For the past six seasons, Tony Bennett‘s Virginia Cavaliers have been one of the nation’s elite programs. They have won four of the last six ACC regular-season titles, including sharing the top seed with the North Carolina Tar Heels this season. Their success in the nation’s best basketball conference over the last six years is unquestionable. Despite that, this program still has something left to prove, after recent stumbles in the NCAA Tournament. This program has yet to have a statement-making run in the big dance. They failed to repeat as ACC tournament champions this year, falling to the Florida State Seminoles in the semifinals. However, if the Cavaliers want to redeem themselves, they will have to do it in the NCAA tournament next week.
Can the Virginia Cavaliers Find Redemption this March?
Virginia was the number one overall seed last season. Then the unthinkable happened. They fell apart in the second half only to lose to the 16th seeded UMBC Retrievers. It was the first time ever a one seed lost in the opening round. Despite all the wins, ACC trophies, and accolades the 2018 team collected, it will always be judged by that loss. It is unfair in light of all Virginia’s success, but in college basketball, everything matters more in March.
Coach Bennett’s team has reached the NCAA tournament each of the last eight seasons. However, success in the big dance has been hard to come by. They have not made it past the first weekend of the tournament in either of the past two seasons. Virginia has only made it past the Sweet 16 once in their eight trips, and have yet to reach the Final Four. For the Cavaliers to find redemption this March, they need to end that drought. Virginia has had the ability to compete with anyone in the nation for the past several years, but they have yet to make their mark in the NCAA tournament. Although it seems superficial, a run to the Final Four would solidify their place among the nation’s elite.
This program is built on defense. Coach Bennett’s teams are always active, engaged, and disciplined on that end of the floor. The 2019 team is more dynamic offensively than they have been in the past. They have three legitimate scoring options in Kyle Guy, Ty Jerome, and De’Andre Hunter. All three average double-digit points. As a team, they average 71.8 points per night on 47.8% shooting from the field. They are still methodical and precise in their offensive execution, but this season they have more options when they need a bucket at a crucial moment.
Guy, who with Hunter was named to the All-ACC 1st team, has become the team’s leader on offense. He averages 15.6 points per contest while shooting 46.3% from beyond the arc. He is tireless in his movement, often running defenders ragged, and he is deadly when getting shots coming off of screens. His backcourt mate Jerome runs the show. The junior’s 5.4 assists a night lead the team, and he also hits 39.7% of his shots from beyond the arc. Backcourt play is key in the NCAA tournament. Guy and Jerome have the moxie and ability to help the Cavaliers find redemption for past failures in the tournament.
De’Andre Hunter was injured in last season’s ACC tournament and did not play in the disappointing loss to UMBC. He has been excellent this year as a sophomore. His 15.1 points and 5 rebounds per game are both second on the team, and he was also named the ACC’s Defensive Player of the Year. His presence on defense, combined with his versatility on offense make him the key to Virginia finding success in the big dance. Hunter’s efficiency is remarkable, the forward is shooting 53% from the field and 45.7% from the three-point line. He has the star power a team needs in March; a guy who can carry his team on his back to a victory.
Often times a team will also need a special performance from someone aside from their stars. Many magical NCAA tournament runs have been sparked by an unlikely big game from a role player. Forward Braxton Key, a transfer from Alabama, could be that guy. The junior from Charlotte had only four double-digit scoring games this season, but he has proven in the past he is capable of big games. He has four career games over 20 points and averaged 12 points per game as a freshman. Don’t be surprised if Key comes up big if the Cavaliers do make a run in the next few weeks.
Removing the Stigma
No matter how much success they have in the grueling ACC, Virginia will still have the shadow of shortcomings in March looming. The Gonzaga Bulldogs were looked at in a similar way until they finally reached the Final Four in 2017. Coach Bennett has once again led his program to a phenomenal regular season. The only thing left is to finally make a mark in the NCAA Tournament. Playing well the next three weeks is the only way they can do that. So the question remains, can the Cavaliers find redemption this March?