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After missing the last tournament, Virginia has bounced back with another solid year under Tony Bennett. The Cavaliers finished tied for first in the ACC regular season standings and amassed winning streaks of eight, seven, and four throughout the course of the campaign. With victories over Baylor, Duke, Illinois, NC State, Clemson, Michigan, and North Carolina, Virginia is primed for a solid seed and has an outside shot at winning the national championship.
Can the ‘Hoos repeat the same magic they found in 2019? This team plays the same style under Bennett that you’re used to – don’t expect many run outs or quick triggers when you turn on a Virginia game.
Last National Championship: 2019
Last Final Four: 2019
2023 Title Odds: +5000 (as of March 10, 2023)
Why Virginia Will Make a Run
The Cavs take great care of the basketball. In fact, they take the best care of the basketball out of any team in the country – Virginia averages the fewest turnovers per game in Division I (8.6). Kihei Clark and Reece Beekman are two of the most sure-handed guards in the ACC, and they’re also excellent distributors, ranking second and third in the conference in assists per contest (5.6 and 5.2, respectively). If Virginia comes up against a team that likes to pressure the ball and find simple scores that way, it’s well prepared to deal with it.
This team also barely fouls. Virginia is committing just 14.0 personal fouls per contest, which severely limits its opponents’ opportunities for easy points at the line. Through 29 games, the Cavs have only allowed their opponents to shoot 377 total free-throw attempts – to put that in perspective, the teams that have shot the most free throws in the country this season are in the low 800s, high 700s for total attempts. If a team were to take just 377 free-throw attempts this season, it would be fourth-to-last in Division I. That’s how disciplined Virginia’s defense is (minimizing the number of possessions in each game helps, too).
Why Virginia Will Exit Early
There are pros and cons to every style of play, and the con to Virginia’s is opportunity. By shrinking the number of possessions in the game, you’re shrinking your opportunities to score. This is fine if you get good looks and are efficient with them, but this team isn’t as good in that regard as some others that have graced Charlottesville. Virginia’s 45 percent mark from the field is fine, but it’s not outstanding. This team is 5-5 when it shoots 41.7 percent or worse from the field. Naturally, teams lose more often when they shoot poorly, but the Cavs are especially vulnerable to collapse when that happens.
This is one of the worst free-throwing shooting teams in the ACC. Virginia is second-to-last in the league in that regard at 70.1 percent, and it’s a problem that has bitten so many teams in the NCAA Tournament over the years. The Cavaliers don’t have a single player on the roster who shoots 80 percent or better from the charity stripe, and that can be a serious issue in close games or when it comes time to protect a late lead.
What It’ll Take to Win
It’s obvious to all whom have paid attention to this program over the last several years, but Virginia needs its games to be played at a certain tempo. In an ideal world, all contests would be first-to-60. The enforcement of this molasses pace comes from the guards, specifically Clark. He’s been around the block once or twice at this point, and his ability to keep the game at the slow speed Virginia needs will have to happen for this team to have a shot at supremacy.
The Wahoos also have to connect from deep when those opportunities present themselves. As a team, Virginia hits on 35.9 percent of its triples, which isn’t bad. That has to maintain, maybe even improve, for the Cavaliers to contend for the national championship. Bennett should aim to get as many open looks from deep for Beekman, Armaan Franklin, and Isaac McKneely, his best sharpshooters in the rotation.