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Previewing men’s basketball in the ACC Tournament

Virginia enters the tournament with strong defense, high hopes

<p>Virginia’s key contributors prepare for a crucial contest.</p>

Virginia’s key contributors prepare for a crucial contest.

Virginia men’s basketball has had an uncharacteristically streaky season in 2023-24. The Cavaliers (22-9, 13-7 ACC) won nine of their first ten before dropping four of their next six. Then, to start off the academic semester, they won eight games in a row, then dropped four of seven, only to close out the regular season with a quality 72-57 win against Georgia Tech. The win against the Yellow Jackets clinched the No. 3 seed for Virginia in the ACC Tournament.

With the double-bye presented to the top four seeds, Virginia can only play a maximum of three games in the conference tournament. However, the Cavaliers need to perform well to secure a bid in the upcoming NCAA Tournament. Advancing to the semifinals or finals would give them breathing room, but an early exit in the quarterfinal could doom Virginia’s NCAA Tournament hopes. 

Assessing Virginia

Virginia is playing one of its worse stretches of basketball this season. Since surviving 80-76 at Florida State in mid-February, the Cavaliers have lost four of seven games — and none of those losses have been close. In their last four losses, Virginia’s average margin of defeat was 20 points, and in three of those games, Virginia failed to score 50 points. The Cavaliers’ slow-paced blocker-mover offense rates just outside the top 190 teams nationally in efficiency over the course of the season and has stagnated further against great defenses. 

While the offense has struggled, Coach Tony Bennett’s pack-line defense has continued to be one of the better defenses in the nation, ranking third in the country in average points allowed and seventh in the country in efficiency. The Cavaliers held Miami to their lowest offensive output in decades and have prevented six different teams from scoring 50 points in a game. Senior guard Reece Beekman and sophomore guard Ryan Dunn are both potential NBA players off of the strength of their defense alone. 

The Cavaliers have the defensive chops to beat anyone in the ACC, but they also have the offensive potential to lose to anyone, too. As the ACC Tournament commences — the first round began Tuesday — these are the teams Virginia is likely to face in each round.

ACC Quarterfinals

Virginia will face Boston College in the quarterfinal. The Eagles (19-14, 9-12 ACC) are the 11th seed and upset Clemson Wednesday in a comfortable victory. The Cavaliers played Boston College once this season, winning 72-68 on the road. The Eagles are led by graduate center Quinten Post, averaging 17 points per game in the regular season. Standing over seven feet tall, containing the versatile Post will be a priority. 

ACC Semifinals

Realistically, there is only one team Virginia is likely to face in the ACC Semifinals — second-seeded Duke. This is unfortunate, as the Blue Devils eviscerated the Cavaliers in Durham 73-48 March 2. Virginia was helpless in that game, with Duke leading 40-18 at the half and dominating the interior. Sophomore center Kyle Filipowski did most of the damage, amassing 21 points, seven rebounds and three steals. 

If Filipowski is kept in check, the Cavaliers could pull off an upset on neutral ground without the raucous Cameron Indoor Stadium crowd behind Duke, but the odds are slim. Virginia would need to recover their midseason form to find a way to keep up with the Blue Devils.

Alternatively, Duke could lose in the quarterfinals, giving Virginia a shot at NC State — a team that the Cavaliers went 1-1 against earlier this season. The Cavaliers were routed in the first matchup, but fought for a close win in the second matchup. The Wolfpack are a tough opponent, but significantly easier to beat than the vaunted Blue Devils. However, this scenario is unlikely considering that Duke is the nation’s No. 11 ranked team.

ACC Championship

If Virginia manages to run the gauntlet to the ACC Championship, they will almost certainly see North Carolina there. The Cavaliers played the Tar Heels (25-6, 17-3 ACC) at home late in the regular season, suffering a close loss. Despite holding North Carolina’s two stars, senior guard RJ Davis and graduate forward Armando Bacot, to just 5-21 from the field, Virginia could only manage to shoot 27.6 percent as a team and 2-14 from three-point range.

Virginia’s defensive prowess and the neutral court environment in Washington, D.C. will likely keep each of their games close. However, a recently stagnant offense will need to make some magic if the Cavaliers plan to capitalize on those tight margins. If Virginia’s offense shows up like it did in the regular season finale, the Cavaliers could surprise in the nation’s capital.

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