BROOKLYN – Thanks to a double bye in the ACC Tournament, Virginia must wait one more day before its postseason journey begins. The Cavaliers tip off at noon on Thursday at the Barclays Center for their first tournament game of 2018.
The Hoos own the No. 1 seed in the ACC Tournament and likely will be a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament when it starts next week as well. Before the big brackets come out and before the conference tournament gets underway for UVA, let’s take a look at five postseason questions for Tony Bennett’s team. (You can also take a look at the 10 preseason questions here and here – I’ll revisit those once the games are done.)
5. Who Is The ‘X’ Factor?
In the preseason questions each season, this is one of the mainstays. So it makes sense for it to be in the postseason edition too. Back in early November as games were ready to begin, the choice was graduate transfer Nigel Johnson. He certainly carved out a meaningful role this season and the Hoos will need that guard depth in the quick turnaround world of postseason play.
Still, Johnson does not seem like the right choice here. A good choice could be Mamadi Diakite.
The sophomore forward came on strong at the end of the season, scoring nine points in three of the last four games. While his rebounding numbers still haven’t made a major leap – he averaged 2.9 in the regular season and had two or fewer rebounds in five of the last six games – Diakite still provides a growing post threat offensively and valuable defensive versatility. That gives Bennett plenty of options when bringing in bench reinforcements.
Plus, Diakite doesn’t seem like he’s bothered by tournament lights or perceived pressure in the postseason. Remember, Diakite made his first career start last season in the NCAA Tournament against Florida when Isaiah Wilkins was out. While the result didn’t go well, Diakite tallied nine points and six rebounds in a career-high 29 minutes in that game.
The proverbial bulb has started flickering with Diakite and if he reaches the consistency Bennett always preaches, that light might just stay on at an important time for the Hoos.
4. You Forgot About Dre?
I know what just happened while many were reading that first section. Uh, what about Dre? Dre as in De’Andre Hunter. There’s no question that Hunter is critical to Virginia’s chances at playing its best quality basketball.
Hunter allows the Hoos to play small without actually being small thanks to his 7’2” wing span. He represents a huge weapon as a zone-buster option. He can step out to the 3-point line and stretch the floor. He’s versatile defensively both strong enough and quick enough to match up against players as diverse as Notre Dame’s Bonzie Colson and Virginia Tech’s Justin Robinson. That, of course, allows UVA to switch a lot of opponent actions on defense.
If you want to name him the ‘X’ factor, you won’t get much of an argument though. I think of the ‘X’ factor as someone that brings something you might not expect, though. And at this point, what Hunter does falls in the expected category almost every night. He scored in double figures 11 times in ACC play and scored seven, seven, and nine three other times. He also grabbed at least five rebounds in four of the last six games. His defense started well ahead of what’s typically expected of redshirt freshmen in the Pack-Line scheme and has improved since.
So yeah, no one forgot about Dre.
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3. What Does Round Two Look Like For Kyle Guy And Ty Jerome?
One of the preseason questions takes on the postseason meaning now. Back in November, I wrote that “in some ways, the success or struggles of these two players could be the most important storyline of the season.” Both answered the challenge all season long. Guy averaged a team-leading 13.9 points, added more off-the-dribble versatility to his game, and improved dramatically on the defensive end. Jerome joined him in double figures at 10.6 points per game, commanded the rhythm needed as UVA’s point guard, and also improved on the defensive end.
The season now shifts to tournament play and the last time the duo took the floor in this setting last March, it didn’t go well. Neither player scored in that season-ender against Florida and they logged five points each against UNC Wilmington in the opener. Obviously, both are different players with different roles now. How will they handle it?
Guy has the added challenge of playing after what he called a sprained MCL in his left knee, an injury suffered during the regular season finale against Notre Dame. He’ll wear a brace on that knee. He’s already struggled a bit to make shots down the stretch. In the last 10 games, the number checked in at 32.5% for the sophomore. What does all that mean for the postseason games? It’s certainly a question to watch.
Jerome, meanwhile, has gone on an opposite trajectory. He’s scored in double figures in eight of the last 10 and six of the last seven games. That’s included four games of 15 points or more. The sophomore guard has gained a reputation as one of the most fearless players on the Virginia roster – Duke anyone? – and the postseason starts in his home state of New York. What does Jerome do in the tournaments? We’ll see.
2. What Does The Last Dance Look Like For Devon Hall And Isaiah Wilkins?
While those two youngsters get just their second taste of March Madness, Hall and Wilkins are back for one last go round. They enter their final postseason off the best seasons of their careers.
Hall averaged 11.9 points and 4.4 rebounds. He dished out 96 assists to just 29 turnovers. He locked down defensively on some of the best perimeter players in the country and added 25 steals with five blocks for good measure. Hall did it efficiently too, making 45.8% of his shots overall, 44.7% of his 3-pointers, and 89.3% of his free throws.
Wilkins, meanwhile, earned the ACC Defensive Player of the Year honor after anchoring the nation’s leader in scoring defense (52.8 points per game) and second-rated team in defensive efficiency (.849 points per possession). Wilkins put up an insane individual defensive efficiency number of .819 per 100 possessions. Entering the postseason, that tops Darion Atkins’ .836 number in 2014-15 that led to National Defensive Player of the Year recognition.
Beyond the numbers, however, Bennett has credited this year’s captains as the driving force behind the rise to the top of the ACC standings and national rankings. He named Hall, Wilkins, and redshirt junior Jack Salt captains before the season started and those three veterans have steered the reins toward high accountability and shared responsibility. All three experienced the Elite Eight run in 2015-16 and they know what this time of year is about and what it requires to be successful.
1. Will The Hoos Make It Five?
Virginia has earned a spot in the NCAA Tournament for the fifth consecutive time for the first time in program history. The Hoos will enter the bracket with wins in four straight trips to the Big Dance too. Can they make it five years in a row? That seems likely since UVA is expected to receive a No. 1 seed and a No. 16 seed has never defeated the top line in this tournament format.
The bigger question then is whether the Cavaliers can make it to four, five, or six wins in the NCAA Tournament instead. The NCAA Tournament is a volatile single elimination gig. There are no guarantees. Games from the round of 32 on are against tough competition and almost always close.
On one side of the coin is the potential of an upset that eliminates the Hoos before a run to the second weekend or beyond. The outside analysts that point to whether UVA’s slower pace and reliance on high-level defense can win in March would continue to nit-pick the results. Recruiting opposition would likely continue whispers of the demands of Virginia’s program vs. rewards in March.
The flipside is what a magical run could mean. Four wins would give Bennett his first trip to the Final Four and would take the program there for the first time since the 1984 tournament. Getting there would match the last golden era for Virginia basketball. Five wins would carry the Hoos into the National Championship Game for the first time and six wins, well we all know what six wins would mean.