Suddenly, Virginia Basketball is looking capable of making another run to the Final Four after last year’s championship campaign.
Two months ago, the idea of Virginia Basketball making another run to the Final Four of the NCAA Tournament seemed laughable. Tony Bennett’s team wasn’t dreadful, but they did clock a 29-point loss at Purdue (who will probably miss the NCAA Tournament), a double-digit loss to South Carolina (who will probably miss the NCAA Tournament) and a road loss at Boston College (who will definitely miss the NCAA Tournament).
And yet, here are the Cavaliers, reserving their best basketball of the season for when they need it the most. On Saturday, that meant defeating the No. 10 Louisville Cardinals to reach a 15-5 record in ACC play. The previous Saturday, the Cavaliers defeated Duke in a close one. They also have one win over Florida State, meaning they’ve beaten each of the other top three teams in the conference at least once.
Fast forward to this past week. In a Busting Brackets roundtable, some writers (present writer included) were asked about the potential of Virginia making a Final Four run – all four said it wasn’t in the cards. Most cited the team’s lack of offense and how the roster was bereft of a good scorer or shooter when the game is on the line.
While the latter wasn’t as much of an issue on last year’s title team, the heavy focus on defense or offense isn’t anything new for the Cavaliers. They were the same way last year and it certainly wasn’t a prohibitive factor in Virginia winning it all. In fact, it worked to their benefit, as their defense neutralized strong offenses and their fundamentals worked to take care of the rest.
So why not this year’s Virginia Cavaliers?
The lack of a big scorer is still a glaring hole, but Kihei Clark has emerged as someone who can make the big shot. The sophomore guard is averaging just 10.6 points per game, but he has scored at least 17 points in three of the last six games, including 18 points in the win over Louisville. More to the point, he drained a 3-pointer with 28 seconds left to push the Cavaliers to victory. That kind of shot-making will come in handy this month.
Bennett: Kihei [Clark] has done it and he continues to do it…That was a clutch shot…Did you think it was going to come down to any other way?
— Virginia Men’s Basketball (@UVAMensHoops) March 7, 2020
There is something to be said about the luck Virginia experiences. They’ve won their last eight games, but seven of those eight have come by exactly one possession. Virginia has won just eight games all season by double digits and just two since the calendar flipped to 2020. It could speak to their late game planning, but there’s also an element of luck involved.
That being said, there was also an element of luck in Virginia’s NCAA Tournament run last year. Who could forget the lucky whistles (and lack thereof) and shots that accompanied Virginia’s first title last season?
At the end of the day, it seems foolhardy to count out Tony Bennett, who may be the best coach in America, or at least the one who is most confident in his identity. It’s not always pretty, but he has found what works best for him and it has turned Virginia into one of the best teams in the country on an annual basis.
Penciling the Virginia Cavaliers into the Final Four is still not the right call … yet. But if the Cavs keep up their hot streak in the ACC Tournament, counting them out from a run to Atlanta would be a mistake.