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The Cavaliers have a great chance to make the Final Four for three reasons: a superstar, improved 3-point shooting, and an emerging post presence.
The Virginia Cavaliers have developed a reputation as a team that fades away once the NCAA Tournament begins. While one can argue that Virginia has underachieved in March recently, the Cavaliers seem to be much more complete this season and will, in my opinion, make a run to the Final Four. Here’s why.
In both the 2014 and 2015 NCAA tournaments, the ‘Hoos didn’t have a player who could take over a game the way Malcolm Brogdon has during his senior year. While Tony Bennett’s ‘Hoos undeniably had one of the stoutest defenses in the country during each of those two years, they lacked a guy who could win a game with his scoring. This season, they have one.
In 2013-14, Virginia didn’t have a single player average over 13 points per game. Brogdon, then a sophomore, was the team’s leading scorer at 12.7 points per game. Joe Harris followed closely at 12 points per game, but no other player averaged more than nine each night. That season, Michigan State ousted the ‘Hoos 61-59 in the Sweet 16. Brogdon and Harris combined for 34, but the rest of the starters combined for just 15 and no bench player scored more than three points. It was a solid formula for Virginia during the regular season thanks in large part to their strong defense, but it simply wasn’t Final Four-worthy.
The script was eerily similar last season, when Tom Izzo’s Spartans again bested UVA in the Big Dance. This time the Cavaliers were a little unlucky, as star player Justin Anderson fractured a finger on his left hand in early February and wasn’t the same once he returned from the injury in March. Anderson was the Cavaliers only real perimeter threat (45% from three-point range), and since no other Virginia player who received significant minutes throughout the course of the season was a great shooter, his injury also eliminated a large dimension of the team’s offense. The Cavaliers scored just 18 points in the first half of the Round of 32 defeat vs. Sparty, and no UVA player scored more than 11 points in the game.
But Brogdon will ensure that the NCAA Tournament will be different for Virginia this time around, as his presence ensures that UVA’s offense won’t sputter during clutch time. His 18.4 points per game is 4th in the ACC and tops on the team, and he scored 20 or more points 16 times en route to ACC Player of the Year honors. The Cavaliers have struggled to score in recent NCAA Tournament exits, but that shouldn’t be the case this season.
Another reason the Cavaliers will advance to the Final Four is because of improved three-point shooting. Long-distance efficiency is a huge part of the college game today, as teams like Duke who are overmatched inside can gain an edge over the opposition by shooting well from downtown. On UVA’s 2014 team, London Perrantes was the leading three-point shooter at a solid 44%, but he averaged just 5.5 points per game that season and rarely made an impact with his shooting.
Last year, Justin Anderson converted threes at a 45% clip, but his aforementioned broken finger limited his effectiveness down the stretch and left Brogdon as the Cavaliers’ top three-point shooter at just 34%.
This season is different. Not only has Brogdon developed into a significant threat from distance (his 41% mark is sixth-best in the conference), but Perrantes is shooting an ACC-leading 51% from deep, which is nearly four percent higher than the next closest player. That one-two punch combines with contributions from role players Devon Hall and Marial Shayok to give Virginia a balanced perimeter threat that it hasn’t had in recent seasons.
Finally, a monster late-season game from senior center Mike Tobey gave UVA opponents yet another reason to worry. Tobey scored 15 points and ripped down 20 rebounds on Senior Night versus Louisville, a performance that sent a warning sign to the country that Virginia is a National Title threat. Led by the New York native, the Cavaliers defeated the 11th-ranked Cardinals by 22 points. While he obviously won’t grab 20 boards every night, improved play from Tobey would be a welcome addition in the post to Anthony Gill’s consistently strong play.
In my opinion, Virginia is the most complete team in the country. They have the ability to win a game played in the low 50s, but can also win a game in the mid-70s. Tony Bennett’s team is touted as one of the best defensive teams in the country, but don’t overlook their deceptively good offense. Virginia has had a really good team the last two seasons, but this year the Cavaliers are great.
Don’t buy the doubters’ claims that this team simply struggles when the NCAA Tournament rolls around: UVA will dance all the way to Houston this season.