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STIEVATER: Missing March Madness is a very real possibility

A rough start to the season has Cavalier fans worried about tournament hopes

<p>With six losses already this season, Tony Bennett and the Cavaliers are at risk of missing the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2013.</p>

With six losses already this season, Tony Bennett and the Cavaliers are at risk of missing the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2013.

When the Virginia men’s basketball team won the National Championship last April, every Cavalier player, coach, fan and alumnus was able to take a deep sigh of relief. After years of letdown and disappointment, the trophy was finally on its way to Charlottesville. 

Going into this season, many fans expressed the sentiment that they would be perfectly content if Virginia did not win another title, solely since there was one now sitting in the halls of John Paul Jones Arena. However, fans should not be content whatsoever with the performance the men's basketball team has turned in thus far and should brace themselves for a very real possibility — Virginia missing the NCAA Tournament.

Since the start of the 21st century, there have been 20 NCAA men’s basketball champions. Of those 20, only four have failed to make the NCAA Tournament the year after winning it — Florida in 2008, North Carolina in 2010, Kentucky in 2013 and Connecticut in 2015. These teams are all similar to the 2019-20 Virginia team in that each lost three or more starters to the NBA.

Considering the losses of current NBA players De’Andre Hunter, Ty Jerome and Kyle Guy, it is not surprising that Virginia’s offense has taken a step back. No program in the country would be able to replace that talent in an offseason, let alone one that is known mainly for its defensive prowess. Yet regardless of who went to the NBA or who graduated, the performance that Virginia’s offense has given has been abysmal.

This season, the Cavaliers have averaged 55.5 points per game while shooting 40.4 percent from the field and 26.8 percent from three point range, ranking No. 351, No. 296 and No. 345 in the nation in those respective categories. Last season was the polar opposite, as Virginia scored 71.4 points per game and shot 47.4 percent from the field while sinking 39.5 percent of its shots from behind the arc — ranking No. 185, No. 32 and No. 7. Let those differences sink in for a moment.

Virginia currently sits at 12-6, seventh in the ACC and outside the national Top 25. Of the 12 wins, only one came against a ranked team — No. 7 North Carolina — who has since completely fallen apart and is also on track to miss the NCAA Tournament as well. Four of the six losses have been tough pills to swallow — a 29-point loss to Purdue, an 11-point home loss to a mediocre South Carolina team, a slip-up at Boston College and an overtime home loss to a Syracuse team that the Cavaliers had already beaten in their season opener.

In contrast, over the past two seasons, Virginia only lost six games total. Since the Cavaliers became a consistent national contender in 2013-14, the most games Coach Tony Bennett lost was in the 2016-17 season when the team lost 11 games. This season feels eerily similar to that one already. That team was coming off an Elite Eight appearance and lost beloved program stars like Malcolm Brogdon and Anthony Gill. Although it was eliminated in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, at least that team remained competitive and was ranked in the Top 25 throughout the entire season.

Perhaps the most painful aspect to watch and the most telling sign of a team that may miss the tournament is the lack of consistency and creativity on offense. Senior forward Mamadi Diakite and senior guard Braxton Key show signs of life and shoulder the load, but outside of them there seems to be nothing. Junior forward Jay Huff is inconsistent, sophomore guard Kihei Clark should not have to be relied on to take 10 to 15 shots a game and the trio of new guards — freshman Casey Morsell, sophomore Kody Stattmann and junior Tomas Woldetensae — have yet to find their rhythm halfway through the season. All of these contribute to the team's poor performance this season and why the Cavaliers are on track to miss the NCAA Tournament.

In fact, Joe Lunardi, college basketball analyst and ‘bracketologist’ for ESPN, predicts that Virginia will miss out on a spot in the NCAA Tournament. In his most recent edition of “Bracketology”, published Tuesday, Lunardi included the Cavaliers as one of the “First Four Out.” For reference, Lunardi correctly predicted 67 of the 68 teams in last year’s tournament field.

Despite all of these negatives, there are three glimmers of hope. The first is obvious, and that is Virginia’s defense. They force all opponents to play their type of game and remain one of the best in the country at limiting points. The second is Bennett — he is a proven winner. He has led the Cavaliers to NCAA tournament appearances in seven of the past eight seasons. If someone is going to lead this team out of mediocrity, it is him. The third, and what could make or break this team, is the complete and utter parity in college basketball this season. There is no clear favorite in the country or the ACC. It seems like it is bound to be the year for a team that gets hot at the right time, and the Cavaliers can hope that is them.

Even though there are ways in which one can hope Virginia will pull it together, it just does not seem likely if you have watched this team play recently. With the amount of losses and close games that the Cavaliers have been in, it feels more and more like a year of disappointment. If Virginia misses the NCAA Tournament this season — which I predict they will — maybe fans will be okay with it since they finally got that elusive National Championship. Others may fall back into their old feelings of letdown and disappointment. Regardless of what happens, one thing is certain — it is sure to be a stressful and headache-inducing road to March Madness if this team keeps playing the way it has  been.

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