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Men’s basketball preview: the ACC Tournament

The Cavaliers enter as the tournament’s top seed and hope to capture Coach Tony Bennett’s third ACC crown

<p>Virginia looks to sweep both the ACC Tournament and regular season titles in the coming weeks.</p>

Virginia looks to sweep both the ACC Tournament and regular season titles in the coming weeks.

Coming off of a 68-58 win against Louisville, the No. 16 Virginia men’s basketball team secured the ACC regular season title. Clinching the championship as well as the top seed in the upcoming conference tournament was made possible following Florida State’s loss to Notre Dame. 

The Cavaliers (17-6, 13-4 ACC) will have under 24 hours to prepare for their first game in the contest which will be Thursday against Syracuse, as the Orange (15-8, 9-7 ACC) defeated NC State Wednesday 89-68. 

With the expectation that the tournament will be wide open this time around, there are a number of factors that will be crucial in the team’s pathways to the title. 

Virginia’s keys to success

Control the tempo

It was evident in the Cavaliers’ late-February rough patch that being forced to play at a faster pace cost them a number of those games. Historically, Virginia has been known for playing at one of the slowest paces in the country. This factor was key in allowing the team to be dominant leading up to their 2019 NCAA Championship victory. 

However, against Florida State, a game in which the Cavaliers lost 81-60, falling behind early led to Virginia having to speed things up on the offensive side. The Seminoles led 45-25 at halftime and, although the Cavaliers closed the gap at a point in the second frame, they were ultimately unable to dig themselves out of the deep hole. 

“Those are two very good teams — Florida State and Virginia Tech,” Coach Tony Bennett said. “Florida State took it to us, and when we went to Virginia Tech, the last eight minutes they really pulled away.”

In the ACC Tournament, Virginia must set the tempo from the get-go and play from ahead in order to have success. The Cavaliers proved to perform at their peak in a number of their early February games against Pittsburgh, Georgia Tech and North Carolina. 

Throughout each of those matchups, Virginia established the speed of play and ran their mover-blocker offense to methodically pick apart the opposition. A steady flow of buckets on offense allows the Cavaliers to set up the pack line defense on the other end of the floor. 

Contain dominant opposing scorers

Having played 17 conference games this season, Virginia will certainly have a lot of tape available to look over in preparation for the tournament. In games in which the Cavaliers have fallen short, it has typically been due to one opposing player being incredibly dominant. 

Against Virginia Tech on Jan. 30, that player was junior forward Keve Aluma who posted a 29 point and 10 rebound double-double that paved the way for a 65-51 Hokie win. Similarly against Duke on Feb. 20, it was sophomore forward Matthew Hurt’s 22 points that allowed the Blue Devils to steal a one-point win in Durham, N.C.

Heading into their first game of the contest this Thursday, Virginia is slated to take on either No. 8 seed Syracuse or No. 9 seed NC State. While the Cavaliers knocked off the Orange in convincing fashion, 81-58 on Jan. 25, it will be worth keeping an eye on sophomore forward Quincy Guerrier if the two teams meet again. 

“We just would love a chance to get to that championship day, but there’s so many more things to worry about,” Bennett said. “We need to be prepared and ready for Syracuse or NC State.”

Likewise, if Virginia is to face the Wolfpack, freshman guard Cam Hayes and senior forward D.J. Funderburk will be among the players to lock down.

Feed senior forward Sam Hauser

As the Cavaliers closed out the regular season March 6 against Louisville, Hauser was lethal throughout the game. In 30 minutes of play, the Marquette transfer shot an impressive nine-of-14 from the floor and was perfect from the free-throw line. The stellar showing totaled 24 points and eight rebounds while leading Virginia to a win. 

“It was just one of those games where you get a couple to go and the basket kind of opens up and begins to look bigger,” Hauser said. “I think I got a couple good, easy ones early and that sprung me forward for the rest of the game and I hit some big ones.”

This season, Hauser has led Virginia in points per game with 15.8 and has connected on the most three-pointers on the team at 59. Hauser is additionally second on the team in rebounding, averaging 6.8 boards per game. 

Looking ahead, it will be absolutely critical for the Cavaliers to feed Hauser in order to fulfill their scoring needs. Hauser has shown the ability to make incredibly difficult shots falling away from the basket as well as being able to catch fire and go on hot streaks. 

Possible paths to a title for Virginia

Quarterfinals — Syracuse

After claiming the top seed in the tournament, Virginia will prepare for a midday tilt against eighth-seeded Syracuse. 

Virginia lit up the Orange back in late-January to the tune of an 81-58 blowout victory. Syracuse’s infamous 2-3 zone defense was no match for the Cavaliers’ sharpshooters, including Hauser and junior guard Trey Murphy. Hauser drilled seven three-pointers, making up for half of the total three-pointers the team made that night.

The good news for Cavalier fans following Syracuse’s drubbing of NC State is that the Orange likely present a more favorable matchup for Virginia. The Cavaliers are undoubtedly capable of going cold from long-range, but Syracuse’s defensive style has always been susceptible to teams that can shoot from long range, one of Virginia’s offensive strengths.

Semifinals — Georgia Tech or Clemson

If the Cavaliers can take care of business in the quarterfinals, they are likely to face either fourth-seeded Georgia Tech or fifth-seeded Clemson. The Yellow Jackets (15-8, 11-6 ACC) and the Tigers (16-6, 10-6 ACC) split their regular season matchups with each other, and both squads have been hot recently, winning a combined 12 of their last 13 games.

Virginia demolished Clemson 85-50 in mid-January, but the Tigers appeared to be in an uncharacteristic lull at the time, losing three straight contests by a combined 72 points. Since then, Clemson has righted the ship and seems to be much closer to the team that reached as high as No. 12 in the AP Poll in January.

The Cavaliers swept the season series with Georgia Tech, pulling out close victories in each game. Headed by Moses Wright — senior forward and ACC Player of the Year — the Yellow Jackets presented a tough challenge for Virginia, allowing just over 60 points per game in their two matchups.

Taking down Georgia Tech for the third time in as many tries or a Tiger team rounding into form would not be easy for Virginia, but as the top seed, it certainly is fortunate to avoid drawing other ACC rivals such as No. 22 Virginia Tech, Louisville or North Carolina on its side of the bracket.

Finals — Florida State or Virginia Tech

The most-likely ACC Tournament finals scenario would pit No. 15 Florida State against the Cavaliers. It is also possible that Virginia could meet up against in-state rival No. 22 Virginia Tech. As should be the case in a conference finals matchup, either team would present a formidable challenge, as the Cavaliers lost their lone contests against each by a combined 35 points. 

The Seminoles (15-5, 11-4 ACC) likely feel they blew an opportunity at claiming the tournament’s top seed by losing to an ACC bottom-dweller in Notre Dame on the regular season’s final day of competition. Florida State has had solid outings against Virginia in recent years, handing the 2019 National Championship team its only non-Duke loss of the season in the ACC Tournament. This season was no different, as the Seminoles blew the doors off the Cavaliers in a 81-60 rout.

As is often the case under Coach Lenoard Hamilton, Florida State utilizes impressive depth — evidenced by their nine players who average at least 15 minutes per game. Virginia likely has a better performance in store than the one displayed Feb. 15, but it will have its hands full, and do not be surprised if the Seminoles head into this potential matchup as the odds-on favorite.

Since joining the ACC in 2004, the Hokies (15-5, 9-4 ACC) and Cavaliers have only faced off once in the ACC Tournament and never in the finals. A matchup between the two rivals in the finals would undoubtedly make for great television, and Virginia would hope to avenge their late-game collapse earlier in the season against Virginia Tech.

The Cavaliers are set to begin their ACC Tournament run Thursday at 12 p.m. against Syracuse in Greensboro, N.C.. The game will be televised on either ESPN or ESPN2.

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