MULAY: The case for why Virginia could have won its second straight national title

Favorites or not, the Cavaliers had the potential to make a deep tournament run

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Kihei Clark and the Cavaliers were ready for the postseason, fresh off of 11 wins in their last 12 games.

Emma Klein | Cavalier Daily

This week, Virginia men’s basketball should have started defending its national championship. Instead, the Cavaliers lost the chance to compete in March Madness after the NCAA Tournament was canceled in response to the COVID-19 outbreak in the United States. The NCAA’s decision leaves Virginia fans with one of the biggest ‘what-ifs’ in program history — could the Cavaliers have defied the odds and won the NCAA Tournament for the second straight year?

In 2018 and 2019, Virginia entered March Madness as a No. 1 seed with a near-perfect record. Admittedly, this year would have been very different, but that doesn’t mean the Cavaliers — one of the hottest teams in the country towards the end of the season — couldn’t have won back-to-back national championships.

While Virginia may have been a tournament underdog for the first time in three years, the Cavaliers still had championship DNA and Coach Tony Bennett undoubtedly had his team prepared. Let’s take a look at exactly why Virginia could have successfully defended its title.

The Cavaliers were peaking at the right time

After winning the first seven games of the season, Virginia experienced a difficult stretch in December, January and early February, losing seven times in 15 games. The Cavaliers suffered more defeats in those two months than they had in the last two seasons combined.

However, as the season progressed, Virginia took a turn for the better. The Cavaliers found ways to win consistently and had all the momentum in the world by early March. They won their last eight regular season games and took down multiple ranked teams — No. 11 Duke and No. 14 Louisville — in the process. In just a few short weeks, Virginia went from a team that could miss March Madness altogether to one that finished second place in the ACC.

Virginia was firing on all cylinders when the ACC Tournament was set to begin. The defense was as solid as ever and the offense was finally finding its groove. While the Cavaliers’ early-season struggles can’t be forgotten, it's important to remember that the best teams are those that win in March when it matters, not the ones that win in December. 

Defense wins championships

Few things are more certain in life than Virginia’s elite defense. Since 2013, the Cavaliers have led the nation in scoring defense in all but one season — they were ranked No. 2 in 2015-16. Virginia, once again, had the top-ranked defense in the country this season, holding opponents to just 52.4 points per game. The Cavaliers were especially potent late in the season, allowing just 49.3 points, on average, in the last three games of the season. They also led the country in defensive efficiency and their mark of 85.1 was the best ever in the Bennett era. In other words, the Cavaliers were very good defensively, even by their own lofty standards.

This season, the recipe for Virginia’s defensive success was a mixture of great shot blocking and tenacious on-ball defense. Powered by senior forward Mamadi Diakite and junior forward Jay Huff, Virginia dominated in the paint, as shown by its 13-block performance against Duke. On the perimeter, Virginia’s guards — senior Braxton Key and sophomore Kihei Clark, among others — made life difficult for opposing shooters, holding them to 29.3 percent shooting from beyond the three-point line. 

Virginia lost just once in its last 12 games. That loss came Feb. 8 against Louisville who dropped 80 points on 51 percent shooting from the field and 41 percent shooting from beyond the arc. Clearly, beating the Cavaliers wasn’t easy, and it would have taken an heroic offensive performance to defeat them in the tournament.

Virginia had multiple legitimate scoring options

Previous Virginia squads have been plagued by a lack of scoring depth. Even last year’s championship-winning team struggled to find a fourth option beyond former guards Kyle Guy, Ty Jerome and De’Andre Hunter. This year, multiple Cavaliers stepped up for Virginia, giving the team surprising flexibility. 

In the last month of the regular season, five different Virginia players led the team in scoring. In addition to the usual standouts — Diakite, Clark and Key — Huff and junior guard Tomas Woldetensae also showed flashes of potential. From Huff’s combined 32 points against Duke and Miami to Woldetensae’s 27-point outburst against Louisville, the Cavaliers had multiple options when they needed a bucket. Considering how quickly the tide can turn in March Madness, having so many players who can rise to the occasion was a unique advantage for Virginia.

The Cardiac Cavs excelled under pressure

Oftentimes, the thing that separates good teams and champions is the ability to win close, down-to-the-wire games. Just take a look at Virginia’s championship run last year. The Cavaliers’ last four games were decided either in the final seconds of regulation or in overtime.

This year’s Virginia squad had the same propensity for making fans sweat to the final buzzer. Fortunately for the Virginia faithful, the Cavaliers were winning after that buzzer more often than not. Since Jan. 26, eight of Virginia’s games were decided by three or fewer points — and the Cavaliers won all of them. Armed with a lock-down defense and opportunistic offense, Virginia seemed to enjoy winning thrillers as much as blowouts.

In Bennett we trust

Every year brings new names and faces to Virginia, but one thing remains constant — the reassuring presence of Bennett. At the end of the day, no matter the circumstances, Bennett is a winner. As Virginia’s head coach, he has a 277-96 record over the last 11 years — a 74.3 percent win rate. Even better, in the last three seasons, he’s led Virginia to an 87.3 winning percentage. Bennett is a National Coach of the Year award winner, an ACC regular season champion, an ACC Tournament champion and a national champion. Regardless of the situation, no one should bet against Bennett’s ability to lead the Cavaliers to victory.

No matter the odds, Virginia had a chance to do something special in this year’s tournament. If they could have put all the pieces together in time for March Madness, the Cavaliers would have been one of the most dangerous squads in the tournament. Unfortunately, the college basketball world will never find out if Virginia could have replicated its iconic 2019 national title run.

On a positive note, Cavalier fans can rejoice in the fact that Virginia basketball looks like it’ll be in good shape next season. While it’s still extremely early, the Cavaliers opened as the betting favorites to win the 2021 NCAA Tournament, according to Bovada — an online sports gambling platform. Although this season had an anticlimactic ending, expect next season’s Virginia team to build on this year’s success and be a national contender once again. 

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