Virginia started the 2016 NCAA Tournament as one would expect. They easily dismantled 16 Seed Hampton, then despite getting a test from Butler, ultimately did what they had to do to win and advance. After all, that's the name of the game this time of year. Sometimes you have your A game, sometimes you don't, and it's when teams don't that they show what they are really made of. It should be another great weekend of basketball, so here is the good, the bad, and what to watch for From the Rafters.
1) Naismith Finalist Malcolm Brogdon - By now you have probably heard that Malcolm Brogdon has been named one of four finalists for the prestigous Naismith Player of the Year award, and for UVA fans, hearing news of accolades for Brogdon is old hat. In fact, the number one spot in the "good" section of From the Rafters has been reserved for Brogdon since before the Super Bowl. However, I would wager that 50% of non-ACC basketball fans and 90% of people who just started following College Basketball on Selection Sunday are saying "who?" And it's true. One of these names is very new to the national radar and it's very clear that one of those names is not like the other. Of the four finalists (Buddy Hield, Denzel Valentine, and Tyler Ulis are the others) only one has been named to his conference's first team three years in a row. Only one has been named his conference's all defensive team twice. And only one has been named at least second team All-American for the second year in a row. I'll give you a hint, it's all the same guy, and it's not Hield, Valentine, or Ulis. Whatever happens, Brodgon will go down as one of the best players in UVA history, but most importantly he continues to portray everything that a college athlete should be. Truly, one of those is not like the others.
2) Virginia's Prospects for next weekend - Much has been made over the last week about Virginia's struggles the past two years in the tournament, and deservedly so. Each year came high expectations only to see those collapse much earlier than expected. But I just have a sneaking suspicion that this year is different. This is a different basketball team than the one who had early exits in years past. Two years ago was a magical ride. Virginia was new to the stage, they rode a wave of momentum to a one seed in a season that had us looking at bubble watch all the way into February when we finally realized the team was really good. I got the feeling there was a happy to be there relaxation that manifested itself in an extremely hard fought game against a really good opponent that could have gone either way. Last year, it was a team on fumes. Maybe some smoke and mirrors. The Hoos were dominant in the early part of the year, Justin Anderson shot lights out and Brogdon was doing what, well, what Brogdon does. Then Anderson got hurt, ACC play got rolling, and while the Hoos kept winning, there were signs that something was wrong. They could go long stretches without scoring. Brogdon hadn't quite grasped that he was the best player on the floor on most nights. Then the Round of 32 happened. The Hoos shot 2-17 from three and lost by six to a very good team. It was an anomaly of a game, but one that unfortunately fans could see coming. Fast forward to this year. Brogdon is playing like the National Player of the Year candidate that he is. Anthony Gill has seemed to find another gear. London Perrantes looms as a deadly offensive threat that can score 15 on any given night. Then there's seniors Evan Nolte and Mike Tobey who have shown flashes of brilliance in their careers that can carry a team to a title. Finally there is any number of role players who can step up at any point. Against Butler Marial Shayok rose to the top. One game it's Devon Hall, the next it's Isaiah Wilkins, maybe Darius Thompson has some of that Wake Forest magic. This team is built for this. If they play their game, maybe 1-2 teams in the country can beat them. It's an exciting time for Virginia basketball, as we just sit back and enjoy the ride
3) Anthony Gill won't be denied - Malcolm Brogdon is the obvious individual storyline for the Hoos as they finish out the season and Evan Nolte and Mike Tobey got much of the publicity when they came up big on Senior Night, but it's been Anthony Gill who has stepped up his game and won't be denied as his college career comes to a close. Since struggling for a couple games in late February (he failed to score in double digits 3 times in a five game stretch, which was the first time all season he had done so), Gill has averaged nearly 14 points and 7 rebounds per game in his last eight, and that includes two dominant 19 points outings in the NCAA Tournament (to go along with 7 and 8 boards). In both NCAA Tournament games, the defense had no answer for him. Going forward, Gill is a huge key to this team. If he continues to play with reckless abandon, he'll help make these next two weeks a couple to remember.
1) Survive and Advance - After a weekend where teams have little margin for error, any bad at this point would be nitpicking. The first half against Butler wasn't Virginia's best basketball. The defense let the Bulldogs' fourth leading scoring Andrew Chrabascz go off for 25 before "the switch." Isaiah Wilkins hasn't been himself on the offensive side of the ball. But at this point, none of that matters. We'll watch it going forward, but this team is all good right now.
What to Watch for
1) Matchup with Iowa State - Going into Saturday night's matchup with Butler, on thing I was interested in was to see whether or not Butler would be able to run on the Hoos. Their adjusted offense of 17 and adjusted defense of 118 suggested that if Virginia could slow down the Bulldogs at least a little, then they would have no problem coming away with the win. However, once you get to the postseason, teams have a tendency to elevate their games in ways they didn't in the regular season and that is exactly what happened. Butler stifled Virginia's perimeter players, and though the Hoos pulled away in the end, the second half was the picture of offensive efficiency by both teams and saw Virginia eek out a 77-69 win that was closer than the score suggested. It was only the fourth time all season that the Cavaliers gave up that many points in a win (two of the other three were against UNC and Villanova). That doesn't necessarily bode well for this weekend's game as Iowa State has both an adjusted offense and defense better than that of Butler. In fact, it will be the best offense the Hoos have seen all season. Better than Duke, better than UNC, and better than Notre Dame. The key to this game will be whether or not Virginia can continue to play their game. I'm interested to see if Iowa State tries to push the pace, or whether they will be content to play a half-court game and allow opportunities to come to them. Either way, it will be a struggle.
2) Georges Niang is the real deal - The dreaded stretch four. I'm not even sure what that means, but in Georges Niang, Virginia will face a forward who stands 6'8" and 230 pounds, can beat his man off the dribble, can pass into and out of the post, can rebound on both sides of the floor, and is deadly from three. He's the type of player that can extend the pack line, and make the Hoos think twice about doubling once the ball enters the post. He is very similar in skill set to Jaron Blossomgame who gave Virginia fits in both their meetings with Clemson this year. There is much discussion as to whether Isaiah Wilkins will be able to mark Niang, or if Virginia would stick Brogdon on the Cyclone big man. What concerns me is that unlike Blossomgame, Iowa State has a multitude of weapons that can hurt the Cavaliers if Niang is neutralized. It's a matchup I am looking forward to. Will the Hoos allow Niang to get his and attempt to stop the rest of the Cyclones, or will Virginia throw the cupboard at the big man and take their chances elsewhere.
Tip against Iowa State is Friday at 7:10 on CBS. Join us in the game thread as the Hoos hopefully take one more step to Houston.