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The Big Preview: NCAA Tournament Preview: Virginia vs Ohio

NCAA Basketball: MAC Conference Tournament - Ohio vs Buffalo
Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

Let’s get this out of the way up front. This is a terrible matchup for the Hoos. Here’s the quick review we did immediately after the brackets were announced.

All season long, the Virginia Cavaliers have struggled against teams that can shoot the basketball, and in particular against teams with bigs who can shoot. Teams have had success spreading the floor with four-out and five-out lineups. The Pack Line is designed to keep the ball out of the paint and force tough outside shots, but if a team is content to shoot from outside and doesn’t try to get the ball inside, that can take a lot of the teeth out of Virginia’s defense.

Ohio can do just that. Four different Bobcats attempt at least three treys per game, with all four at 34% or higher. That includes 6’8” Ben Vander Plas. And we all know how “stretch-bigs” have given Virginia fits this season.

There’s nothing fancy here. This is secondary transition and Vander Plas’ man doesn’t step out on him. This is a deep three, but obviously Vander Plas has that range. You give him this much space and this much time and he’s going to knock it down. Virginia defenders need to be right up on Ohio’s shooters, taking away their space to get off that shot. Trust the help defense in the paint if Vander Plan tries to dribble drive.

If you haven’t seen Jeff White’s piece about Vander Plas and the connections to Tony Bennett and the UVA program, it’s worth a read.

Ohio isn’t really a team with one-on-one scorers. They are one of the top teams in the nation in assists per made basket (almost 60%) with three different guys in the top 500 nationally in assist rate.

That is, of course, led by star PG Jason Preston. Preston leads the team in points and assists and is second in rebounds and steals. At 6’4” 190, he has an NBA body and will likely be an NBA draft pick (in 2022). At that size, it seems like Kihei Clark may not be the best option to defend him. Clark likely gets the first crack, but Reece Beekman should also get some chances. That puts Clark on one of the Ohio wings, which includes Lunden McDay and Miles Brown, both smaller than Preston. Could also see Casey Morsell get some extra run, because he has the size and strength to bother Preston. Stopping Preston is absolutely critical to Virginia winning this game.

Preston has no qualms about shooting the early three here. Ohio will try to get out and run. They play pretty fast and will try to get Virginia out of their comfort zone. In the half court, they actually don’t shoot a ton of threes, but they do look for shooters spotting up in transition. They want to get good looks before Virginia is able to set up the defense. This means Virginia needs to find shooters immediately.

Ohio’s top competition this season came early on against Illinois. Preston had 31 points, 8 assists and 6 rebounds. The Bobcats lost by just two on the road and actually had the lead with under ten seconds remaining after this shot.

Illinois retook the lead for good on this foul call and subsequent FTs. I’ll let you decide for yourself if that’s a foul. Maybe it doesn’t matter since Illinois scored on the putback anyway.

That putback highlights Ohio’s weakness. The Bobcats shot 9/19 (47%) from downtown in that game, but were crushed on the inside. Illinois grabbed 45 rebounds against Ohio’s 25 and shot 24 free throws against just nine for Ohio (shooting 4/9 from the stripe may have cost them the upset). The Bobcats have very little size and that is something Virginia will have to exploit. Maybe that means hitting the offensive glass a little more than normal. Maybe it means playing Hauser on the wing with both Justin McKoy and Jay Huff to get a little more muscle inside. Or maybe it just means focusing on getting the ball into the paint on the offensive end.

Dwight Wilson, a 6’8” 250 transfer from JMU, is the only interior player for the Bobcats. He had 12 and 8 against Illinois, but that just wasn’t enough. Illinois’ big man had 13 points and 14 rebounds. Wilson was at JMU the last time Virginia and JMU faced off, but did not play in that contest.

Virginia needs to own the paint in this game, with Huff and Hauser leading the way. McKoy’s minutes have risen over the past four games and he’s been solid, providing some rest for Huff and Hauser while adding both scoring and rebounding. Again, this seems like a matchup he could get some extra run, because his size and athleticism are something Ohio may struggle with.

Ohio’s best shooter is actually on the wings in Ben Roderick. He doesn’t do a ton other than shoot threes, but he’s over 40% on six attempts per game. The matchup between Trey Murphy and Roderick will be an important one. Murphy has a significant size advantage and is more athletic. If Murphy can really get going, that gives Virginia the third scorer they’d need to outpace the Bobcats.

Ohio’s half court offense is going to rely heavily on screen-and-roll action for Preston. He is adept at either passing, shooting or driving to the rim.

This is awfully high to initiate the screen action, and Buffalo defends it very poorly. Both guys go with Preston, leaving reserve big man Colin Granger a free path for a layup.

This is a pick-n-pop action, and starts on the wing with a dribble hand-off from Vander Plas to Preston. Again, both defenders go with Preston (actually, Buffalo’s big man is guarding nobody and just looks confused).

In this case, Preston drives into the lane off the screen (not even a very good screen). The defense collapses and Preston is able to kick out to Vander Plas for a wide open three.

All three of these plays came in the MAC championship game against Buffalo. One of Virginia’s strengths over the past few years has been defending screen actions. But not always this year, especially against shooters.

This is nice action from Gonzaga on the pick-n-pop. They show the screen but don’t really use it. Trey Murphy is fooled and is way out of position. This leads to an open three for the Zags.

This one is a more traditional pick-n-roll. It may take an extra beat, but Manny Bates is open underneath. The two Virginia defenders inside (McKoy and Hauser) get a bit lost and Caffaro can’t get back in time. We aren’t likely to see a lineup with both McKoy and Caffaro on the floor in this game, but the problems have persisted throughout the season.

These examples are cherry-picked of course. Overall, Virginia’s defense has been solid. They currently rank 33rd in the nation in defensive efficiency (per KenPom), which is fine. But fine is not Virginia Basketball. They’ve ranked in the top 10 for the past seven years running, including two #1s and two #2s. So 33 is poor. They’ve had their moments, but generally against teams that don’t shoot the ball well. Against the top 100 in three point shooting, Virginia is 1-3 on the season. Two of those losses were blowouts (Gonzaga and FSU) and the lone win came against NC State, who later won in Charlottesville.

Bottom line, if Ohio (56th nationally in three point shooting) shoots like they are capable of shooting, there is a good chance Virginia loses this game. If they don’t, they probably can’t win. On the plus side, Virginia has a lot of advantages on their end of the court. If the Hoos shoot the lights out, it may not matter what Ohio does. Virginia also has more depth and more talent across the board.

Tipoff is around 7:15 p.m. ET on Saturday on TruTV.