DOUGHERTY: Keys to cutting down the nets

What Virginia can improve — and continue to succeed in — to capture their first national title

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Sophomore forward De'Andre Hunter needs to get more involved on offense to give Virginia a better shot at winning the national championship. Courtesy Virginia Athletics

Virginia basketball is back in the Final Four for the first time in more than 30 years. Overcoming the demons of their long Final Four hiatus, Coach Tony Bennett’s personal drought of never making the championship and last year’s infamous tournament loss, the Cavaliers (33-3, 16-2 ACC) have cemented arguably their greatest season in program history.

Finally having peace of mind, Virginia can now focus on winning the whole thing.

The Cavaliers have had a survive-and-advance tournament experience thus far, pushing through two weekends of comebacks and setbacks to get to Minneapolis, Minn. A date with the tournament’s hottest team in Auburn (30-9, 11-7 SEC) Saturday — and two under-seeded teams in Michigan State (32-6, 16-4 Big 10) and Texas Tech (30-6, 14-4 B12) as potential title game opponents — necessitates that Virginia must play its best basketball to have a shot at being the last team standing. 

Let’s dive into what Virginia should both change and keep doing to win its final stretch.

Improve three-point defense

Virginia’s perimeter defense had been one of the best in the country throughout the season, with the Cavaliers only allowing opponents to make 28.7 percent of its attempts from beyond the arc. This number has considerably worsened during the tournament, however, with all four of their opponents shooting over 36 percent in their contests.

Part of that figure can be chalked up to Purdue junior guard Carsen Edwards’ otherworldly 10-19 three-point shooting in the Elite Eight, but the Cavaliers haven’t always been closing out as well as they did over the season. Teams that can swing the ball over the perimeter have found open looks by forcing Virginia’s pack-line defense to help on players inside.

Unfortunately, Auburn comes into the Final Four matchup ranking first in the country in three-pointers made. The Tigers attempt almost half of their shots from deep and especially love to feast in transition, where they make 44.2 percent of their attempts. Senior guard Bryce Brown, their leading scorer, takes over 70 percent of his shots beyond the arc. 

Even if the Cavaliers can survive Auburn’s shooting prowess, dangerous shooters can await them in the title game. Texas Tech sophomore guard Davide Moretti stokes at an astounding 46.3 percent, while Michigan State has a duo of 40 percent marksmen in junior guard Cassius Winston and senior guard Matt McQuaid. 

Virginia’s guards will simply have to hustle back in transition and contest threes as they come to help buck this trend. Freshman guard Kihei Clark and junior guard Ty Jerome have both played great on-ball defense this season, and their active hands on the perimeter can be a great start in making opponents regress.

Get Hunter more involved on offense

Somewhat flying under the radar during much of the tournament has been the relatively small contributions of sophomore guard De’Andre Hunter. Recently named a Third-Team All-American, Hunter only topped 15 points in Virginia’s Round of 64 game and has shot only 27.8 percent from beyond the arc after averaging well over 40 percent for the season.

Virginia’s offense has looked borderline unstoppable when Hunter has gotten aggressive inside this season, but he simply has not been involved enough to get comfortable. His usage percentage in offensive plays against Purdue was 18.3 percent, which amounted to him only scoring 10 points on nine shots. For reference, Hunter leads the team with a 23.9 usage percentage over the season and averages almost 15 points per game. 

Though he isn’t utilized as a ball-handler by Bennett, Hunter simply needs to get more touches in order for the offense to flow well. The junior should be given touches in the paint and lanes to drive through from the perimeter where he can create offense for himself and draw fouls as he does better than any other Virginia player.

Jerome and junior guard Kyle Guy were lights out from three in the second half against Purdue, but if shots aren’t falling in the Final Four, Hunter will be called upon to get buckets on the inside. Bennett must ensure he gets involved early enough that he’s comfortable when it’s time to take over late in the game.

Keep winning the rebounding battle

Perhaps the most encouraging sign of growth the Cavaliers have shown over the tournament has been their ability to out-rebound some of the nation’s best rim-protecting teams. Though they weren’t known for attacking the glass during the season, the Cavaliers showed immense grit by pulling down 17 offensive rebounds against a top-30 rebounding team in Purdue last Saturday. 

Once again, Virginia will face some elite rebounding teams in Minneapolis. Though they lost their leading rebounder in sophomore forward Chuma Okeke to an ACL tear, Auburn pulls down the 12th most offensive boards in the country, leading to second-chances for its deadly shooters to connect. Michigan State, meanwhile, is the top defensive rebounding team in the nation. 

Though it may not have looked like it early in the tournament, senior center Jack Salt could be an X-factor for Virginia in the rebounding game. He topped five minutes of playing time for the first time against Purdue and responded with eight huge boards, including five on the offensive glass. Salt will likely be employed again if there’s a strong matchup for him inside to complement junior forward Mamadi Diakite, who has averaged nine boards per game in the tournament. It will be hard for Virginia to fall if the duo can control possessions on the glass.

Protect the ball

After turnovers became an unexpected problem for Virginia in the middle of the season, the team has seemed to pull things together over the last several games. Though they inexplicably committed 15 turnovers against Gardner-Webb in the first game, the Cavaliers have stayed below their season average of almost nine since the Round of 32.

Virginia could be in major trouble if it doesn’t continue this trend. Auburn leads the nation in steals through the great defensive play of their starting guards, who all average more than one per game. Furthermore, if the Cavaliers avoid playing the nation’s most efficient defense in Texas Tech in the championship, they will get a Michigan State team that forced Duke into 17 turnovers during their Elite Eight showdown. 

Clark and Jerome will be primarily responsible for taking care of the ball as the initiator of the offense. Though he turned over the ball at least twice in the first three games of the tournament, Clark played a pristine game against Purdue when the entire second half proved to be crunch time.

Against an explosive Auburn team, Virginia can limit turnovers by controlling the pace of the game and playing its brand of methodical offense. Spreading out the Tigers’ defense by using ball movement throughout the shot clock can limit ball pressure and allow the Cavaliers to play methodically as they are accustomed to.

It has not been a perfect tournament for Virginia so far, but the team now has the opportunity to peak when it counts the most. Adding to the positives from the team’s play over the last two weekends by tweaking some deficiencies will give the Cavaliers a winning formula in Minneapolis.

With the pressure of getting over the Final Four hump off, Virginia now looks to reach the mountaintop with their first national title. 

Virginia plays Auburn Saturday in Minneapolis, Minn. at 6:09 p.m.

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