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March Madness Roundtable: Virginia men’s basketball superlatives

Virginia junior guard Ty Jerome is a critical part of the Cavaliers' offense.
Virginia junior guard Ty Jerome is a critical part of the Cavaliers' offense.

As March Madness approaches, The Cavalier Daily sports staff takes a look at superlatives for the Virginia men’s basketball team in the Big Dance. In 2019, the No. 1 seed Cavaliers will look to bounce back from an early outing the last two years in March. The team is in good position to change their fortune with a well-balanced squad this year.

Who will be the most valuable player for men’s basketball in March?

Muhammad Amjad, Sports Writer: Junior guard Ty Jerome. Jerome is the quarterback of this Virginia team on the offensive end and is a maestro at controlling the pace and efficiency of this team’s offense. He’s proven himself to be a big shot taker and maker with game-clinching shots in his time as Virginia’s primary ball handler — in a tournament predicated on suspense, momentum and runs, Jerome has the ideal mental fortitude and clutch propensity to keep Virginia’s hopes at a deep run alive. In an ACC Tournament where Guy, Salt and Hunter played exceptionally, Jerome showed his value in that Virginia desperately missed his shot-making ability as he was cold from the floor against N.C. State and Florida State. As the regular season leader in assists in the ACC, Jerome’s play-making ability will dictate how far Virginia dances this March.

Mara Guyer, Feature Writer: Junior guard Kyle Guy. He’s averaging 15.6 points and 4.4 rebounds per game this season. His ability to lead on offense has been display through recent games, including a 29-point outing against N.C. State last week. The Cavaliers lose control of games when their opponents are able to hit big threes, which we saw against Duke at home,  and to a lesser extent, against Florida State during the ACC Tournament. If Guy can give the team a boost on the defensive boards and stay consistent from behind the arc, Virginia should be able to stay in any game this March. I also think that he has proven to be the emotional center of this team — that matters in a tournament that emphasizes narratives and is condensed into a few exhausting weeks. 

Who is the player most likely to break out in March?

Lucas Beasey, Sports Columnist: The player currently surpassing all expectations for the Cavaliers is senior center Jack Salt. During both of Virginia’s ACC tournament games, Salt managed to impose his will in the paint. At 6-foot-10 and 250 pounds, Salt is often the largest player on the floor and has recently shown an ability to both draw fouls and position himself for passes off the pick and roll. Should he maintain this sudden uptick on his finishing ability and free throw shooting, Salt could break out as one of Virginia’s best offensive weapons in his final NCAA Tournament campaign.

MA: Sophomore forward Jay Huff is poised to demonstrate the extent of the hype surrounding him. We’ve seen glimpses of him stretching the floor on offense with his efficient three point shooting and occasional rim protection on the defensive end. With increased playing time this season as an offensive sub for Salt and junior forward Mamadi Diakite, Huff should be able to fit in the packline well enough to see increased playing time in the tournament against taller teams — an area that Florida State showed us Virginia can struggle with. Huff’s shooting — 50 percent on three-pointers — finishing ability around the rim and 7-foot-1 frame make him another weapon on an already well-oiled offense. The only question is whether his thin frame can hold up in terms of rebounding and Coach Tony Bennett’s defensive scheme. Huff will be given opportunities to earn more minutes, and his unique skill set will prove to fuel his stardom this March.

What is men’s basketball’s greatest weakness going into the Big Dance?

LB: Lack of depth at the guard positions, especially if Bennett opts to continue using the three guard lineup for long stretches of the game. Guy and Jerome are two of the three best weapons in Virginia’s arsenal, but their shots will suffer from fatigue if they continue to play 40 minutes apiece per game. The Cavaliers have sufficient depth everywhere else, especially when Bennett allows Diakite to spend some time as a forward. I believe Virginia should consider switching to a two guard lineup to ensure that Guy, Jerome and Clark are well rested for the long haul. 

Christian Guynn, Feature Writer: The lack of size in the paint could kill the Cavaliers’ chances of their first national championship. The Cavaliers were out-rebounded 35-20 against Florida State, which ultimately cost them the game and a chance at the ACC Championship. If Virginia cannot correct this or figure out a way to mitigate their lack of size in the post, it could be a real problem. Any team smart enough to know they cannot compete with the Cavalier guards now knows the key to beating Virginia after the ACC Tournament, and Virginia needs to be aware. 

MA: Turnovers have been a surprising Achilles’ heel on offense for Virginia in an otherwise tremendously efficient season. Even as Virginia led the ACC with nine turnovers per game, they did it at the country’s slowest pace, effectively making each turnover more costly. While playing at a slow pace, each turnover lets the opposing teams speed up the game and score much more easily on fastbreaks than against the pack line defense that Virginia sets up during half court sets. More importantly, however, is the way that turning the ball over ruins Virginia’s offensive momentum. The Virginia offense is predicated on high-volume passing, screens and few isolation drives, which makes the opportunities for steals and illegal screen calls more probable than normal. I expect Bennett to emphasize ball security to the team going to the NCAA Tournament, especially when unnecessary mistakes are so uncharacteristic of a Bennett system.

What is the most exciting potential matchup for Virginia?

CG: The most exciting game for Cavalier fans coming into a nerve-wracking tournament season is our first round matchup against Gardner-Webb. After last year’s loss it is only right that fans are nervous about the possibility of another upset. But with this nervousness comes hope, because if Virginia pulls off the win — which they should — it opens the door to our first national championship. If we get one win under our belts and get our wits about us, Virginia will have the confidence to compliment our skill and athleticism to bring home the title.

LB: In my opinion, Virginia has been blessed with a relatively easy path to the Elite Eight. The Cavaliers have already beaten No. 5 Wisconsin (23-10, 14-6 B1G), and No. 4 Kansas State is probably weaker than its seeding due to the loss of senior forward Dean Wade to injury. On the other side of the region, however, the No. 2 Tennessee Volunteers may pose a serious threat to Virginia’s bid to finally break through to the Final Four. The Volunteers possess every bit as much athleticism and scoring ability as anyone Virginia has played all season, but they are yet to play a defense as good as Virginia’s. 

MA: No. 6 Villanova is an interesting potential matchup for the Cavaliers. The defending national champions lost a litany of key players coming into this season, but somehow everyone seems to have forgotten that Jay Wright is one of the country’s best coaches. Villanova was overrated at the beginning of the season but seemingly underrated throughout the rest of the regular season, and if there’s one thing Virginia fans can appreciate, it’s good coaching. If Villanova and Virginia were to meet, it would be a very well-coached and exciting game on both sides of the floor, especially since Villanova has a terrific backcourt to match up with Jerome and Guy. Both teams are coming into the tournament with chips on their shoulders, and Villanova is no stranger to deep runs — something that Virginia is hoping to emulate.

Which team Virginia will most want to avoid in the tournament?

CG: As cliche as it sounds, No. 1 Duke is obviously a very dangerous matchup for the Cavaliers. After Duke gave Virginia its only two regular season losses, the Cavaliers have yet to find a way to best them down in Durham, N.C. Luckily, the only way we play Duke a third time is in the National Championship Monday April 8.If the Blue Devils and the Cavaliers both make it to National Championship, it will be the matchup of the decade that will have at least five, maybe even six NBA Draft picks come June. 

MG: N.C. State. Wait, no. I meant Michigan State. Like Christian’s potential Duke matchup, a lot of pieces would have to fall into place for this game to happen. Coach Tom Izzo’s squad has struggled with injuries this season, and junior guard Kyle Ahrens is expected to miss the tournament with a sprained ankle. Even so, Michigan State is a long, tough team and an especially anxiety-inducing matchup for Virginia based on recent tournament history. In reality, I’ll be so nervous during every game that no single team really stands out, but the Spartans are a major threat.