The NCAA men’s basketball tournament — more commonly known as March Madness — was announced Sunday, and Virginia found itself in the bracket for the eighth time in the last nine tournaments. The Cavaliers will face off against Furman at 12:40 p.m. Thursday. To prepare for the Cavaliers’ potential run to the national title, members of the Sports Desk answer questions about what could happen in the most famous 68-team tournament in the world.
How can Virginia be successful in March?
In order to win this game, Virginia needs to space the floor better than they did against Duke. Losing graduate student Ben Vander Plas is a huge blow to this goal. The big man was making 30.3 percent of his nearly four three-point attempts per game, and his ability to draw defenders outside the paint opened up driving lanes for senior guard Armaan Franklin and Clark. However, absent against Duke in the ACC Championship game, the Blue Devils effectively clogged the paint and strangled the Cavalier offense. This may mean Bennett has to give more minutes to sophomore guard Taine Murray and freshman guard Isaac McKneely and fewer to freshman forward Ryan Dunn or high scorer graduate student Jayden Gardner in order to open up the floor. If Virginia can create lanes and shoot better than they did against Duke — 33.3 percent from the field and 23.5 percent from three — then this first-round matchup should be a breeze.
Virginia needs more slashing from junior guard Reece Beekman. In the Cavaliers’ biggest wins of the year — against Baylor and Illinois in a neutral site and on the road against Michigan — the ACC Defensive Player of the Year scored a total of 45 points and willed his way to the basket. With a hamstring injury in the rearview, Beekman still has not looked like his early-season self. That is not to say that he has not been excellent — he has. However, Virginia thrives when its guards — Beekman, Clark and Franklin — attack their one-on-one matchups and either score or find the easy dish to Gardner or a man on the wing. Gardner’s production is largely contingent on the guards creating space for him, drawing a man from the frontcourt and leaving him either on an island or in his mid-range sweet spot. If all of the guards, but especially Beekman, can attack the rim, Virginia will have a greater chance of advancing.
If coach Tony Bennett and his squad want to make it to the Round of 32, it will be important that the Cavaliers work to make driving lanes and take advantage of Furman’s small lineup. Although the loss of an effective stretch forward in Vander Plas will make it harder to space the floor, the Paladins don’t have the capacity to dominate the paint like Duke did in the ACC Championship. Furman simply does not have towering big men like Kyle Filipowski and Dereck Lively II and Clark will likely not shoot 11 percent from the field again. If Clark and other players like Gardner and Franklin work tirelessly to get themselves to the basket, it will open up more opportunities for shooters to get open looks behind the arc.
Which player will be the X-factor in Virginia’s game against Furman?
Connor Lothrop, Associate Writer:
Junior forward Kadin Shedrick. Furman is a short basketball team. Their tallest regular is 6’9” junior forward Garrett Hein, a five man in spirit only. No other rotation player eclipses 6’7”. On offense, this gives the primary Virginia big man license to run the offense out of the post, scoring over shorter players or passing to open shooters out of double teams. Shedrick has flashed these skills on occasion, but this game would be a great time for an offensive explosion. In addition, Shedrick is the most effective two-point threat on the team, shooting 68 percent form inside the arc on the season. Against a smaller Paladin team, Virginia can take his proficiency and use it to its advantage. On the other end of the court, the center should have no trouble swatting shots coming from below his level. Shedrick rarely gets chances to face teams of this little size in the ACC. If he can feast on Furman’s deficiency, the Cavaliers could grab an easy win.
William Smythe, Associate Writer:
Gardner. Despite landing a spot on the All-ACC Tournament team, Virginia’s second-leading scorer could not get anything to fall against Duke’s rangy bigs in the ACC Championship. In his first two games, however, Gardner tallied 40 points and showcased his usual efficiency from the mid-range. This matchup against the Paladins will allow Gardner to get back to a high level against an undersized frontcourt, as opposed to facing three players taller than 6’11” on Duke’s roster. Ironically enough, it is entirely possible that Bennett rolls out a lineup of Gardner and Dunn to match the talented stretch bigs that Furman possesses. These two provide the most defensive flexibility — especially Dunn — and Gardner can compensate for the freshman’s offensive shortcomings by reestablishing his dominance in the midrange. Expect another strong effort from the fifth-year senior.
Stephen O’Dea, Staff Writer:
McKneely. It seems to me that clutch shooting down the stretch will make the difference in this game. McKneely is the best three-point shooter on the team at nearly 40 percent, and has enough volume on the season for the statistic to be reliable. There is really only one player, therefore, that can help the Cavaliers defeat Furman by reliably knocking down looks from three-point range. In addition, with the Paladins fielding a small ball lineup, and the Cavaliers forced to give minutes to Shedrick and redshirt senior center Francisco Caffaro following the injury of Vander Plas, there is no doubt that Virginia will have its way in the post against a Furman defense that has been particularly terrible throughout this season. Although I believe that Shedrick will be a force to be reckoned with in the first half, I think that the Paladins will go into the locker room and make changes to stop him. If Furman seeks to crash in and double or triple team Shedrick in the post, look for McKneely to get opportunities from behind the arc.
What scares you most about the Paladins?
Graduate student guard Mike Bothwell and graduate forward Jalen Slawson. The last two times Virginia suffered a first-round upset — against UMBC in 2018 and Ohio in 2021 — the victor’s star player had one of their best games of the year. Five years ago, Jarius Lyles dropped 28 points and three assists to topple the top-overall-seeded Cavaliers, while two years ago current Cavalier Vander Plas put up 17 points and five rebounds in a Bobcat upset. Fast forward to the present day, and Bothwell and Slawson both profile relatively similarly to Lyles and Vander Plas, respectively — Bothwell is a small, quick guard and Slawson is a do-it-all forward. Both showed in the Southern Conference tournament that they are capable of easily dropping 20 points in postseason play. One or both players having the game of their lives could spell trouble in Orlando.
The backcourt play of Furman should make many Virginia fans nervous. Images of Purdue’s Carsen Edwards and UMBC’s sharp-shooting guards are naturally etched into all Cavalier fans’ minds. When playing in March — even while boasting a nationally-renowned defense that benefits from opponents completely new to the pack-line defense — Virginia remains susceptible from behind the arc. I worry about a three-point explosion from the Paladins. Now, the competition in the Southern Conference is naturally inferior as compared to the ACC, as Furman’s average opponent defensive ranking sits at 312th in the nation according to KenPom. An offense that lives and dies by the three may have benefited from its conference slate, yet its three-point ability remains a threat. Virginia’s defense will have to adjust to the frontcourt’s willingness to shoot, especially when the pack-line emphasizes double teams and will often concede three-point looks.
Slawson and junior guard Marcus Foster. Both players get high-volume looks from behind the arc and they do not let them go to waste, shooting 39 percent and 36 percent on three-pointers, respectively. Slawson in particular is an all-around offensive threat and, at 6’7”, will not back down against wing players of similar size on the Cavaliers like Gardner and Franklin. The Paladins rank 11th in the country in points per game and will look to work fast to get the ball to Slawson and Foster, and it will be interesting to see if Virginia’s emphasis on slow play will be able to thwart Furman’s efficiency. If there is anyone in Virginia’s path in this tournament that could wreak havoc on the Cavaliers’ suffocating style of defensive play, Slawson and Foster certainly seem to fit the bill.
How far will the Cavaliers go in the tournament? (one-phrase answers)
CL: Virginia is good this year, but Alabama has been great – the Tide will win a close one in the Sweet 16.
WS: Despite wins over Furman and San Diego State, Virginia will fall to No. 1 overall seed Alabama in a Sweet 16 hosted in Crimson Tide territory.
SO: Virginia will beat Furman, but with Charleston’s high-octane offensive squad pulling off a first-round upset against San Diego State, the Cavaliers will take an early second-round exit in a close game against the Cougars.