It would have been easy for Virginia to let last season’s failure define them. Tony Bennett’s team knows it will always be the first program to take a top seed into the NCAA tournament and lose to a No. 16 seed. It knew the ghost of the UMBC loss would inspire doubt on Selection Sunday no matter what they accomplished.
Instead of languishing in last year’s pain, Virginia has come out punching: this is again one of the best teams in the country entering the field and a legitimate candidate to win the whole damn thing.
This remains a Bennett team through and through, meaning they play at a snail’s pace and boast an elite defense. Virginia was dead last out of 353 DI teams in tempo this season, but they consider it an advantage, not a flaw. It’s hard to argue when the only two times they’ve lost all season entering the ACC tournament came at the hands of Zion Williamson and Duke. Florida State then knocked UVA in the ACC tournament semis.
Remember: Villanova used to be the team that couldn’t breakthrough in March despite consistently earning a high seed. Two championships in the last three years have silenced those concerns. It only takes one run to change the perception of a program forever. This UVA squad has the make-up to do it.
Three reasons Virginia can win the national championship
The offense has finally caught up to the defense
It’s the same story with Virginia every year: the defense is great, but the offense doesn’t have enough firepower to win games against top competition when it matters most. That changes this year: for the first time in Bennett’s tenure, UVA’s offense is every bit as dependable as its defense.
Virginia enters the ACC tournament No. 2 in the country in offensive efficiency. It has shooting all over the perimeter, knocking down 41 percent of their three-pointers as a team. It doesn’t turn the ball over, thanks to veteran guards who can dictate the pace of a game. It’s also a team that plays a selfless brand of basketball, moving the ball from side to side and bypassing good shots for great ones.
Ty Jerome is one of the best guards in the country. His backcourt mate Kyle Guy can provide instant offense when he gets going. Braxton Key has been a productive in the front court as a transfer from Alabama. Then there’s De’Andre Hunter, who might be the program’s best NBA prospect since Ralph Sampson.
Virginia actually has an NBA lottery talent this year
Bennett has developed some quality NBA players since arriving at Virginia, with Malcolm Brogdon and Joe Harris being his two biggest success stories. But he’s never had a lottery pick or a player with the raw talent of De’Andre Hunter, the junior forward who is currently projected to go in the top-10 of June’s draft.
Hunter is the prototypical 3-and-D wing. He has a combination of length, strength, and quick feet that build the foundation for his defensive potential, while also proving he can score efficiently this year. He’s hit an incredible 47 percent of his three-pointers this season and has also showcased inside scoring ability by playing in the post.
Jerome might be the engine for the offense, but Hunter is the biggest matchup problem, the type of piece Bennett can use in a variety of different ways depending on the opponent. Remember: Hunter broke is hand days before Virginia faced UMBC last year and wasn’t on the court for the historic loss. UVA will feel a lot better with him in tow.
The defense is still elite
Bennett has built a top-rated defense with amazing consistency. Since 2014, Bennett’s teams have finished outside of the top-five in defensive efficiency only once, when they ended up No. 7 in 2015. Bennett has done it again this year, boasting the sport’s No. 3 defense as his team enters the ACC tournament.
Virginia simply does not give you open three-pointers, holding teams to 27 percent shooting from behind the arc on the season, the best is America. Bennett’s packline defense funnels shooters into contested shots that it can challenge with length. As long as Virginia continues to keep teams off the offensive glass, it will be able to finish off possessions and string together stops.
The path for Virginia to win it all
The ‘Hoos have a clear path to Minneapolis. Wisconsin or Kansas State is likely to be the opponent in the Sweet 16. An apparent Elite Eight showdown against Tennessee would be tough, but winnable.
In the Final Four, UVA could be looking at Kentucky or North Carolina. Gonzaga or Duke are the favorites to be their opponent in the national title game.
All Virginia has to do is beat Gardner Webb in the first round. This time, Bennett’s team should take care of business.