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The road to Minneapolis: Just two more games

Breaking down the Cavaliers’ path to the Final Four

<p>No. 1 seed Virginia starts off play in Louisville, Ky., against No. 12 seed Oregon Thursday night.</p>

No. 1 seed Virginia starts off play in Louisville, Ky., against No. 12 seed Oregon Thursday night.

After facing a brief scare against No. 16 seed Gardner-Webb in the first round and avoiding upset, the Cavaliers (31-3, 16-2 ACC) eased past No. 9 seed Oklahoma Sunday night en route to their first Sweet Sixteen berth since 2016. They are headed to Louisville, Ky., Thursday to hopefully win the South Regional and advance to the Final Four.

“The journey’s not done yet,” junior forward Mamadi Diakite said after the Oklahoma win.

Virginia hasn’t made it to the Final Four since 1984. The Cavaliers need just two more wins to get to Minneapolis, Minn., where the Final Four is being played. They will have to beat No. 12 seed Oregon Thursday night and the winner of No. 2 seed Tennessee and No. 3 seed Purdue Saturday.

This is what their road looks like.

No. 12 seed Oregon (25-12, 10-8 P12)

Oregon started the season strong, with a top-25 ranking early in the season. Then, the Ducks lost star freshman center Bol Bol to a season-ending injury and had some bad losses. After a loss to UCLA near the end of February, Oregon (15-12, 6-8 Pac-12) was sitting in the middle of the Pac-12 and making it to the postseason seemed unlikely. Then, the Ducks won five games in a row to end the regular season and won three consecutive games to go on to win the Pac-12 Tournament Championship. They have remained successful in the tournament, upsetting No. 5 seed Wisconsin 72-54 and beating No. 13 seed UC Irvine 73-54 to advance to the Sweet Sixteen. Oregon has won its ten last games. One of the keys for the Ducks on this winning stretch has been using their length — they have four starters that are 6-foot-9 — to disrupt passing lanes and frustrate teams offensively. Oregon has allowed just 54.2 points per game in this ten-game stretch, which is the best in college basketball right now — Virginia is second, with 55.0 points per game allowed. Red-hot three-point shooting has been another key for the Ducks, particularly in the tournament. While they have shot just 35.1 percent from three this year, they have shot 50 percent this tournament.

Player to watch:

Junior guard Payton Pritchard, with 18.5 points per game and 7.5 assists per game in the NCAA Tournament, is the man for Oregon. He has the experience — Pritchard was the starting point guard on the 2016-17 Ducks team that went to the Final Four — and the skill to lead the Ducks to victory. His ability to penetrate off the dribble and create offense for himself and his teammates is critical for Oregon. Against UC Irvine, he assisted on two three-pointers that stopped a potentially game-changing run by the Anteaters to start the second half. Look for freshman guard Kihei Clark, the Cavaliers’ go-to one-on-one defender, to lock up Pritchard.

How to beat them:

While they have clicked recently, this Oregon team is inexperienced and can be frustrated by the veteran Virginia defense. Besides Pritchard and senior forward Paul White, the Ducks’ starting five is made up of two freshmen and one sophomore. Earlier in the year and for certain periods during the NCAA Tournament, Oregon’s offense became stagnant, and the Ducks’ shot selection deteriorated. The Ducks don’t have consistent offense. They have by far the lowest measure of adjusted offensive efficiency of any team left in the field — they are 74th in the country in AdjO, and No. 3 seed Texas Tech has the next lowest, at 35th in the country. Defense is the Cavaliers’ staple — they held Oklahoma, a team that scored 95 points in the first round, to just 51 points when they played in the second round — and if they can disrupt the Ducks’ offensive rhythm and force them into poor shot selection, they should be able to advance to the Elite Eight.

No. 2 seed Tennessee (31-5, 15-3 SEC)

After a dominant regular season with no glaring losses, Tennessee received a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament. The Volunteers have great, balanced scoring — led by junior forward Grant Williams — and solid guard play, with guards who can get to the rim in junior guards Admiral Schofield and Jordan Bone. The road to the Sweet Sixteen, however, has been anything but easy for Tennessee. In their first round matchup against No. 15 seed Colgate, the Volunteers led by just three points with as little as 2:02 left and needed overtime to take down No. 10 seed Iowa in the second round, narrowly avoiding what would have been the biggest comeback in NCAA Tournament history. In the first half against Iowa, however, the Volunteers looked as good as any team in the country — they will need to be that good to beat Purdue. In the first round, they let Colgate sophomore guard Jordan Burns get hot — Burns had 32 points. They can’t afford to let Purdue star junior guard Carsen Edwards do the same against them with the supporting cast that he has.

Player to watch:

Junior forward Grant Williams, with 14 points per game, 7 rebounds per game and 2 blocks per game in the NCAA Tournament, was the 2018-19 SEC Player of the Year, is a force inside. Despite a lackluster showing against Colgate, he bounced back against Iowa, scoring 19 points to go along with seven rebounds, five assists and three blocks. He helped clutch the win against Iowa, scoring 6 of the Volunteers’ 12 points in overtime. His crafty post moves are difficult to guard, and he has a knack for getting to the foul line where he consistently converts. Because he is undersized, Virginia has a number of defenders who will likely be tasked with guarding him — junior forward Mamadi Diakite, who was great defensively against Oklahoma, and junior transfer guard Braxton Key, who has shown an ability to guard post players.

How to beat them:

Tennessee is a difficult team to beat, with multiple talented scorers and great interior defense. Virginia will need to shoot the three-pointer better against the Volunteers. The Cavaliers shot just 29.2 percent from three against Oklahoma, and the Volunteers’ solid defense against two-pointers — they hold opponents to just 43.3 percent shooting inside the arc, good for 9th best in the country — means that Virginia will have to get it done from behind the arc. On the flip side, the Cavaliers should force Tennessee to shoot three-pointers. Virginia’s defense is second-best in the nation at defending three-pointers — with opponents shooting just 27.8 percent from three against them — and the Volunteers get most of their scoring from inside the arc. The packline is built to stop the inside bruising of the likes of Williams and Schofield.

No. 3 seed Purdue (25-9, 16-4 B10)

After a loss to Notre Dame, the Boilermakers were 6-5 and appeared to be headed for a mediocre Big Ten season. From there, other than two upset losses to Minnesota, they dominated Big Ten play, sharing the regular season title with Michigan State. Coach Matt Painter and junior guard Carsen Edwards have led Purdue to another great season — back in the Sweet Sixteen for the third consecutive year. The Boilermakers are in good position to advance to their first Final Four since 1980 after defeating No. 14 seed Old Dominion and dominating No. 6 seed Villanova, last year’s national champion. Purdue is led by Edwards, but has many other strong players. Sophomore center Matt Haarms is 7-foot-3 and has great touch inside, leading the Boilermakers in field goal percentage at 63.6 percent. Senior guard Ryan Cline is a great shooter and defender, and sophomore guard Nojel Eastern has Ty Jerome-like court vision. Purdue will need to keep Tennessee off the offensive glass in order to win and will need an answer for Grant Williams inside.

Player to watch: 

Junior guard Carsen Edwards, with 34 points per game and 6.5 rebounds per game in the NCAA Tournament, is as good a scorer as they come. His 42 points against Villanova were the most by a Purdue player in an NCAA Tournament game since Glenn Robinson scored 44 points against Kansas in 1994. Edwards can get off his jumper with ease, and he has the ability to singlehandedly lead the Boilermakers to victory. Look for Tennessee junior guards Lamonte Turner and Jordan Bone to try to check Edwards.

How to beat them:

Purdue plays a very fundamental game with few mistakes, like Virginia. Both teams have strong three-point shooting and limit turnovers — the Cavaliers and Boilermakers are both in the top-25 in turnovers committed per game. Limiting Edwards, contesting Cline at the three-point line and finding an answer for Haarms inside will be big for Virginia. It’s tough to see the Boilermakers having an answer for sophomore guard De’Andre Hunter.

The road to Minneapolis

The road to Minneapolis will not be easy for Virginia. First, the Cavaliers will have to get past a red-hot Oregon team. If they win, they will have to face the winner of Purdue and Tennessee — two great teams with great players in Edwards and Williams.

The Cavaliers have played well so far, but they are not done.

“We're nowhere near relaxed, nowhere near satisfied,” Jerome said. “We're not even close to our end goal."

Oregon is the first team in the way of their end goal. Tip-off is currently scheduled for 9:57 p.m Thursday at the KFC Yum! Center in Louisville, Ky. The game will be aired on TBS as soon as the Tennessee-Purdue game is completed.