The road to Virginia men’s basketball earning the No. 1 seed in NCAA tournament

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Photos by Jack Looney Photos by Jack Looney

Editor’s note: Hours after we went to press, it was announced that Virginia’s De’Andre Hunter would be sitting out the NCAA Tournament due to a broken left wrist (he undergoes surgery Monday, March 19). No. 1 Virginia takes on No. 16 University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC) in the South region at 9:20pm Friday, March 16.

There are 0.9 seconds left on the clock, and the Virginia men’s basketball team is nearing the end of what looks like its worst game of the regular season—and that includes the heartbreaking 60-61 overtime loss to Virginia Tech. They’ve consistently chopped a 13-point deficit to two in the second half, but it’s a Louisville player holding the ball on the baseline, ready for the game-ending inbound.

Every Virginia basketball fan is thinking the same thing—“This is it”—as they prepare for the final second to tick away, and for the team’s first road loss of the season.

But somehow—miraculously—there’s a slip of memory. A few footfalls later, the ref blows his whistle for illegal movement with the ball. Possession changes hands.

There’s a scanning of the court by Virginia’s Ty Jerome, a shuffling of feet, a hard pass to the three-point line and a turn-and-shoot. That’s all there’s time for—and it’s enough. Because it wasn’t just any player shooting that three: It was De’Andre Hunter—the ACC’s Sixth Man of the Year. The same player who scored 10 points on March 10—eight of them from the free throw line—to lift Virginia to its third ACC title in program history, beating North Carolina 71-63.

“There are teams that have more individually talented players than Virginia, but I don’t think you could find a team in the country that plays as a team better than Virginia,” says Allison Williams, a sideline reporter for ESPN.

* * *

It wasn’t supposed to be this team, perched atop the AP Top 25 poll standings for five weeks in a row. A team without point guard London Perrantes, without Malcolm Brogdon, last year’s NBA Rookie of the Year. A team that wasn’t even ranked in the top 25 going into the season.

It wasn’t supposed to be this season, either. This was supposed to be a rebuilding year.

But the fact is, it was this team that won the Atlantic Coast Conference title outright and came away as ACC tournament champs. And it was this season that brought the Cavaliers to the NCAA Tournament with a record of 31-2 (17-1 in the ACC, a league record).

Some would look at Virginia’s No. 1 ranking and ask: “How did this team get here?”

And the answer would be: 53.4.

That’s the average number of points per game Virginia has allowed from opponents. The next closest is Cincinnati, a solid four points behind the Cavaliers, at 57.1 points per game.

But Virginia’s always been good at defense, one might counter.

Yes, but even by Virginia’s standards, the team is having an exceptional year. Last year, the Cavs ended the season at 56.4 points allowed per game. The year before it was 60.1. In fact, the only year in the past five where Virginia has defended better was the 2014-2015 season—the year the team leaders were Brogdon, Justin Anderson and Anthony Gill.

And hiding at the bottom of that roster, unaware perhaps that they would be leading the team soon, was redshirt freshman Devon Hall and freshman Isaiah Wilkins.

These two guys have been the heart and soul of Virginia’s team this year, from the very first tip-off against UNC Greensboro to the final game of the ACC Tournament. Wilkins left the ACC final against North Carolina averaging 5.9 points, 1.5 blocks and 6.3 rebounds per game, but he also brings something much more important to the team, something that doesn’t show up in the box score—hustle.

If a ball is loose, you can bet Wilkins is falling all over the floor trying to get it. If a shot leaves someone’s hands, you can bet Wilkins (who landed on the March 12 Sports Illustrated cover) is jumping up to block it. It’s no surprise that he came away as this season’s ACC Defensive Player of the Year.


ACC Tournament and regular season results

2018

Tournament champion: Virginia

Regular season: Virginia

2017

Tournament champion: Duke

Regular season: North Carolina

2016

Tournament champion: North Carolina

Regular season: North Carolina

2015

Tournament champion: Notre Dame

Regular season: Virginia

2014

Tournament champion: Virginia

Regular season: Virginia

2013

Tournament champion: Miami

Regular season: Miami


And then there’s the improvement in Devon Hall, who himself made the All-ACC Second Team. Hall’s managing 12 points and 4.3 rebounds per game (the second-highest on the team, behind Wilkins). Not to mention that he’s shooting 45 percent from behind the arc and a stunning 89 percent from the free throw line—all massive improvements from his performance last year.

So, when you look at this team’s journey, from that early loss to West Virginia to the win over Duke on the Blue Devils’ home court for the first time in 23 years, you don’t have to look much further than those players to understand where the leadership has come from.

“They’ve seen the hard work that it takes to be good, the level of dedication that it takes to be good,” associate head coach Ron Sanchez says. “They’re not coming into this season with a false sense of what’s required. They’ve seen it; they’ve witnessed it; they’ve been a part of it.”

That level of maturity has certainly helped lead the Cavaliers to a top spot in the rankings, but it doesn’t hurt that the players remain coolly unconcerned with what redshirt junior Jack Salt calls “the media stuff.”

“It’s definitely still a good feeling for us and for the fans, but hopefully we just keep it going and take each game by itself,” Salt says, noting that their ranking in the AP Top 25 “doesn’t really matter” to the team.

Answering the questions

“You had question marks,” Sanchez admits, when he’s asked about this year’s London Perrantes-less team. “As far as how much you could get from the young guys, especially if it was their first year. But you had a calming sense about you because you knew you had guys like Devon Hall and Isaiah Wilkins, who have been around.”

Perrantes was more than just a point guard, though. A starter since his freshman season, he was a guiding hand and—perhaps most importantly—a calming force for the team. He knew exactly what to do when the team wasn’t playing at the right tempo or got stuck in a rut. In his last season, he started every single game, scored an average of 12.7 points, and shot 37 percent from the three-point line.

And this team didn’t just lose Perrantes. It lost Marial Shayok and Darius Thompson, both of whom would have been senior guards this year. Neither of them were star players—they didn’t start every game—but both provided some much-needed points off the bench; points that have conveniently been picked up this season by Hunter and Nigel Johnson.

“You lose some experience in Marial Shayok and Darius Thompson, there’s no doubt about it,” says ESPN analyst Seth Greenberg. “But experience is not 100 percent bought into their role and the good of the group. That’s not Virginia basketball.”

He’s not wrong—Virginia has never been a team that relies solely on one or two star players. Every once in a while, a Brogdon or an Anderson comes along to shoulder the offensive weight, but there’s always been more of an equitable distribution. If Tony Bennett is known for one thing, it’s the skill with which he and the rest of his coaching staff manage to take a mid-level recruit and get high-level results.


Duke Blue Devils fans harass Virginia Cavaliers guard Devon Hall (0) as he tries to inbound the ball during the first half at Cameron Indoor Stadium. Photo by: Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports

This season’s big win

Some things in college basketball just don’t go together: Tony Bennett and a frown, Bob Huggins and a suit and—more importantly—the Duke Blue Devils and losing. Or, we should specify, the Duke Blue Devils and losing at home.

“I don’t think I’ll ever forget that,” junior Jack Salt says of the game back in January. It was his first time playing at Cameron Indoor Stadium. The last time he was there he was still a redshirt freshman, watching his teammates from the bench. “It was definitely a hostile environment and a really good feeling to get the win coming out of that arena.”

Even that’s putting it mildly. Playing against Duke at home isn’t just playing in a hostile environment. It’s playing against a top-tier college basketball club that ended the season second in the ACC, with a 26-7 record (13-5 in the ACC), and was only held back form the ACC tournament final by a five-point loss to rival North Carolina.

“It is not easy to win at Cameron,” says ESPN sideline reporter Allison Williams, who’s watched the team firsthand this year. “If you look at Duke’s margin of victory at home this year, they’ve won every game by an average of 20 points a game in ACC play.” She pauses, and then adds: “Virginia won there.”


But the rest of college basketball didn’t see it that way. Or, at least, not until Virginia had clawed its way to nine conference road wins, a regular season title and an ACC tournament trophy.

“There was no talk about potentially winning the ACC,” says ESPN sports writer Andrea Adelson, in regards to the ACC media day back in October when Virginia was predicted to finish sixth in the conference. “So, I think to see where this team is right now and how far they’ve come is a tribute to not only the leadership, but the belief in the system, and the veterans on this team—players like Isaiah—that know what it takes to win.”

The game-changers

Virginia’s upperclassmen aren’t the only players who have led the team this year.

“The way [Hunter] plays on the defensive end is so pivotal for them,” Williams says. “When you can provide a spark off the bench offensively, that’s tremendous. But he does it on both ends. That’s what’s really impressive to me.”

And Hunter isn’t the only player who surprised fans this season. Sophomores Kyle Guy and Ty Jerome, Virginia’s top guards this year (who made the All-ACC First and Third Team, respectively), have stepped into longer minutes and higher box scores. Jerome, who averaged 4.3 points per game last season, is now putting up 10.5. And Guy has also doubled his production—from 7.5 points per game last year to 14.1.

“Ty Jerome has made so many big shots for them, and it doesn’t seem like any moment is too big,” Greenberg says, noting his pace and size (6’4″, 175 pounds) and how well Jerome’s learned Virginia’s noted pack line defense.


Virginia Cavaliers forward Isaiah Wilkins (21) and Florida State Seminoles center Christ Koumadje (21) battle for a loose ball during the second half at Donald L. Tucker Center. Virginia Cavaliers win 59-55 over the Florida State Seminoles. Photo by Glenn Beil-USA TODAY Sports

Coach’s pick

“I think the Florida State game is one that stands out. When things aren’t going well, it tests your abilities and your level of commitment. That game we didn’t start off as well as we wanted to and then we were able to turn it around against a talented, talented athletic team. I think that game spoke highly of the character of the team.”Associate head coach Ron Sanchez


That’s not a coincidence. According to Sanchez, Bennett explicitly told Jerome and Guy that in order for the team to get better, they had to improve individually, something they “took to heart” in the offseason. Those improvements have let Bennett play the same starting five (Hall, Salt, Wilkins, Guy and Jerome) for every game in the regular season (except Senior Night)—an unusual occurrence at any school.

“They’re the only power-five team in the country who’s played the same starting lineup in every game,” Mike Barber, a sports writer at the Richmond Times-Dispatch, says. “That’s unheard of. They’ve played their five oldest guys, they’ve had De’Andre as their sixth man off the bench, and I think that’s a big part of why they’re winning the ACC.”


Photos by Jack Looney

Numbers game

Ty Jerome, guard

2017-2018: 42% field goals, 39% three-point shots, 90% free throws, 10.5 points per game, 2.3 assist-to-turnover ratio

2016-2017: 47% field goals, 40% three-point shots, 78% free throws, 4.3 points per game, 1.67 assist-to-turnover ratio

Kyle Guy, guard

2017-2018: 41% field goals, 40% three-point shots, 84% free throws, 14.1 points per game

2016-2017: 44% field goals, 50% three-point shots, 71% free throws, 7.5 points per game

Devon Hall, guard

2017-2018: 47% field goals, 45% three-point shots, 89% free throws, 4.3 rebounds, 12 points per game

2016-2017: 41% field goals, 37% three-point shots, 78% free throws, 4.4 rebounds, 8.4 points per game

Isaiah Wilkins, forward

2017-2018: 49% field goals, 6.3 rebounds, 5.9 points per game, 1.5 blocks per game

2016-2017: 56% field goals, 6 rebounds, 6.8 points per game, 1.3 blocks per game

Jack Salt, center

2017-2018: 65% field goals, 4.1 rebounds, 3.5 points per game, .7 blocks per game

2016-2017: 56% field goals, 4.1 rebounds, 3.7 points per game, .7 blocks per game

De’Andre Hunter, guard

2017-2018: 49% field goals, 38% three-point shots, 76% free throws, 3.5 rebounds, 9.2 points per game

*Stats through ACC tournament (March 10)


And although you can’t narrow their success down to one or two things, Williams says it’s hard to imagine where they’d be without most-improved Jerome and Guy.

“You could see their potential and now that potential is producing,” Williams says. “They were the question marks, and they’ve been the answer for Virginia.”

It’s a level of consistency not many were expecting from Virginia this year, in what Barber calls “the best league in the country.”

But the question remains: Is it enough to go far in the NCAA tournament?

Learning how to dance

“When they didn’t make that Final Four, it kind of felt like a window was shutting,” Barber says, of the 2016 tournament when No. 1 seed Virginia fell unexpectedly to 10th-seeded Syracuse in the Elite Eight. But it wasn’t just 2016. It was also 2015, when as a two seed the Cavs fell to seventh-seeded Michigan State. And again in 2014, when the No. 1 seeded UVA fell to fourth-seeded Michigan State.

“I think it gets to a point where it becomes mental,” ESPN’s Adelson says about some of Virginia’s disappointing tournament runs. “For them, a lot of it is going to be forgetting about that, forgetting what’s happened in the past, forgetting the fact that people now have this idea that ‘we can’t take them seriously once the tournament starts.’”

Coach Tony Bennett was named ACC Coach of the Year for the third time after the team won the outright ACC regular-season title. Photo by Jack Looney

But you can’t talk about March without talking about weaknesses—and Virginia’s biggest sore spot is a lack of interior scoring. Center Salt and forwards Wilkins and Mamadi Diakite—the three players most often responsible for those easy, under-the-basket buckets—aren’t exactly the most productive on offense. They know how to protect the rim, they rack up blocks and rebounds, but together they average only 14.7 points per game, which puts a lot of pressure on Jerome, Guy and Hall to pick up the offensive slack.

“If Ty Jerome and Kyle Guy have a bad scoring night, I don’t know how this team scores enough to win tournament games,” Barber of the Richmond Times-Dispatch says bluntly. But even so, he points out that every team’s missing something. “Why not be the team that makes the run?”


NCAA Tournament history

2017: No. 5 seed Virginia loses to No. 4 seed Florida in the second round

2016: No. 1 seed Virginia loses to No. 10 seed Syracuse in the Elite Eight

2015: No. 2 seed Virginia loses to No. 7 seed Michigan State in the second round

2014: No. 1 seed Virginia loses to No. 4 seed Michigan State in the Sweet Sixteen

2013: Did not make the tournament


Virginia certainly wants to be that team, but they’re not going to change much to get there. Not because they don’t care, but because they approach every game the same way: with a clean slate, a tough focus on defense and efficiency on offense.

“Our approach to the tournament is going to be the same as it was for the first game of the season,” Sanchez says, laughing slightly that he can’t give a more “dynamic” answer. “To say, ‘If we do this, we can get there,’ that’s incorrect. Who you play, when you play them, how healthy you are—all those things are important. We’ll try to focus on controlling the things that we can control and that’s really it.”

And when it comes to the madness, everyone knows there aren’t many things you can control.

“It’s hard to get to the Final Four,” Greenberg says. “Everyone talks about that, but it’s just really hard to get to the Final Four.”

 

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