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Previewing Virginia Men’s Basketball and the National Invitational Tournament

The Cavaliers have taken a bid to the NIT and will face Mississippi State in the first round of the 32-team tournament

<p>Defending the dynamic Mississippi State offense will be a priority for players in the backcourt for the Cavaliers.</p>

Defending the dynamic Mississippi State offense will be a priority for players in the backcourt for the Cavaliers.

For the first time since 2013, the Cavaliers will not be dancing in March. After a rocky regular season which resulted in a 19-13 overall record and a 6th place finish in the ACC, Virginia (19-13,12-8 ACC) will now look to launch a postseason bid for the National Invitational Tournament — an annual contest for teams outside the NCAA Tournament bubble. 

The Cavaliers — albeit coming off of a lopsided 63-43 defeat against North Carolina in the ACC Tournament — will face off against Mississippi State from the SEC in the first round of the NIT. The field of 32 features four seeds per region, with the Bulldogs (18-15, 8-10 SEC) holding the No. 3 rank in their region of eight teams and the Cavaliers entering as an unranked opponent. 

Mississippi State – who appeared in last year’s NIT — ultimately fell to Memphis in the championship game and are back for another run. Despite the lower seeding, Virginia will host the Bulldogs at John Paul Jones Arena on account of construction on the latter’s home arena. 

While this tournament will undoubtedly have less anticipation than the NCAA Tournament, the Cavaliers still have a chance to compete against a crop of competitive teams from across the country. Many of the NIT entrants — including recent SEC Tournament runner-up Texas A&M – narrowly missed the cut-off for an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament yet impressed throughout the season. 

Teams can decide whether or not they wish to take an NIT bid, as some feel that missing the NCAA Tournament should signify the end of a season. Still, the Cavaliers accepted with an aim to gain experience and make a strong run for the title. The opportunity appears to be an opening for Coach Tony Bennett to boost the team’s momentum as the Cavaliers look towards next year.

"It's still a privilege to be invited to this tournament," Bennett said. "For guys in our program who haven't played in a tournament and who will be back. It's valuable." 

As for the Cavaliers’ opponent, the Bulldogs also struggled to meet some high preseason expectations and limped through the notoriously difficult SEC slate. Playing in a conference that sent six teams to the NCAA Tournament, Mississippi State failed to pick up any significant wins — except for a home victory over then No. 24 Alabama — and lost four of their last six SEC games. 

However, the Bulldogs are a team with plenty of talent and brought current No. 2 seeds in the NCAA Tournament — Kentucky and Auburn — to overtime before eventually falling. In short, while Mississippi State has underachieved, they are seeking redemption in a field with less star-studded talent than the SEC. 

With competition remaining fierce, there will be a number of storylines to monitor for the Cavaliers as they play host to the Bulldogs:

Home Court Advantage:

Mississippi State — despite what their overall record depicts — won 14 of 17 games at home, including victories over three NCAA Tournament teams — No. 4 seed Arkansas and No. 6 seed Alabama.

While some of those victories came early against overmatched mid-majors, the Bulldogs only lost to tour-de-forces Auburn and Tennessee on their home court. The game’s move to Charlottesville bodes well for the Cavaliers, whose chances of winning would have been diminished based on the Bulldogs’ success in Starkville. Now in an away contest, Mississippi State will no longer enjoy the built-in advantage of playing at home with their fierce fan base. 

Iverson Molinar versus Reece Beekman/Kihei Clark:

A member of the 2021 All-NIT Tournament team and the leading scorer for this Mississippi State team, junior guard Iverson Molinar has starred this season as the veteran leader for the Bulldog offense. At 6-foot-3, 190 pounds, the Panama native excels at slashing to the basket and possesses a strong midrange game despite his shortcomings from behind the arc. 

Virginia sophomore guard Reece Beekman will likely take the assignment on Molinar due to the size issue with senior guard Kihei Clark, as this matchup will dictate much of the Bulldogs’ flow on offense and their pace of play. Averaging 17.6 points per game and having finished every regular-season game in double-digits, Molinar will be a tough yet manageable matchup for the defensively skilled Beekman. 

Garrison Brooks Returns:

A familiar foe will make his return to Charlottesville on Wednesday, as former North Carolina forward Garrison Brooks will suit up for Mississippi State as a graduate transfer. In the 2019-20 season, Brooks took the ACC by storm after averaging 10.3 points per game and 6.6 rebounds per game en route to a 2nd Team All-ACC nomination. 

The 6-foot-9 forward took a step back in his senior season with the Tar Heels and ultimately decided to transfer to Mississippi State for his last year of eligibility. He is among three other transfers who chose Starkville as their destination and has been a consistent force in the frontcourt despite high preseason expectations. Expect Brooks to have an extra chip on his shoulder as he returns to John Paul Jones Arena.

Despite the circumstances, the Cavaliers ought to bring their best against an opponent from one of the premier basketball conferences. Senior forward Jayden Gardner must be efficient against the lengthy Bulldog forwards, while Clark and Beekman will look to shut down Molinar and the rest of the Mississippi State wings. 

The NIT — while often looked down upon by basketball pundits — serves as a great opportunity for Virginia to chase a trophy and more experience in the postseason. Tip-off is scheduled for 7 p.m. Wednesday, and the game will be televised on ESPN2.

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