NCAA Tournament Champion Sleeper Pick: The Virginia Cavaliers


If we’re being careful in our wording, the University of Virginia is not as much a “sleeper” pick to win the NCAA men’s basketball tournament as it is an “under the radar” option given the separation Gonzaga and Baylor have created from the rest of the projected 68-team field.

Regardless of terminology, there is a lot to like about Tony Bennett’s team, which has shifted the balance of power in the ACC from Tobacco Road to Charlottesville in recent seasons. Virginia has a roster led by upperclassmen, plays an annoying and superlative brand of defense, has balanced scoring in both personnel and method, and, specific to this season, has championship pedigree.

Lest you forget, the Cavaliers are still technically the defending NCAA champions, cutting down the nets in 2019 after defeating Texas Tech in overtime. The COVID-19 pandemic eliminated a traditional path to back-to-back titles last year, but Virginia is a team capable of forging its own road through Indiana en route to the Final Four at Lucas Oil Stadium.

With the ‘Zags and Baylor generating all the title talk, other teams in the championship mix are getting inflated odds to entice sports bettors, and the Cavaliers are among them. William Hill is offering Virginia at +3500 to win the NCAA tournament, with PointsBet and Unibet listing the Cavs at +2500. FanDuel and BetMGM follow at +2000, all fairly nice potential payouts for a team that started the week ranked seventh and eighth in the AP and USA Today polls, respectively.

Scouting the Cavs

What is the first thing everyone associates with Virginia? Defense. Bennett’s pack-line philosophy has made the Cavaliers a mainstay among the leaders in scoring defense, and they entered this week fourth in the nation at 58.8 points allowed per game.

They are in the top 20% in defensive field goal percentage (40.8%), and for those who like advanced metrics, the Cavs are 22nd in KenPom’s defensive efficiency rankings with 91.5 points allowed per 100 possessions.

Virginia’s offense is about execution and efficiency. Its deliberate pace contributes to its solid defensive numbers but also sometimes distracts from a squad that ranks fifth in the nation in effective field goal percentage (57.4%), seventh in 3-point shooting (39.8%), and 10th in assist-to-turnover ratio (1.54). The Cavs are one of only seven teams to rank in the top 25 both offensively and defensively in KenPom.

Jay Huff and Kihei Clark, both role players on the 2019 team, have teamed with newcomer Sam Hauser as the focal points of the offense. Huff averages 13 points and is a 7’1″ matchup problem with range to the 3-point line — he is shooting 44.8% from deep and ranks fourth in the ACC shooting 61.4% overall. The 5’9″ Clark is contributing 9.9 points and 4.6 assists per game, capable of finishing drives despite his lack of size.

Hauser — who sat out last season after transferring from Marquette — is in the mix for ACC Player of the Year honors, averaging team-highs of 14.8 points and 6.9 rebounds while shooting 43.7% from beyond the arc. He serves as the rudder for the offense, both in terms of facilitating ball movement and his inside-out game.

The concerns

There is no hiding the fact the Cavaliers were manhandled by Gonzaga earlier this season. Virginia absorbed a 98-75 pasting the day after Christmas in Texas, offering little resistance as Corey Kispert hit nine 3-pointers and Drew Timme bulled his way inside for 29 points. It was a measuring-stick matchup of sorts since Virginia had games against Villanova and Michigan State chalked off due to COVID-19, and one that showed how much work the Cavaliers needed to re-enter the title picture.

The ACC also has not been strong compared to recent years — Duke needs a late surge just to qualify for the NCAA tournament, North Carolina is not a lock yet, and Florida State is the only other team that merits consideration for a potential Top 4 seed. Six ACC teams are projected to reach the March Madness bracket, but only the Cavaliers and Seminoles appear capable of a deep run.

Which leads to the next point: The Seminoles were a buzzsaw through the Cavaliers on Monday night, cruising to an 81-60 victory on the strength of a 45-point first half. It was just the second time Virginia allowed more than 70 points in a game this season and underlined the importance of valuing the ball.

The Cavaliers average just 9.5 turnovers but had eight in the first halves of those defeats to Gonzaga and Florida State. Virginia can turn the screws on opponents with its defense and efficient offense, but live-ball turnovers against high-caliber opposition can lead to transition points and prove potentially problematic.

The bracket outlook

With Virginia forecast to be either a No. 2 or a No. 3 seed for the NCAA tournament, the good news is it can avoid Gonzaga or Baylor until the regional finals at the earliest. Additionally, if the S-curve breaks right, the Cavaliers could potentially not face either of them until the Final Four. The downside in that scenario is Virginia may have to go through both of them in Indianapolis to win the title.

Also, championship pedigree in this instance is a huge plus considering what Bennett and the Cavaliers went through to win the 2019 title. It was a team that wore the albatross from the previous season of being the first No. 1 seed in NCAA tournament history to lose in the first round — and the Cavaliers not only lost to UMBC, they were smoked.

That 2019 team pulled off a pair of escape acts en route to the title — needing a buzzer-beater to force overtime in the regional final versus Purdue and then three free throws from Kyle Guy in the final second in the national semifinal to defeat Auburn. There are few, if any, scenarios Virginia has not encountered in relation to the highs and lows of the NCAA tournament.

It is essentially Gonzaga and Baylor versus “the field” for the NCAA tournament, and there is little separating the top teams in the latter category. Defense always travels well in a one-and-done setting, and Virginia has the ability to hang with anyone offensively provided it does not get sped up.

That combination, and the potential payout offered — even on the low end at +2000—- make the Cavaliers a worthy contrarian play for an NCAA tournament champion.

Photo credit: Brian Fluharty / USA TODAY Sports


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