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Men’s basketball preview: The NCAA Tournament

Despite facing uncertainty surrounding the team’s availability, the Cavaliers plan to begin their title defense Saturday against Ohio

<p>Junior guard Kihei Clark led Virginia with 19 points the last time they faced Gonzaga on Dec. 26. Both the Cavaliers and Bulldogs will be competing in the Western Region of the bracket.</p>

Junior guard Kihei Clark led Virginia with 19 points the last time they faced Gonzaga on Dec. 26. Both the Cavaliers and Bulldogs will be competing in the Western Region of the bracket.

After nearly two full calendar years, No. 15 Virginia men’s basketball will finally have a chance to defend the program’s first NCAA Championship. The Cavaliers (18-6, 13-4 ACC) likely face one of the tournament’s most challenging roads to a Final Four with a quietly strong first-round opponent and the top overall seed looming large in a possible Sweet 16 matchup.

It is no guarantee that Virginia is available to play Saturday, as numerous COVID-19 protocols must be passed, but all signs point to the Cavaliers making it through the week without any setbacks. If Virginia makes it to Bloomington, Ind., there are a number of keys that will determine the team’s success in embarking on a tournament run.

Virginia’s keys to success

Pass COVID-19 protocols

The Cavaliers’ early exit from the ACC Tournament due to a positive coronavirus test within the program brought about concern regarding the team’s eligibility for the NCAA tournament. However, after being slotted into the No. 4 seed in the West Region, it appears that Virginia will have the opportunity to participate in March Madness. 

With the NCAA requiring seven straight negative tests from every member of a team’s travel party in order to play in the tournament, the Cavaliers have been forced to run an incredibly tight ship. Since the positive test that resulted in Virginia’s semifinal match-up against Georgia Tech being called off, there have not been any other positive COVID-19 tests. 

If this continues to be the case as every member of the travel party will be tested everyday, the team’s quarantine will reportedly end Thursday. That is also when the Cavaliers will be able to practice again before they travel to Indiana on Friday for the tournament. 

Additionally, if Virginia does not experience any new positive tests, it is expected that all players will be available to play. However, this comes with the exception of the player who tested positive during the ACC Tournament. 

That individual will not be allowed to play in either of the Cavaliers’ round of 64 match-up against Ohio or the round of 32 game against the winner of Creighton versus UC Santa Barbara  — should Virginia advance. 

Contain junior guard Jason Preston

Heading into their face-off against No. 13 seeded Ohio on Saturday, the Cavaliers will have to keep a close eye on the Bobcats’ junior guard Jason Preston. This season, Preston has dominated for Ohio, averaging 17.1 points per game on an impressive 53.6 percent shooting from the floor. 

In the Bobcats’ most recent game against Buffalo on March 13, Preston led the way with 22 points, seven assists and six rebounds. In addition, Preston has displayed to be a threat from beyond the arc in the game, connecting on three three-pointers. 

With such a dynamic player to defend, Virginia big men, including senior forwards Jay Huff and Sam Hauser as well as junior guard Trey Murphy, will have to work to prevent dribble-drive penetration. Also, the packline defense will have to protect the three-point line and close out on shot attempts.

When playing Syracuse in the ACC Tournament, the Cavaliers gave up eight three-pointers with five makes coming from junior guard Buddy Boeheim. Virginia must protect the perimeter better in order to have a successful tournament.

Continuous ball movement on offense

The Cavaliers have had the ability to catch fire shooting the basketball this season. The key to reaching this level of momentum has been smart passes and working the ball to open shooters. 

This was perhaps best exemplified against Syracuse when junior guard Kihei Clark found freshman guard Reece Beekman on the three-point line with the game clock winding down. After a series of passes, Beekman eventually found himself wide open with the ball in his hands before delivering the game-winning shot. 

In a number of games in which Virginia has fallen short this season such as against Florida State, Duke and NC State, the team has fallen victim to poor shot selection. Rather, when the Cavaliers work to create a high-percentage look at the basket and do not rush to take a shot early in a possession, the team is virtually unbeatable. 

Providing sharpshooters such as Hauser, Huff, Murphy and senior guard Tomas Woldetensae with solid opportunities to take shots through continuous ball movement will certainly boost Virginia going into the round of 64. 

Virginia’s path to the Final Four if favorites win out

First round - Ohio

Virginia is set to face 13th-seeded Ohio in the tournament’s opening round of action. Despite playing only seven games since the beginning of February, the Bobcats (16-7, 9-5 MAC) have been on a tear, winning nine of their last 10 games.

As the fifth seed in its conference tournament, Ohio dismantled its opponents, winning three games by a combined 44 points en route to the MAC Championship. Notably, the Bobcats scored at least 84 points in all three games and are averaging 80.6 points per game on the season — presenting a stark contrast to the 60.5 points per game that the Cavaliers allow.

Ohio has shown that they can compete with elite teams, taking top-seeded Illinois down to the wire back in November, losing 77-75. Considering Virginia’s propensity to go on cold spells offensively — leading to devastating tournament exits — a short week of practice due to COVID-19 protocols and a potentially key player missing this game, the Bobcats will likely be a popular upset pick on the brackets of many.

Ohio has four players averaging double-figure scoring, led by Preston’s 17.1 points per game. Outside of controlling the tempo and containing Preston, the Cavaliers have an opportunity to put together a strong offensive game against a weak Bobcat defense. In conference play, Ohio allowed 76.7 points per game and a porous 37.7 opponent three-point percentage, playing right into one of Virginia’s strengths of knocking down outside shots.

Second round - Creighton

If No. 19 Creighton can avoid the infamous 12 over 5 seed upset against UC Santa Barbara, the Bluejays (20-8, 14-6 Big East) will set up a ranked matchup against the Cavaliers in the round of 32. Creighton was just blown out by Georgetown in the Big East Tournament finals, but the Bluejays have put together a solid resume with wins over three ranked teams and 14 wins in the always-competitive Big East. 

Led by junior guard Marcus Zegarowski’s 15.5 points per game, Creighton also has five players averaging at least 10 points per game. Both senior guard Mitch Ballock and Zegarowski have hit at least 70 three-pointers this season — good for first and second in the Big East, respectively — and as a team, the Bluejays have drilled an impressive 272 three-pointers at a 36.7 percent clip. 

Creighton’s ability to hit deep shots would present a difficult challenge for Virginia, as Coach Tony Bennett’s teams have always been susceptible to teams who get hot from the outside. It’s likely that Clark would be tasked with handling Zegarowski — a tough assignment for the second straight game — both in defending the three-pointer and limiting Zegarowski’s playmaking ability.

Sweet 16 - Gonzaga

The top overall seed and undefeated No. 1 Gonzaga has rolled through much of their season, winning all but one of its games by double digits. Notably, the Bulldogs (26-0, 15-0 WCC) clobbered the Cavaliers in late December, picking apart Virginia’s normally stout defense to the tune of a 98-75 victory.

Gonzaga is the odds-on favorite to win the tournament and looks to become the first team since Indiana’s 1976 squad to finish a season undefeated. Should these two teams meet in the Sweet Sixteen, Gonzaga will be a heavy favorite.

The Bulldogs are scoring a spectacular 92.1 points per game and are led by senior forward Corey Kispert’s 19.2 points per game and sophomore forward Drew Timme’s 18.7 points and 7.1 rebounds per game. Timme is shooting a remarkable 65.6 percent from the floor — third-best in the NCAA.

During their game against the Cavaliers, Kispert tore apart Virginia, knocking down nine three-pointers on his way to a 32-point outburst. Kispert’s primary defender was Hauser, who struggled early in the season on that end of the floor, but has made major strides during conference play as a defender. While Virginia likely has a better performance in store than the one they put on in late December, overcoming this stacked Gonzaga team will be a significant challenge.

Elite Eight - Iowa

Even if the Cavaliers are able to pull off perhaps the upset of the tournament in the Sweet 16, the road gets no easier as they could potentially face No. 8 Iowa in the next round. Headlined by Luka Garza — senior center and National Player of the Year candidate — the Hawkeyes (21-8, 15-7 Big 10) battled through a stacked conference to finish third behind one-seeds Michigan and Illinois.

Garza leads the NCAA with 687 total points and has posted seven 30-point games. He would undoubtedly be Huff’s toughest test of the year, and Bennett’s famed low-post double-team would be put to the ultimate test. While Iowa has other capable scorers such as junior guard Joe Wieskamp, containing Garza would be the key to Virginia punching its ticket to a second consecutive Final Four.

The Cavaliers will embark on their tournament run Saturday against Ohio. Tip-off is slated for 7:15 p.m. and the game will be televised on truTV.

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