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THE BIG PREVIEW: Virginia vs. Gardner-Webb

The Hoos kick off their tournament journey today against the Running Bulldogs.

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NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Columbia Practice Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Well, here we go. Obviously, after what happened in the first round last season, people are talking about the chances of No. 1-seeded Virginia falling to a 16-seed again. As I’ve said before, if Virginia and UMBC had played 100 times last year, Virginia would’ve won 99 of them. UMBC just happened to win the first one.

This Virginia team has advantages that last year’s team didn’t have, the most important of which is full health. As you probably know, De’Andre Hunter was injured during last season’s ACC Tournament, and he missed the NCAA tournament. You may not know, however, that Jay Huff was also injured in practice prior to the UMBC game. Hunter and Huff are probably Virginia’s two most versatile offensive players, and the Hoos missed them.

OK, enough about last year. Tony Bennett doesn’t want to talk about it, and neither do we. Let’s move on to Gardner-Webb.

Yes, the committee did Virginia no favors by matching them up against Gardner-Webb in Columbia. Gardner-Webb is about 100 miles from Columbia, whereas Charlottesville is nearly 400 miles. Do you think that gives the Running Bulldogs an edge? Both teams are traveling, and staying in a hotel in Columbia. Gardner-Webb will likely bus down to Columbia. Virginia will be on a charter flight. Would you rather spend 2 hours on a bus or on a private jet? I know what my answer is.

Maybe you’re concerned about fan support for Gardner-Webb. After all, they are playing in their first ever NCAA tournament game. But there are, almost definitely, fewer Gardner-Webb fans than Virginia fans. And fans of 16-seeds likely do not travel to NCAA games in large numbers. Chances are, there will be more UVA fans than GW fans. Yes, Ole Miss fans and Oklahoma fans will probably be rooting for the Runnin’ Bulldogs, but that’d be the case regardless of the opponent. So let’s move past that and on to the matchup itself.

GWU finished 23-12 on the year. That included road wins against both Georgia Tech and Wake Forest. It’s impressive for a Big South team to beat an ACC team on the road. Based on KenPom’s rankings, the Georgia Tech win was their best win of the year, and the Wake win was second best behind their Conference title win over Radford. Virginia also beat Wake Forest and Georgia Tech, both by roughly 30 points.

GWU also lost to VCU and Virginia Tech, both teams that Virginia beat. Those happen to be the two best defenses that GWU played (and the only two NCAA Tourney teams they faced). They combined for 0.77 points per possession. Yes, those games were way back in November. But it certainly shows a good defense can do to their offense.

About that offense. Gardner-Webb can shoot the rock. They are 37th nationally in three point percentage, but they are just 207th in three point attempts (as a ratio of total FGA). Then again, they are also 48th in two point percentage.

On the other hand, the Bulldogs have no size. They are 345th in the nation in average height. They run four guards almost all the time. Their one “big” is 6’6, 230 lb senior D.J. Laster. The rest of the starting five runs 6’0, 6’2, 6’4, and 6’5. None of them are over 200 pounds. To say that Virginia has a size advantage is to put it mildly. When Kihei Clark is on the bench, Virginia will have a size advantage at every position on the floor.

Laster is 23-for-49 (47%) from downtown. That’s pretty good, but he’s not shooting a ton of threes. That’s not where he wants to be. Or, perhaps more accurately, that’s not where head coach Tim Craft wants him to be. In the Big South championship game, against heavy favorite Radford, Laster scored 32 points on 14/17 from the field. He was 2-for-3 from downtown, but the threat of his jumper helped him get easy buckets inside.

He fakes the jumper, forcing a closeout from the defender. Then he goes baseline for an easy layup. This kind of play won’t be there against Virginia for a number of reasons. First, he’s way too open. Second, the close out is out of control. Third, the help defense is weak. Tony Bennett would faint again if his team played like that.

Laster’s previous career high was 25, a mark he hit twice (including against Georgia Tech), but he averages 13 per game. Who guards him? At the tip, it’ll be Jack Salt. Laster won’t make 12-of-14 in the paint against Salt, but he might hang out around the perimeter, where Salt is less comfortable. That also means Laster has to guard Salt, who could have great success on the offensive boards. For all of Salt’s offensive deficiencies, he’s outstanding on the glass. Whether he’s getting stickbacks like he did against NC State last week, or getting tip-outs for extra possessions, Salt could a very important player in this game. He could also do this again, which also comes off an O-board:

Not surprisingly, considering their lack of size, the Bulldogs are one of the worst rebounding teams in the nation. They are 330th in offensive rebounding and 279th in defensive rebounding (both of those are based on rebound rate). Virginia is 110th in offensive rebounding and 73rd in defensive rebounding. Yes, Tony Bennett’s teams do not prioritize offensive rebounds, but this is a weakness that Virginia has to exploit. Whether it’s Salt, Mamadi Diakite, Jay Huff, or even Kyle Guy (a very good offensive rebounder when he crashes the glass), Virginia should be sending at least one person to the offensive glass on every shot.

It isn’t just offensive rebounding, though. Virginia has a huge size advantage and needs to dominate this game inside. GW averages 36 points in the paint per game. In their wins, they average 39, but in their losses that drops to just 31. The Bulldogs won just two games all year in which they were outscored in the paint. With no less than four guys in the rotation bigger than anybody on the other side, Virginia simply needs to own the paint.

Against similarly undersized Marshall earlier in the year, Tony opened the game with both Salt and Diakite on the floor. Marshall is similarly ranked in both offensive and defensive efficiency. All Virginia did to Marshall was drop 100 and win by 36 (it could’ve been worse, as Virginia led by as many as 42. The four bigs for the Hoos combined for 32 points, led by 14 from Huff in just 13 minutes. If Tony Bennett lets Jay Huff loose in this one, it could be a huge night for him. How is Gardner-Webb going to handle a 7-footer with the skills that Huff possesses? How does anybody? The question is, who would Huff guard on the other end? Maybe it shouldn’t matter.

The main difference between Marshall and Gardner-Webb is pace. Marshall plays at one of the fastest paces in the country. That game was 76 possessions. The next fastest game Virginia played was 67. GWU isn’t as slow as Virginia (nobody is), but they’re at their best in the half-court. Like Virginia, the Bulldogs will run when given the chance, but they average just eight fast-break points per game.

With four guards on the floor most of the time, the Bulldogs will often run a “five-outside” look. Sometimes, Laster will dive towards the paint to draw attention. The guards then look to penetrate. They aren’t really looking to finish, especially against bigger teams. They are looking to pass. Four Bulldogs average better than two assists per game.

Laster’s presence in the paint draws Jose Alvarado down low, leaving Nate Johnson wide open for a three. Johnson takes 2/3 of his shots from downtown and averages almost 10 points per game, fourth on the team.

They are led in scoring by senior David Efianayi and freshman Jose Perez. Both of them can shoot the three, but prefer to score inside. Efianayi is the key guy, his ability to hit the outside shot, get to the rim and either finish, kick, or draw fouls is a huge part of GWU’s offense. If you stop him, you pretty much stop GWU. Don’t be surprised to see De’Andre Hunter on him.

This is, once again, just horrendous defense. It looks like GT might be in a zone here, but there’s just nobody anywhere near the leading scorer? Again, this won’t happen against Virginia.

Those two, along with Laster and Johnson, take nearly 75% of the team’s shots. The Bulldogs have very little depth. They are 268th in the nation in bench minutes. They run seven deep, with a pair of PGs (Christian Turner and Jahaem Cornwall) splitting time. The only other sub is 6’6 junior Eric Jamison, who is really the only guy other than Laster who can play inside. But at just 185 pounds, he is going to struggle to get anything inside against Virginia’s bulk.

After last year, Wahoo fans are nervous heading into this game. Anything can happen, as we learned. But chances are, it isn’t going to happen again.

The game tips around 3:15 and will be aired on truTV.