Why Virginia Will Make the Final Four
The Virginia Cavaliers did not earn the #1 overall seed this time around, but they were named the #2 team in the nation by the committee after all but one of their three losses came to the mighty Blue Devils. Tony Bennett’s team bounced back from their historic loss to 16-seed UMBC last year by not losing to a single team not boasting of a Zion Williamson and RJ Barrett until last week’s ACC conference tournament.
But before we talk any more about this team’s shortcomings, which are few and far between, let’s examine what makes them so great. First of all, the metrics love Virginia. They are first in the NET and first in Ken Pomeroy’s rankings. KenPom has them as the #2 offense and the #5 defense nationally, the only squad top 5 in both. And as the slowest team in all of Division I, it’s pretty clear how the Hoos intend to beat you. Virginia has been perhaps the best program in the land the last few years thanks to the brutal efficiency of their Pack Line defense and deadly offense. They boast wins over North Carolina, Florida State, Virginia Tech (twice), Wisconsin, Maryland, Louisville (twice), Syracuse, and VCU. All prognosticators had Duke and Virginia as the clear top two teams going into the bracket, at least from a resume standpoint.
As for the rest of the field in the South region who will be attempting to knock off the Cavaliers? They all have their warts. 2 seed Tennessee has only won 6 of their last 10 and got run off the floor by a lower-seeded Auburn team in their most recent game, the SEC Championship. 3 seed Purdue has looked pedestrian recently as All-American guard Carsen Edwards has been hampered by shooting woes and a back injury. 4 seed Wisconsin and 5 seed Kansas State have top 5 defenses but offenses that are prone to splutter on any given night. 6 seed Villanova is just an echo of their recent national champion editions. And no one jumps off the page from the rest of the group. Virginia, however, is perhaps the most balanced and well-coached team in the nation.
Why Virginia Won’t Make the Final Four
At this point, it’s becoming a monkey on the back of coach Tony Bennett. Virginia’s style can’t win in March. The Cavaliers can’t make a deep run. And Tony Bennett can’t make a Final Four. Is it fair or valid? Perhaps not, but to this point, the Cavaliers have underperformed in tournament after tournament. Look at the dominant past five years they have had: three tournaments have featured them as a 1 seed and yet they have fallen short each time. Only one of those times have they even made the Elite Eight. As a 2 seed, they lost to a 7 seed in the Round of 32. And in their “down year” as a 5 seed, they lost to a 4 seed in the Round of 32. Maybe the slow pace at which they play isn’t optimal for the gauntlet of elite competition they face in a tournament. Maybe the elite length and athleticism they see in the tournament tests them, as length and athleticism are often an Achilles heel of Tony Bennett’s teams, which generally rely more on skill, ball-movement, team defense, and outside shooting.
In the face of all the criticisms of Bennett’s play style and the way it has folded in March, Bennett only doubled down after the loss to UMBC, making his team the absolute #1 slowest team out of 353 this year. It’s a new year and this is a different group of players than all of those old teams. But you can’t help but wonder if just maybe, the narrative will remain the same.
#2 Tennessee Volunteers
Before losing to Auburn by 20 in the SEC championship, Tennessee appeared to be in play for a 1 seed. There’s really no team in the country that has avoided the big upset like Tennessee, falling only to Kentucky, LSU, Kansas (back when they had Udoka Azubuike and Lagerald Vick available), and Auburn (twice). All of those teams fall on the top 5 seed lines, something no other team in the country but Virginia can boast. They’re a big, physical ball club with three players (Grant Williams, Admiral Schofield, and Jordan Bone) who were among the ten finalists at the award for their respective positions. They also have the #3 most efficient offense in the nation (KenPom). Tennessee won its last two games against Kentucky after getting run out of the building in the first matchup in Lexington, so they have proven they can beat quality opponents. This might be the strongest team in the field outside of the 1 line.
#3 Purdue Boilermakers
Purdue has had it’s share of shaky performances of late, particularly a pair of losses to 10 seed Minnesota in the final week of the season and then in the conference tournament, and with Big Ten leading scorer Carsen Edwards fighting through a back injury that has clearly affected his shooting, it would be understandable to underestimate the Boilermakers. But coach Matt Painter is among the best in the nation, and the budding young supporting cast around Edwards is growing up quickly, particularly athletic forward Nojel Eastern and 7’1” center Matt Haarms. The pair of sophomores are among the Big Ten’s best defenders and can score inside and dominate the offensive glass, providing a spark when shooters Edwards and Ryan Cline are off. This is a balanced team with a top 5 offense (KenPom) and a defense that has improved dramatically over the course of the season. They could be the Final Four representative when all is said and done, though they could also see their hopes getting dashed in the first weekend.
Sweet Sixteen Sleeper:
#12 Oregon Ducks
This isn’t completely groundbreaking analysis as Oregon seems to be on a lot of radars, not only to win their first game but to make a run to the second weekend. But after they tore through the Pac 12 tournament, it’s not surprising that the nation is starting to recognize the potential of this Oregon team. They have rebounded from the injury to star freshman Bol Bol and this athletic assemblage of guys is a top 20 defensive team (KenPom). Their offense isn’t always on, but neither are that of Wisconsin and Kansas State, who they would likely have to get through to get to the Sweet SIxteen. Dana Altman is a fantastic coach and in a bracket where most 12 seeds are upstart mid-majors, this team just ran off eight straight wins in a power conference (albeit one in a very down year) and could keep the momentum going in the first weekend. Payton Pritchard might be the best guard in that group of four teams colliding in San Jose.
Final Four Sleeper:
#7 Cincinnati Bearcats
The Bearcats are generally known for their stout defense under Mick Cronin but this year’s team has a very competent offense to boot. Jarron Cumberland is one of the best guards in this whole regional. This team likes to turn you over, suffocate you in the half court, and dominate the offensive rebounds, and that formula led them to a 28-6 record and a conference tournament championship win over Houston. The Bearcats have the fortune of playing in Columbus in their own state the first weekend, then would have to get through beatable Purdue and Villanova teams to get to the Elite Eight. This team has the upside to get there, and with a first round matchup against a reeling Iowa team, they should start the tournament off right.
Top First Round Matchup:
Villanova vs. St. Mary’s
Villanova is a talented, sharp-shooting squad with a great coach, but the advanced metrics love St. Mary’s. Ken Pomeroy actually has these teams only four spots apart (26th and 30th). They both play very slow, so maybe this won’t be the most frenetic basketball, but it has a lot of potential to be tight and to see a Cinderella start its run. Or, we could see one of the best programs of the decade do what they normally do in March and begin a long line of victories en route to another Final Four. Phil Booth and Eric Paschall of Villanova are names you may know. But Jordan Ford and Malik Fitts are names you may soon learn.
Top Potential Prospect Matchup:
Though one of these guys has lottery upside and the other may be looking more at the turn of the second round, both could very easily find themselves in an NBA jersey next year. Hunter is an athletic combo forward with a smooth jumper while Schofield can both power his way to the rim and create his own shot on the perimeter. Hunter is likely a lottery pick, but don’t be surprised if we see Schofield catapult his team to a deep run that vaults his draft stock out of its current projection (39th in our mock). Schofield is probably the better college player but Hunter will have the opportunity to show scouts what he can do against a guy with an NBA body.
Top 5 Prospects in the South
1) DeAndre Hunter, Virginia
In a regional somewhat devoid of NBA prospects, Hunter stands out. He has the potential to be great on both ends of the floor, combining his shooting ability and size and athleticism with his defensive instincts and the stellar program he has been able to grow at in his two years of college ball.
2) Ty Jerome, Virginia
Jerome has the size, shooting, and ability to run an offense that NBA scouts value when they look for someone who can run the point at the next level. He has really stepped into his role this year and proven to be an excellent scorer and distributor (5.4 APG). A guy with the floor vision that he has at 6’5” definitely has NBA upside, especially when he has the shooting stroke to stretch defenses, something that big point guards historically often lack (Ben Simmons, Michael Carter-Williams, Shaun Livingston).
3) Louis King, Oregon
He may still be a year or two away from NBA readiness, but King is a former McDonald’s All-American who has looked solid in his freshman season. He stands at 6’9” and has great length and physical tools for a small forward, but also shows promise as an outside shooter. It’s unlikely he comes out for the draft this season but it’s also unlikely we don’t see him in an NBA jersey at some point.
4) Admiral Schofield, Tennessee
Schofield certainly has the body to play in the NBA. He is as strong as college forwards come. He can shoot the ball and get to the rim and his defense is solid. The main knock on Schofield is the fact that he’s essentially a 6’5” small forward since he lacks the lateral quickness to play the 2 at the NBA level. He might be the most talented player in this entire regional, however, and a deep run may elevate his stock. Schofield is a senior, so you will hear his name called in June this year.
5) Carsen Edwards, Purdue
Edwards’ stock has taken a bit of a hit of late with his recent inefficient, high-volume shooting and lack of growth as a distributor. Edwards is one of the best scorers at the collegiate level and has upside as a spark off the bench who can create his own shot. But Edwards is essentially a 6’0” shooting guard at this point, so it remains to be seen whether he tests the NBA waters this year and enters or comes back for his senior year to break records and continue to grow as a point guard.