Here we go. March Madness kicks off today, and the Virginia Cavaliers are looking to make some noise. About a month ago in this space, I talked about the scorching start the Cavaliers got off to before star guard Justin Anderson’s injury. All Virginia has done since then is match its best 25-game start in school history and come within 12 points of matching Kentucky’s undefeated run. Their losses have been to Duke, Louisville, and North Carolina in the ACC tournament, all teams that were ranked in the top 20 when Virginia played them. Oh, and before that they beat five other teams that were ranked in the top 25 when they faced them.
Sounds like a #1-seed’s resume, right?
Wrong. The selection committee inexplicably decided against giving Virginia a top seed, instead vaulting Duke ahead of them. To be fair, Duke did beat Virginia, but the Blue Devils’ performance over the entire season was clearly inferior. Not only did they fail to win either the conference regular season or tournament championship (Virginia was the ACC regular-season champ), but they also lost to three teams (NC State, Miami, and Notre Dame twice) that Virginia beat soundly during the season, and only one of which was ranked. Conspiracy theorists have even tossed around the idea that Virginia was penalized because many college basketball commentators and fans don’t like their low-scoring, deliberate pace of play, believing it to be boring and hard to watch. Many higher-ups in the NCAA have even proposed changing the rules to limit the effectiveness of such a strategy. I guess that’s how you know you’ve hit on something good.
Despite the committee’s claims that they consider a team’s body of work when making seeding decisions, it appears they adopted more of a “what have you done for me lately?” attitude with regard to the Cavaliers. Virginia has lost two of their past three, and many attribute that to guard Justin Anderson’s injury woes. As previously mentioned, Anderson broke his finger in Virginia’s first game against Louisville, and was all set to come back before undergoing an appendectomy that caused him to miss the season finale. He returned for the ACC tournament, but was clearly out of sorts, making far less impact than usual. One could tell he was still hampered by the injury.
Anderson will return for the NCAA tournament and will still be wearing a splint on his injured finger, but reports are that it will be smaller than the one he wore during the ACC tourney. This is a good sign, because Virginia will need him healthy to ascend to historic heights in the Big Dance. The committee’s machinations aside, Virginia’s draw is actually rather similar to last year. Virginia and Villanova were a 1-seed and 2-seed respectively in last year’s region, but this year they’ve swapped places. Virginia also finds itself sitting near a Michigan State team that knocked them out of the tourney last year. But before any of that happens, they have to beat Belmont in the Second Round. The interesting storyline in this game is that Belmont guard Taylor Barnette played his freshman season with the Cavaliers. Belmont could give the Cavaliers some trouble, as they are ranked #30 in scoring offense and make 38.2% of their shots from three. Virginia has struggled against teams that can hit long-range shots, such as in their most recent loss to North Carolina, who made half of their 14 three-point attempts. While I think that Virginia will ultimately beat Belmont, they need to keep their guard up. Coastal Carolina nearly pulled off the first 16-over-1 seed victory against UVA last year using a similar strategy.
After that, Virginia will have a change for revenge against Michigan State. While Tom Izzo usually gets his teams to play above their potential in the tourney, MSU will have to raise their level of play even higher to beat the Hoos this year. Michigan State dropped from 7th last year to 19th this year in Ken Pomeroy’s rankings, checking in at 14th in offensive efficiency and just 58th in defensive efficiency, somewhat of a surprise for a team usually known for playing bruising D. Contrast that to when they were 12th and 28th in those rankings respectively last year. I think if Justin Anderson is full-strength by this time, Virginia should get by Sparty. When he was healthy, Virginia ranked in the top 5 in both offensive and defensive efficiency (they’re still #1 in defense), a recipe for tournament success.
Should Virginia get over the MSU hump, then they will likely have to beat Oklahoma and Villanova to make their first Final Four since 1983. While this is easier said than done, I think the Hoos are up to the task. OU is an impressive ninth in the Ken Pomeroy rankings, but their wins and losses show that they are just as capable of knocking off good teams (Butler, West Virginia, Texas) as they are of losing to them (Kansas, Baylor, Iowa State). They even lost twice to Kansas State, who isn’t in the NCAA or NIT fields. If Virginia’s stifling defense can contain star Buddy Hield, I think Virginia will advance.
Villanova will present a stiffer challenge. They are a much more well-rounded team (4th and 13th in offensive and defensive KenPom rankings, respectively) than any of the previous opponents I described. Their high-octane offense will present a challenge to Virginia’s stifling defense. But even they have lost to two unranked teams, so there are chinks in the armor that could be exploited.
Other teams Virginia could possibly face on the road to the Final Four don’t scare me nearly as much. Northern Iowa is overly reliant on one player, Seth Tuttle, which plays right into the hands of Virginia’s defense. Louisville came out and played with emotion in the season finale, but overall they haven’t been the same team since star guard Chris Jones was dismissed from the team. Providence & Georgia rank far below the other teams in efficiency, and NC State lost to Virginia twice this season.
Should Virginia make the Final Four, they will have achieved far more than expected of them before the season, and any other wins would be a bonus. I think their most likely opponents coming out of the South region would be either Duke or Iowa State. Duke may have beaten Virginia this year, but the Hoos had them dead to rights in that matchup before they hit a bunch of threes in a row. If Virginia can just finish what they start, I think they are more than capable of beating the Blue Devils. Iowa State will be another offense-versus-defense matchup, so that could pose a threat. They also make 36% of their threes, so they very well could topple the Cavs. Should they make it all the way to the championship (which is where I have them in my bracket), I don’t think they’ll beat Kentucky. They are the prohibitive favorites, and I think they match up well with Virginia. But some teams worse than Virginia, such as Ole Miss or Texas A&M, have been able to bring Kentucky to the brink of an upset, proving that with just a little more talent and effort, it can be done. So, in short, the sky’s the limit for this team, as long as they are at full strength. If they’re not, I can see them losing to Michigan State in the Third Round, or even Belmont in the Second.
Other notes on March Madness:
-Looking for some upsets? I’d go with Buffalo in the Midwest region. They play a scrappy brand of basketball, like their coach, Bobby Hurley, played when he was a star at Duke. I have the Bulls knocking off West Virginia and Maryland to reach the Sweet 16. I also have seven-seed Wichita State making the Elite Eight in that region. The Shockers are grossly underseeded, and the 2-seed in their region, Kansas, is vulnerable. Ohio State in the West region, Texas in the Midwest, and Eastern Washington and Iowa in the South, are other lower-seeded teams that could make a run.
–Wisconsin and Arizona look like the teams that would be most likely to dethrone Kentucky. Unfortunately, they both play in the same region, so they won’t both get a shot at the Wildcats. Wisconsin is an offensive machine despite playing at a relatively slow pace, but Arizona is a bit more well-rounded, so I like them to advance to the Final Four for a Wildcat-on-Wildcat matchup with Kentucky.
-The NIT is notoriously hard to predict, because there is much more parity in the field than in the NCAA tournament. I think Texas A&M, which pushed Kentucky hard but faded down the stretch, has a good chance to win it, as does UConn, who rallied from a championship hangover to do well in the AAC tournament. Miami’s resume includes a win over Duke, and Illinois State, Vanderbilt, and Stanford have solid advanced stats. I have A&M and Stanford advancing to the championship, with the Aggies claiming the title.
-The women’s tournament, as it is every year, is UConn vs. The World. According to FiveThirtyEight, the Huskies have an astounding 74% chance to win the whole damn thing. To put it in perspective, they give Kentucky a 41% chance on the men’s side. Now that, my friends, is a favorite. I’m not one to pick against Geno Auriemma and his lead soldier Breanna Stewart, but watch out for Notre Dame. Muffet McGraw’s squad has had three shots against UConn and has fallen short, and I think they have at least a decent chance to break through and beat them this year. I have those two in the championship, with South Carolina (coached by former UVA star Dawn Staley) and Tennessee rounding out the Final Four. I’m hoping to see a few more upsets in the women’s field this year, as it typically follows chalk. Some teams that could be dark-horse picks are South Florida, Oregon State, Stanford (the only team to beat UConn this year), Miami, Ohio State, and Texas A&M. Undefeated Princeton’s soft schedule did them in, as they only got an 8-seed and have little chance of advancing beyond the Second Round, as they will likely come up against top-seeded Maryland. Below are my full picks if you’re curious (click on them for a larger view). Happy bracketing!