March Madness is about to begin–cue the mayhem, the mania and allllll the brackets. The big dance didn’t go quite as planned for the Virginia Cavaliers last season. As the tournament’s No. 1 overall seed, the Cavaliers fell to No. 16 UMBC in a historic upset that no one will let them (or us) live down. In order to avoid another heartbreak, here’s what Virginia must do–and must avoid doing–to be successful in this year’s NCAA tournament. Success is as simple as a few keys–just kidding.
It’s insanely hard to make it to the Final Four but a trip to Minneapolis is possible for this team. They’ve got the talent, they want the title and they’ve got me giving them expert advice on how accomplish it all. Not sure about that last part but let’s roll with it. Here are the biggest do’s and don’t’s for this team as the tournament begins.
There are a few Cavaliers who really need to stay hot this postseason for Virginia to manage the madness. That would be the ACC’s Defensive Player of the Year and Third-Team All-American De’Andre Hunter, the team’s leading scorer and All-ACC First Teamer Kyle Guy, the Cavaliers’ All-ACC Second Team floor general, Ty Jerome and the Cavaliers’ big men. While these may seem like no-brainers–here’s why it’s especially important for Tony Bennett’s Big Three to stay solid this postseason in particular.
1) Dre–The redshirt sophomore standout missed out on last year’s short-lived March Madness run with a broken left wrist. Hunter has a lot to prove during the tournament in terms of his NBA-stock after an underwhelming ACC tournament showing, but put simply he’s an invaluable two-way player for Tony Bennett. Two-way is often a term used to knock a less talented player, but that’s not Hunter. He’s the ACC’s Defensive Player of the Year for a reason, his presence makes the Pack Line exponentially better and he smothers opposing shooters with his length and athleticism. This team is bound to see some good scorers during the tournament and that’s where Hunter comes in. Then the team also needs his offensive production–Dre is averaging 15.1 points per game, good for second best on the team, in addition to 5.0 rebounds and 2.1 assists.
A no-show game from Hunter (like we saw in Florida State round one or vs. Louisville round two) won’t help the ‘Hoos at all as they attempt their redemption run. He also needs to avoid foul trouble (read: no more five-foul-nonsense like we saw against NC State in the regular season). He needs to be on the floor and commanding it while he’s there for this team to succeed in the tournament.
2) Kyle–Scoring. This is pretty simple, and it happens to be Guy’s bread and butter. His 15.6 points per game are going to be needed as the postseason progresses. Offensive production is a place where Virginia has clearly improved this season, largely thanks to Guy’s ever-growing repertoire. Threes, buckets at the basket, whatever it is, Guy needs to get going in every game the Cavaliers play from here on out. He’s got good help surrounding him, but an off-night for Guy especially, Hunter or Jerome as well, makes it tough on the rest of the team.
3) Ty–The thing about playing new teams is that Tony Bennett needs his offense to continue to function no matter the defense they’re facing. Queue Ty Jerome. The Cavaliers defense isn’t much a point of concern in the tournament, the guys Tony will trust on the floor during key games know the Pack Line pretty damn well at this point. But offense has been where Virginia has traditionally struggled in the tournament. Jerome is not only an essential contributor, but he’s indisputably the team’s best facilitator. Jerome is just the type of leader and playmaker this team will need on the floor this month.
4) Mamadi–Whatever happened to him this past weekend can’t continue on in March. Sloppy, uninspired play has got to go. Mamadi Diakite posted four points against Louisville in the regular season finale to three fouls, two points to three fouls against NC State in the ACC tournament and the exact opposite in Virginia’s semifinal loss to FSU. The team needs both his defensive presence and his contributions at the rim. The same goes for Jack Salt, but he hasn’t been as streaky as what we’ve seen from Diakite as of late.
All four of these guys need to be in peak form when Virginia, the South’s No. 1 seed, takes the floor on Friday to kick off NCAA play against No. 16 Gardner Webb, and they need to maintain that level of play throughout their postseason run. It’s asking a lot, I know, but no one ever said winning a national championship was easy.
In addition to a few specific people who need to step up, there are certain things the team as a whole needs to focus on to move forward through the madness.
1) Adjust on the fly–We’ve all seen some hesitation from Tony Bennett this season (and historically) when it comes to adjusting his lineup on the fly. We saw it against Florida State and it wasn’t pretty. The reasoning for this, most assume, is that Bennett likes to let his team figure it out on their own. He likes to give them room to breathe and settle in, but sometimes it just takes too long. If Bennett remains too committed to a game plan or a lineup–Virginia won’t make it very far. The tournament is all about seeing new teams and seeing different versions of them then film might show. March means that certain teams get hot when you don’t expect, others start suddenly shooting lights out from three when they never have before (cough, FSU, cough) or maybe an offense-first team starts playing defense for the first time all season (or vice versa).
When playing in the postseason one has to assume that you don’t always know what you’re going to get from a particular team or player, which means you have to be flexible. The Cavaliers also won’t always have as much time to prepare for an unfamiliar opponent, so coaching is going to be key. Bennett has to be making decisions to switch things up in the moment.
We’ve seen halftime adjustments this season that have had resulted in dramatically different halves–just recently against Syracuse (the ‘Hoos went into halftime trailing by two, ended up winning by 26) and even against NC State in the ACC tournament. Bennett doesn’t need to wait until the half to make those changes, in the tournament he’s got to be willing to adapt as he goes.
2) Prioritize the paint to get out of a slump–No one wants to relive last year’s historic loss to UMBC, but bear with me for a minute. The ‘Hoos couldn’t sink a shot from deep to save their lives–they shot just 18.2% from three–but when Kyle Guy finally started driving to the basket toward the end in an act of desperation, he slowly started chipping away at the deficit. Guy knocked in 10 of his 15 points in the paint in the last six minutes of the loss, with another four points coming off of a Devon Hall jumper and a Jerome layup. **This is not to say that this was the sole reason for the loss because Lord knows it wasn’t, but this is to take a lesson from last year moving forward.**
The same thing could be seen against Florida State last Friday. The Seminoles were on an unanswered 9–0 run when a layup by Jerome broke Virginia’s cold spell. It was already too late to complete a comeback but look at the numbers: only one of the four next made buckets for the Cavaliers came from deep. After that Virginia went 0–4 from three, with Jay Huff adding the only other point scored by the ‘Hoos in the loss at the line. Getting points in the paint and playing well at the rim (Hi, Jack Salt, perfect time for you to peak!) is the first thing the team should focus on to get out of a slump. That and playing the Pack Line as suffocatingly well as possible, but that’s a given.
3) Maximize every possession, minimize turnovers–Even with one of the best offenses of the Tony Bennett era, Virginia still plays at a slower pace than most. Take a look at the team’s tempo, per kenpom, for example: With the country’s second best adjusted offense (up from 30th in 2018) and fifth best adjusted defense (down from first last year), the Cavaliers still sit at 353rd in adjusted tempo at 59.2. For 40 minutes of play against an average DI team, Virginia has 59.2 possessions. Compare that to Tennessee–the two-seed in the South region–who has 67.6 possessions per 40 minutes, giving them about eight more opportunities per game to score, and then consider that the ‘Vols are still just 158th in adjusted tempo. Gonzaga, the West’s No. 1 seed, sits at 70th in the same category, while Duke, the East’s top seeded team, sits at 18th. Carolina, who the ‘Hoos could see again if they make it to the final four, is the fastest of the one and two seeds at fifth with 74.2 possessions/40 mins.
We all know pace of play is a criticism of Tony Bennett’s team. This is not to critique their tempo by any means, because Virginia makes it work. This is just to say that given the caliber and pace of the teams that the Cavaliers will likely be playing if they advance to the later rounds, Virginia absolutely needs make the most of each possession and in order to do so, they need to protect the ball. Fewer turnovers from Jerome and Clark while they run the floor is going to be essential–disciplined basketball is going to determine how far this team goes in the 2019 NCAA tournament. Can they finish on both ends of the floor? Can they snag necessary rebounds? Can they reduce turnovers and maximize efficiency?
4) Play the tournament one game at a time–Tony Bennett already lives by this mantra, but it’s especially important to remember during March Madness. Associate head coach Jason Williford breaks it down beautifully below.
Things to avoid
Let’s keep this short and sweet since we’ve already touched on a few things to avoid while discussing things to focus on (yes, paradoxical, I know). Continuing to take threes when those shots clearly aren’t falling, keeping a lineup in too long when it’s not working, getting sloppy–these are all things that could cause Virginia trouble during the tournament. But there are two other quick things that will also be essential to avoid.
1) Relying too heavily on threes–Historically, teams that are less reliant on threes have a better chance of going deeper in a tournament setting. Not talking three-point percentage here, because Virginia is one of the country’s best there, but in terms of how dependent we are on shots falling from deep. Not just when the team hits a shooting slump, but during all games–Virginia needs diversity in shot selection and scoring.
2) Foul trouble–Jack Salt’s production has (I won’t lie, surprisingly) been needed toward the end of the season. If Salt and Diakite wade into foul territory at any point in a tournament game, Tony is going to pull them faster than you can even say goodbye but Virginia needs both defensively and at the rim. Playing clean and composed basketball is going to be the name of the game.
This concludes my two cents on Virginia’s musts and must-nots for March Madness. Take it or leave it, Tony.