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March Madness Roundtable: Key questions as the tournament begins

The CD Sports Staff reflects on the team and answers some big questions as March Madness kicks off

<p>Senior forwards Jay Huff and Sam Hauser will certainly play a key role in Virginia's pursuit of a second national title.&nbsp;</p>

Senior forwards Jay Huff and Sam Hauser will certainly play a key role in Virginia's pursuit of a second national title. 

Virginia basketball has had quite an eventful season — recently marked by a buzzer-beater win against Syracuse and a subsequent exit from the ACC Tournament due to COVID-19. With uncertainty brewing ahead of the NCAA Tournament, the CD Sports Staff shares its thoughts about what’s to come for the men’s basketball team. 

Who will be Virginia’s key player heading into the tournament?

Ben Anderson, Sports Columnist: Senior Tomas Woldetensae is Virginia’s most important player going into March Madness. The Italian sharpshooter has had his moments in a Cavalier uniform — most notably his game-winner against North Carolina last season — but over the course of the 2020-21 season, he has taken more of a bench role. Do not underestimate the significance of Woldetensae, however. His shooting brings a different dimension to the Virginia backcourt, which can be desperately needed at times. Junior guard Kihei Clark and freshman guard Reece Beekman are both excellent players, but they are not exactly known for their three-point excellence. With Woldetensae on the court, though, the defense always has to keep a man on him. With one guard essentially glued to the senior, the middle of the court suddenly becomes much more open. Now, senior forward Jay Huff has more room to post up, senior forward Sam Hauser can shoot his patented mid-range jumper with ease or Clark and Beekman can drive with much less resistance. By creating a shooting threat from the aptly named position, Woldetensae always affects the game — even when it’s not evident in the box score.

Will Smythe, Sports Columnist: Huff has drastically improved over his past few years in Charlottesville. His range on defense, ability to shoot the three and flashy dunks have helped the Cavaliers’ frontcourt immensely after the loss of Mamadi Diakite. It is a matter of Huff wanting to take over, not if he can. Like De’Andre Hunter, Huff’s incredible defensive and offensive proficiencies are evident, but only when fouls do not come into play. Coach Tony Bennett has a tendency to waver on playing players like Hunter and Huff when they reach two to three fouls, and not having Huff on the court due to foul trouble may come to doom the Cavaliers. The Hoonicorn — who averages 13.1 points per game and 7.1 rebounds per game — will be a catalyst for this Virginia team as it attempts to navigate through Gonzaga’s region. If Huff can draw attention away from Hauser, the Cavaliers can rely on a balanced offense that benefited them during a winning stretch earlier this season. Huff’s impact is immeasurable on this team, and if he stays out of foul trouble, Virginia will reap the rewards of his versatility on the court.

Jacob Tisdale, Sports Columnist: Junior guard Trey Murphy III is the player who will determine how far the Cavaliers advance in the tournament. His explosive athleticism and versatile scoring ability are both extremely valuable to Virginia. The team has notably suffered sometimes minutes-long scoring droughts multiple times throughout the season, and a team’s ability to lock up Murphy during these cold stretches could be the difference. In Virginia’s last two losses against NC State and Duke, Murphy scored a paltry six total points. When Murphy is firing on all cylinders, however, he can completely change the Cavaliers’ offensive outlook. The Durham, N.C. native is having a remarkable shooting year, as he is currently a member of the 50-40-90 club. In March, when the intensity is high and every point counts, his exceptional free throw percentage is particularly useful. Games in the NCAA Tournament are also notoriously momentum-based, and should Virginia find themselves in a rut, one of Murphy’s electric dunks could provide the Cavaliers the spark they need to get back in the game. 

What is Virginia’s biggest weakness?

BA: For a team that shoots over 80 percent from the free throw line, the Cavaliers do not get to the charity stripe nearly as often as they should. This year, Virginia shot just 11.6 free throws per game, good for 346th in the nation. Especially because the Cavaliers are so good from the line, it feels at times that potential points are being shaved off the game totals. These statistics can be traced back to one main problem — the Cavaliers are not good at driving to score. That’s not to say the Cavaliers cannot dribble to the hoop — that would be one of Clark's specialties. The issue is that, more often than not, the ball eventually gets passed out to the wing, negating any realistic chance at free throws for the possession. Virginia is also excellent from outside the arc, shooting over 38 percent from three for the year. But when the shots aren’t falling, rather than driving the ball, the team tends to keep launching up shots instead of trying to get fouled at the rim. If Virginia can develop a threat as a team that signifies at least some sort of an ability to get to the basket, it will diversify an already above-average defense.

WS: Giving up the three-ball. We all know that the Pack Line will hold itself together on the interior, but the reliance on collapsing in the paint always opens up opportunities around the three-point line. In Virginia’s 2018 matchup against UMBC, the Retrievers shot an impressive 50 percent from three and coasted to an upset win by relying on outside shooting. The Cavaliers’ weakness will always remain its defense on the wings, with the UMBC game and Purdue’s Carsen Edwards’ explosion in 2019 displaying a gaping vulnerability to hot-hand shooting. Earlier this season, Virginia fell prey to another excellent solo performance from Gonzaga senior forward Corey Kispert, who absolutely lit up the Cavaliers in December by cashing in nine out of 13 three-point attempts. Players such as Edwards and Kispert have taken over games against Virginia by relying on the three, and unfortunately, the issue has not seemed to resolve itself over time. Excellent on-ball defenders Clark and Huff will likely smother their opponents in one-on-one matchups, yet the double team often creates problems for the Cavaliers when Hauser and Huff convene down low. If Virginia can take care of business on-ball, especially in its execution of double teams by the frontcourt, it will once again be a tough team to score against. 

JT: A sneakier issue that reveals itself against higher-level teams is that Virginia may have a turnover problem. While the Cavaliers protect the ball well enough typically, when good teams apply high pressure, the cracks begin to show. In Virginia’s ugliest losses this year — Gonzaga and Florida State — the team coughed up the ball 15 and 13 times, respectively. A team that relies on its set defense can only do so much when it is constantly in transition, and a team that is offensively unsteady can’t get into a rhythm and pull itself back into games when it keeps giving up the ball. Even in the final minutes of their ACC Tournament win over Syracuse, the Cavaliers turned the ball over and gave up key points when the Orange began a full-court press. Whether Virginia can handle the defensive pressure of quality opponents in the NCAA Tournament will make or break its overall performance.

How will Virginia fare against No. 13 seed Ohio?

BA: Normally, Virginia would have been predicted to have a comfortable win over the MAC champions. Unfortunately, though, the COVID-19 pause the Cavaliers suffered in the ACC Tournament complicates things a fair amount. As it stands right now, it looks like Virginia will only be able to start practice as a team the Thursday before its Saturday evening game, which is a recipe for disaster against a quality squad in Ohio. In addition, the Bobcats have perhaps the best mid-major player in the country not wearing a Gonzaga uniform in junior guard Jason Preston, an elite player. What should give Virginia fans hope, however, is the size disparity between the two teams. Ohio does not start anyone over 6 foot 8, and the Bobcats are an extremely guard-centric team. Look for Huff to have one of his best games in a Cavalier uniform against Ohio, taking advantage of its smaller defenders to lead Virginia to a close, but controlled victory in the round of 64.

WS: The Bobcats are coming into March Madness riding some serious momentum from the MAC Conference Tournament, posting three wins and a championship upset over No. 2 Buffalo. Cavalier fans ought to know that Ohio defeated Kent State — the same team that took Virginia to overtime early in the season — by a score of 85-63 in their first-round matchup. The Bobcats also went toe-to-toe early in the season with current No. 1 seed Illinois, losing by two points in a game that saw the Bobcats take the lead with only seven seconds to go. Avoiding the tricky 5 vs.12 matchup, the Cavaliers will still face a tall test in Preston and senior forward Dwight Wilson III. Preston — an NBA-ready guard who averages 16.6 points per game and an impressive 7.2 assists per game — is a crafty ball-handler and a tall guard who can create without necessarily relying on athleticism and speed. Wilson III — who averages 14.9 points per game and 7.5 rebounds per game — is a bruiser on the boards and complements Preston in the frontcourt. Ohio represents a legitimate threat to a Round 32 appearance for the Cavaliers, yet I believe that Virginia will use its stifling defense and improving offense to squeeze out a win. It’s a difficult matchup for a four seed in the first round, but the Cavaliers have the firepower and the experience to disrupt Preston’s flow.

JT: Unfortunately, due to the circumstances of the tournament this year, it is not unreasonable to predict an upset in the first round for a strong Ohio team. The Cavaliers are facing issues with COVID-19 that will force the team to quarantine until at least Thursday, giving them a very short window to practice and prep for the Bobcats, who are riding high off of their win in the MAC Championship game. With Virginia’s pursuit of the ACC Championship grinding to a halt last week after a wild win against Syracuse, the momentum of the two teams could not be more distinct. Adding into the mix of uncertainties about this game is the question of which Cavaliers will even be available for the matchup — only furthering the argument in favor of Ohio. Despite this, if Virginia can avoid extreme absences due to quarantine protocols, they ought to be able to pull out a win in the first round with some luck. Tony Bennett should be able to use the missed practice time to plan around the Bobcat’s scoring and move the team on to the Round of 32. 

How far will Virginia advance in the tournament, and why?

BA:

The Cavaliers will advance to the Sweet Sixteen before falling to Gonzaga in a rematch of the December game. Virginia fans collectively let out a groan when watching their beloved Cavaliers get placed in the same region as the number one overall seed, but their first weekend slate was a bit overlooked. Creighton is arguably the best five seed Virginia could have been asked to be paired with, as the Bluejays are coming off a dismal 73-48 showing in the Big East Championship game. When Creighton is cold, it tends to lose — and lose badly — resulting in its three Quadrant 3 losses during the regular season. Therefore, UC Santa Barbara, the 12 seed in the region, has a realistic shot to pull the upset and give Virginia an even easier path to the second weekend. Regardless of who the Cavaliers play, Virginia will get past the round of 32 after a closer-than-expected win over Ohio. The third game the team will play, though, unfortunately, will be its last. Gonzaga crushed Virginia in the first matchup, with Kispert unloading a barrage of three-pointers to cruise to the 98-75 victory. The second meeting will be similar to the first, with the Bulldogs enforcing their crazed, fast-paced style onto the game for a relatively comfortable win over Virginia.

WS: This draw is less than ideal for the Cavaliers, with national powerhouse Gonzaga presiding over the No. 1 overall seed after an undefeated season. All roads will likely go through the Bulldogs in this South region. However, Virginia should not sleep on Ohio — a team that will present myriad problems for a team coming off a COVID-19 hiatus. In 2017, the Cavaliers struggled, as a No. 5 seed, to defeat No. 12 seed UNC Wilmington and will likely undergo the same back-and-forth ballgame against the Bobcats. I expect the Cavaliers to escape the first and second rounds, winning a close one against Ohio and then running away with a victory against the Cinderella candidate — No. 12 seed UC Santa Barbara. It is extremely difficult to imagine Gonzaga losing before the Sweet Sixteen — therefore, Virginia will have to prepare for a rematch that no one necessarily wanted. The Bulldogs simply have too much firepower on offense, as Kispert and sophomore forward Drew Timme create mismatches on the outside and in the paint. Gonzaga’s depth will tire out a likely thin Virginia team and will make things complicated for Bennett as he attempts to gameplan for the Bulldogs’ high-octane pace of play. A Sweet Sixteen exit is what I foresee, as the Cavaliers will have to face one of the most impressive teams we’ve seen in the past few decades in Gonzaga if they make it past the first two rounds.

JT: Though 2019 taught Virginia fans that anything is possible, our expectations should be measured this year due to an extremely strong Gonzaga team blocking any path that would allow for the Cavaliers to defend their championship. Virginia’s first-round matchup against Ohio is tough but ultimately winnable, while the second round will present either Creighton or UC Santa Barbara — both of which provide the Cavaliers with a solid opportunity to reach the Sweet Sixteen. However, Virginia fans should root for the Cavaliers and an early-round upset for whichever team plays the Bulldogs to see the team go any further.

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