for the Cavaliers all season. Doing just those things should be enough to earn a Sweet Sixteen berth.

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