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No. 1 seed Virginia’s road to the Final Four

Breaking down the South region

<p>No. 1 seed Virginia starts play Friday at 3:10 p.m. against No. 16 seed Gardner-Webb.</p>

No. 1 seed Virginia starts play Friday at 3:10 p.m. against No. 16 seed Gardner-Webb.

It’s finally here. A year after a historic loss to No. 16 seed UMBC, Virginia is back for redemption in the NCAA Tournament. On Selection Sunday, the Cavaliers were named a No. 1 seed for the second consecutive year, and they head the South region. The South regional semifinals and finals will be played in Louisville, Ky., but to get to the Sweet Sixteen, the Cavaliers will start off play in Columbia, S.C., where the road to their first Final Four appearance since 1984 starts.

First weekend matchups:

Virginia starts off play Friday at 3:10 p.m. against Gardner-Webb. Although they are a No. 16 seed, the Bulldogs will be no easy matchup for the Cavaliers. Led by senior guard David Efianayi, freshman guard Jose Perez and senior forward DJ Laster — who shoots 45.1 percent from three and had 32 points in the Bulldogs’ conference championship game against Radford — Gardner-Webb has a small team that can shoot three-pointers well. The Bulldogs are 12th in the nation in three-point shooting percentage with 39.1 percent. They also have wins against two ACC teams — Georgia Tech and Wake Forest — proving they can win against conference opponents.

If the Cavaliers beat the Bulldogs, they will face the winner of Oklahoma and Ole Miss. Both teams had average seasons in conference play but have some strong wins in their resume and will not be easy outs. Ole Miss has beaten No. 5 seed and SEC Tournament Champion Auburn twice and has beaten No. 5 seed Mississippi State. The Rebels have a great backcourt led by junior point guard Breein Tyree, who is shooting 38.5 percent from three. Virginia will need all perimeter defenders on deck to beat Ole Miss. Oklahoma poses a different challenge to Virginia, with good three-point shooting and a top-100 defense. Senior guard Christian James leads a balanced attack for the Sooners, who have beaten No. 4 seed Kansas. The Cavaliers will need to contest three-point shooters and establish a good rhythm in their sets offensively to get past Oklahoma.

Other contenders in the South:

While the South doesn’t have traditional “blue bloods,” there are several other notable contenders that could become hurdles in Virginia’s road to the Final Four.

In the Sweet Sixteen, assuming they advance that far, the Cavaliers could face No. 4 seed Kansas State or No. 5 seed Wisconsin. Both teams will challenge Virginia in playing a similar brand of basketball to the Cavaliers. Virginia is first in the nation in points per game allowed with 54.6 points per game, and Kansas State and Wisconsin are also in the top ten nationally with 59.1 points per game and 61.2 points per game allowed, respectively. Just like the matchup between the Badgers and Cavaliers earlier this year indicates — the final score was just 53-46 Virginia — a Sweet Sixteen game between Virginia and either of these teams would be a battle of attrition with both teams attempting to slow down pace of play and play fundamental basketball. Significantly, Kansas State has been hampered by injury recently, with starting senior forward Dean Wade possibly out for tournament play with a foot injury. The Wildcats played without Wade in the Big 12 Tournament and lost to Iowa State in the semifinals. They will need him healthy to be able to make a big run in March.

Out of all the players on Kansas State and Wisconsin, Wisconsin senior forward Ethan Happ should give the Cavaliers the most problems. When the Cavaliers and Badgers played in November, Happ single-handedly kept Wisconsin in the game with a game-high 22 points and 15 rebounds. Before they get to Virginia, however, Wisconsin will have to defeat an upstart Oregon team — winners of the Pac-12 Tournament — led by junior guard Payton Pritchard and a strong defense.

Virginia would not see the other contenders in the South until the Elite Eight.

Villanova, last year’s national champion, has outstanding tournament experience and could make a run. The Wildcats are led by returning seniors Eric Paschall and Phil Booth, gritty scorers who have two national championship rings each. Paschall and Booth led Villanova to its third consecutive Big East Tournament title last weekend. The Wildcats were done no favors by their seeding, however, and have a tough road to repeat. Their first round opponent, Saint Mary’s, is fresh off a comprehensive win over No. 1 seed Gonzaga, and they will also likely have to get past No. 3 seed Purdue and No. 2 seed Tennessee. Villanova has a championship culture, a great coach in Jay Wright and two great players in Booth and Paschall, but it doesn’t have a lot of depth past that.

Tennessee and Purdue are the two other main contenders in the South region.

Tennessee has had some great wins this year, including against No. 1 seed Gonzaga and No. 2 seed Kentucky. They are led by Grant Williams, junior forward and SEC Player of the Year, and senior guard Admiral Schofield, two great interior scorers who the Cavaliers will have to contain defensively. Both Williams and Schofield are relatively undersized big men, meaning sophomore guard De’Andre Hunter and junior guard Braxton Key could be tasked with defending them if Virginia’s traditional big men can’t guard them. No. 7 seed Cincinnati, winners of the American Conference Tournament, could pose a dangerous challenge to Tennessee if they advance to the round of 32. The Bearcats’ swarming defense and guard play could challenge the Volunteers.

No. 3 seed Purdue is the last team that could be a real obstacle in the Cavaliers’ road to the Final Four. Like Virginia, Purdue relies on the three-pointer for offense and plays clean, fundamental basketball. Junior guard Carsen Edwards is a great scorer, averaging 23 points per game, and leads the Boilermakers’ potent offense. However, Edwards has had a sore back recently and has shot just 17-66 from the field over the last three games, including just 21.2 percent from three-point range. Purdue will need him at his best to make a run in the tournament, and first round opponent Old Dominion will be no slouch.

The Cinderella:

While there is no clear Cinderella team in the South, Old Dominion is a team that could surprise. Old Dominion won the Conference USA Tournament for the first time in school history, and while the Monarchs have been inconsistent, they are hot and have proved they have what it takes against strong teams. Old Dominion beat Syracuse at the Carrier Dome and took down VCU earlier in the year. The Monarchs are anchored by a strong defense and good guard play, with senior guards B.J. Stith and Ahmad Caver leading their attack. They are a very resilient bunch and came back from double-digit deficits to beat both Syracuse and VCU. All of these factors make them a good candidate to break out in March.

Old Dominion has a big connection to the Virginia basketball program. Stith originally committed to Virginia but transferred to Old Dominion after his freshman season. His dad, Bryant Stith, is Virginia’s all-time leading scorer with 2,516 career points. Bryant Stith is now an assistant coach at Old Dominion under Coach Jeff Jones, who also played at Virginia and coached Bryant Stith. Thus, there will be many Cavaliers fans rooting for the Monarchs to upset the Boilermakers and make a run deep into March.

The road to the Final Four:

It won’t be easy for Virginia to make it to the Final Four — the last real hurdle for Coach Tony Bennett in his turnaround of the Cavaliers. The road is long and will be laden with difficult matchups.

That said, the Cavaliers have proven they can win against all kinds of teams this year and have the talent, experience and star power to make a long run. The other main contenders in the South play the same brand of fundamental, defensive-minded basketball that Virginia prides itself on. This is a good draw for the Cavaliers. If they can dictate the pace and establish offensive rhythm, the sky’s the limit for Virginia in March.

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