We’re headed into the fifth season since the Virginia Cavaliers men basketball team’s glorious national championship in 2019. The ‘Hoos are unranked in the preseason for the first time since the 2017-18 season, but Tony Bennett’s teams often excel when they’re under the radar. Here are four things that would need to happen for Virginia to shock the college basketball world and secure their second national title.
Getting hot in the home stretch: February and March
In recent years, Virginia has gotten cold when it mattered most: in February and March. Last year’s squad looked entirely different in the second half of the season, struggling to score consistently and beat bottom-of-the-barrel ACC opponents. It could be chalked up to a lack of pure talent, as their experience and roster continuity gave them an advantage early in the season, while later in the season more talented teams surpassed Virginia. Going cold from three also played a huge part. UVA shot an abysmal 28.2% on threes from February 1st to the end of the season, ranking an embarrassing 354th in the nation.
Simply put, the wheels can’t fall off by the end of the season. Virginia has a younger, more talented, more athletic team than they’ve had in the past few years, and they need to be playing their best basketball heading into tournament play. The path will be bumpy— the team will need to build chemistry and carve out a rotation— but the ceiling is high. Reece Beekman will provide the steady leadership necessary to win big games, and if the young group develops rapidly throughout the season, Virginia could be a dark horse in March.
Shoot the lights out
The ‘Hoos need to be an excellent outside shooting team if they want to achieve glory in March. They’ve been a sub-par three-point shooting team the past couple of seasons, ranking outside the top third of Division 1 basketball teams in three-point percentage in three of the past four seasons.
Until Isaac McKneely came along, Virginia was plagued with a stretch of streaky, unreliable three-point shooting guards, notably Kihei Clark, Armaan Franklin, and Reece Beekman. With McKneely entering his sophomore season, the portal additions of Andrew Rohde and Jacob Groves, and marked improvements from Beekman and Dunn, the ‘Hoos could become a very good outside shooting squad.
The 2019 championship squad was Bennett’s best three-point shooting team ever, hitting on 39.5% of attempts on heavy volume. This number is in-line with many recent national champs, such as 2018 Villanova who shot 40.1% from downtown and 2021 Baylor who notched an astounding 41.3% from three.
It’s undeniably the era of the three-point shot in both the NBA and college hoops. Making threes in bulk compensates for other deficiencies and enables both big comebacks and massive blowout wins. Tony Bennett was a three-point specialist himself, and he is more than capable of recruiting and developing stellar three-point shooters (Klay Thompson, Joe Harris, and Kyle Guy are just a few examples). When Bennett’s mover-blocker offense is clicking, it produces open three opportunities for wings through constant off-ball screens. Kyle Guy expertly utilized his role in this offensive system, understanding the pacing and positioning necessary to generate space in super-small windows.
McKneely and Rhode will be the wings on this year’s team expected to get open and bury threes within the offense. Virginia fans got a taste of McKneely’s potential last year, as he fearlessly fired threes with barely any breathing room. Beekman, Dunn, and Jacob Groves should provide additional support as capable three point shooters.
For Virginia to win the national championship this season, they need to shoot upwards of 35.0% from three, ideally in the 38.0-40.0% range, with at least three players on the court at all times who can be counted on to knock down outside shots. McKneely will be called upon the most, ideally taking over some games by getting hot from downtown and hitting dagger threes in clutch moments.
A true BIG three
To win the national championship, Virginia needs a BIG three, all caps. Many ‘Hoos fans expect Beekman, McKneely, and Dunn to separate themselves from the pack this season and lead the squad in scoring and minutes. But if Virginia’s going to win six games in the NCAA Tournament, these three need to be more than just stat-sheet leaders. Beekman and Dunn have to play like legitimate NBA prospects, ceaselessly attacking the hoop and imposing their will on both sides of the court, game in and game out. Meanwhile, McKneely needs to be a true sharpshooter, making threes at a high percentage and volume.
The big three of Ty Jerome, Kyle Guy, and Deandre Hunter spearheaded the 2019 national championship team. Each player averaged over 13 points and 32 minutes per game, scoring at a high efficiency. If one player had a down game, the other two would make up for it. Any of the big three could drop 20 points on a given night. When the team needed a basket late in games, the trio delivered time and time again, whether it was a Kyle Guy three, a Ty Jerome floater, or a Deandre Hunter one-on-one drive to the basket. All three of them were closers.
The 2023-24 Virginia squad needs true closers: players who elevate their game in clutch situations, embracing the opportunity to take the last shot. Beekman has been that guy at times in the past (versus Syracuse in 2021 and Duke in 2022), and McKneely iced a few games last year with big threes. But to go all the way, the trio of Beekman, McKneely, and Dunn need to deliver in the biggest moments on a nightly basis.
Virginia basketball established a new identity predicated on lockdown defenses when Tony Bennett took over as head coach. The signature Pack Line defense – founded by Tony’s father Dick – sparked a run from 2014-2020 in which Virginia finished six of the seven seasons as the Number 1 scoring defense in the nation, and seven straight seasons with a Top-10 Adjusted Defensive Efficiency Metric according to KenPom. The Cavaliers have fallen away from this defensive dominance in the past three seasons, but this year’s roster is teeming with the defensive talent and experience required for an elite defense.
Thankfully, Reece Beekman might be the best defensive guard in all of college basketball. His instincts, quickness, and length are unteachable. Fellow point guard Dante Harris’ is a defensive pest with remarkable lateral quickness. Perhaps most importantly, Ryan Dunn is the four-man that Virginia’s been missing the past few years. He has elite athleticism and size, he’s the best shot-blocker on the team, and he can guard all five positions on the floor.
Looking at a recent example, for this Virginia team to go the distance, they would need to replicate the 2019 Texas Tech team that lost to the Cavaliers in the National Championship game. Texas Tech entered March Madness as the 36th rated offense in the country, but their defense was number 1 by a wide margin. During the course of the tournament, their defense maintained its excellence, while a few key players on offense stepped up their game: notably one star scorer and a knockdown outside shooter.
To win a national championship, the Cavaliers will need to have the best defense in college basketball. Every national champion since Uconn’s magical run in 2014 has touted a Top-30 adjusted offense and defense rating in KenPom, with one of these two metrics landing in the Top 10. It’s unlikely that Virginia is one of the top rated offenses in the country, so to compensate, they will need to be incredible on defense.
A national championship might seem like a long shot. But in recent years especially, college basketball has taught us that truly anything can happen. The season starts in less than a week, so in the meantime, why not indulge in some wishful thinking.