Winning in March and April is no easy task; just ask elite coaches like Mike Krzyzewski and John Calipari who were eliminated this weekend. All the drills, practices, and hard work culminate in a 68-team field where the best in the country are pitted against each other. The cream has risen to the top, and we are left with just four teams: Michigan State, Texas Tech, Virginia, and Auburn. My prediction, a Michigan runner-up to Virginia, won’t come true, but here are just a few reasons why I still believe Tony Bennett and the Virginia Cavaliers will cut down the nets in Minnesota.
- They have the story: Plenty of people doubted Virginia after last season. Virginia, the top team in the tournament, became the only #1 seed to ever be bounced by a 16 seed with an embarrassing 74-54 loss (#1 seeds were previously 132-0). Virginia had all summer to have the loss fester and build up disappointment and heartbreak. The Cavaliers have a story to write. They will look to silence the doubters by avenging their first-round exit with a tournament championship. They have that chip on their shoulder and they will definitely continue to let it fuel them.
- Defense wins Championships: Virginia is a stout and unforgiving defensive team. They give up the fewest points on average (55.4) and love to pack their defense in. Virginia plays tremendous help defense and they work as a collective unit to stop opposing offenses. They were able to disrupt a face paced Oregon team, followed by a tough win against a dynamic shooting Purdue team. Virginia is the best defensive team in the tournament. When shots just aren’t falling, Virginia can utilize their defensive prowess to help generate fast break points and frustrate opposing shooters. In the tournament where everyone can score, Virginia will utilize their defense to give them the edge.
- Controlling the Tempo: In addition to their tough defense, Virginia is methodical on offense. Instead of rushing shots or settling for contested ones, Virginia creates great shots by effective cuts, screens, and passes. Virginia had five more assists than Purdue in their showdown. The utilize the entire shot clock and don’t turn the ball over due to mistakes. They had less turnovers in both of their last two games against Purdue and Oregon. They generate meaningful offense and get everyone involved. They also have just 5 bench points in their last two games (all five against Purdue), so the starters can clearly get the job done. If they are able to slow the game down to their speed, make a good shot as a result of great offense, and play as a unit, this team is lethal.
- Shooters shoot: Virginia doesn’t need to settle for the long ball, but if they needed to, they can. Kyle Guy made 106 3-pointers this season, 16th best in the NCAA. Virginia needs to be guarded at almost every position from beyond the arc. They can drive quickly and kick it out quick for 3-pointers before the defense is able to adjust. In such an efficient offense, good looks and open shots are exactly what shooters thrive on and embrace wholeheartedly. Look for the Cavaliers to continue to be effective from long range, though it won’t be what they live or die by.
- Coaching: Tony Bennett’s defense has been described as a “boa constrictor”, as it sucks the life out of defenses by being so suffocating. He embraces defense first and is a top tier coach in college basketball. He has the family legacy to root his coaching tree in, and he as well has a statement to be made after last years debacle. Since he took over in 2009, Virginia has made the tournament seven times, four times as a #1 seed. The Cavaliers only have three losses on the year, two of which are from Duke. The Cavaliers have played phenomenal all season, and Bennett has his players elevating their play each and every game. A hot Virginia team, led by a dynamic coach with a statement to make, is not one to mess around with.
There are other reasons why Virginia should climb that ladder, but these I feel are the biggest strengths the Cavaliers boast. To become champions, the Cavaliers must get past the other 3 teams. Let’s take a quick look at them as well:
Michigan State: They got past Duke, a team that landed Virginia 66% of their losses this season. Michigan State has proved to be lethal for Virginia come tournament time under Coach Bennett. Michigan State knocked Virginia out of the tournament in 2014 and 2015. Will the Big Ten Champions get the best of Bennett again?
Texas Tech: They are the next best defensive team in the country, and they embrace shutting down offenses as well. They also have a unique story after being told in the preseason they had no business even thinking of Minnesota. Will we get to see a low scoring showdown in the finals?
Auburn: Virginia won’t get a crack at either team above if they don’t get past Auburn’s sharp shooting. War Eagle loves to shoot the ball from 3-point range and Virginia will need to be able to battle maybe the best offensive team left. Can their defense shutdown the Cinderella #5 seed?
Virginia has a tough road ahead of them, but I believe it will be one that they can rise up and meet head on. They have the offense, defense, coaching, and story to fuel them. I’m sticking with the Cavaliers as my pick to win it all. They have too much going for them right now and I love a tough, methodical defensive team. If Virginia can impose their tempo and will, it may just be the best comeback story in all of March Madness lore.