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Basketball Q&A: Virginia Cavaliers

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Streaking the Lawn joins us today to talk Virginia Basketball!

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-South Regional-Purdue vs Virginia Thomas J. Russo-USA TODAY Sports

Auburn is going to the Final Four! I think by now, it has finally began to sink in for me as the Tigers head to Minneapolis this afternoon to get ready for Saturday’s matchup with the Virginia Cavaliers.

In order to learn more about Virginia, I reached out to Virginia’s SB Nation site, Streaking the Lawn, to give us a Virginia perspective for Saturday’s game. My thanks to Paul Wiley for taking the time to answer my questions! His answers are in bold below.

1. First of all, just talk about the excitement level around the program that’s about to appear in their 1st Final Four since 1984?

“Delirium? Pandemonium? For a fanbase that’s been treated to a lot of firsts or first-in-a-whiles under Tony Bennett—first ACC Tournament title since 1976 in 2014; first #1 seed since the Sampson Era—this is the first-in-a-while we’ve all been waiting for. The litany of NCAA Tournament stumbles on the heels of such dominant regular-season success has made the Final Four seem darn near unattainable, at least in the eyes of most punditry we’ve had to endure. I was up until about 3 AM after the Elite Eight win, just too jazzed to go to sleep, and I know from Twitter that I wasn’t the only one. And if you’re a visual learner, here’s your photo evidence: a crowd-surfing bride outside one of the main sports bars on the Corner, UVA’s main drag of bars and restaurants.”

2. Auburn and Virginia are both similar in the number of guys in their rotation and that their team is made up of mostly upperclassmen. I can only speak for Auburn but I would imagine a lot of the Virginia guys weren’t as highly recruited as some guys that went and played at the “blue-blood” programs. Just talk about the coaching job that Tony Bennett has done in Charlottesville to get this program to where it is now?

“There is certainly a sentiment among much of the UVA fanbase that the one-and-done types wouldn’t work at Virginia. Bennett and players alike have said that the Pack Line defense takes at least a year to understand, and Bennett doesn’t give minutes to guys until he trusts them on defense. But Bennett doesn’t hide that fact or apologize for it, which is part of what has helped him find the right guys even if they aren’t considered blue-chip recruits. He has sold a clear vision for the program—its underlying schematic principles as well as its foundational moral principles—to both the fanbase and to recruits. That vision is a reflection of his personality. And that is ultimately what has driven the success: there is no gap between who Bennett is and what Bennett says, and that has made it easier to buy in completely.”

3. Virginia plays a brand of basketball that most people don’t like or use but Virginia makes it work. What’s different about this year’s team compared to previous year’s teams that have struggled once they reach the NCAA Tournament?

“The talent level. Previous teams were filled more with the overlooked guys that Bennett coached up into All-ACC caliber performers. But the players that are leading this program are from the high-water mark of Bennett’s recruiting classes: Kyle Guy was the program’s first McDonald’s All-American since 2008, and his 2015 classmates Ty Jerome, De’Andre Hunter, and Jay Huff were all top-100 recruits; they powered UVA’s class to 7th in the national rankings that year. The year before, Mamadi Diakite was a national top-40 recruit. They have all now had multiple years to develop under strength coach Mike Curtis, and to absorb the offensive and defensive systems until they’re second-nature. Because of that higher talent level, Bennett has also deployed more diverse looks on both ends of the court—it’s not all blocker-mover on offense, and the defense is more willing and able to switch on ballscreens instead of hedge-and-recover.”

4. After what happened last year, Virginia didn’t exactly start off the tournament well this year either against a #16 seed. What were your thoughts at halftime against Gardner-Webb?

“(Expletive deleted, expletive deleted, expletive deleted). Seriously: I was about two minutes from getting thrown out of a bar in Las Vegas because I was NOT hiding my displeasure very well. The Gardner-Webb guards were slipping ballscreens really easily, and it was super frustrating to see UVA not adjust. The offense had the same sort of tight or nervy look that they did the year before, too. But the difference this year is that they had options. Inserting Diakite and Key allowed the defense to start switching, which stopped Gardner-Webb’s dribble penetration. The offense was able to change up their sets, and Diakite’s second-half awakening restored order to the basketball universe.”

5. I’m excited for this matchup mostly because of the different styles we will see on the court Saturday. Auburn scores around 80 points a game and loves to play fast while Virginia is tops in the country allowing only 55.4 points a game. Auburn has faced excellent defensive teams this year and had mixed success against them. What is one of the biggest factors into how successful Virginia’s defense is against their opponents?

“The biggest factor is mentality. Every player who comes to Virginia knows he is going to be expected to play full-throttle defense every possession. If you listen to Jerome or Guy or any of them talk, you’ll hear them say how much they pride themselves on playing stifling defense. That means they fly back down the court to stop the transition game, and they rotate fast behind the on-ball defender. Before Rick Pitino’s ignominious departure from Louisville, he described UVA’s defense as being like five fingers coming together to make a fist. Each player knows his assignment and the responsibilities of the other guys on the court. Add in the length and athleticism of this year’s squad and you get a daunting defensive unit.”

6. Kyle Guy is your leading scorer (15.4 ppg) and he certainly had a rough 3 games in this tournament prior to the Purdue game. Just talk about his importance to this team.

“In years past, if Guy wasn’t shooting well, his contributions were somewhat limited. But he has rounded out his game this year with more ability to drive and finish through contact, and he is a sneaky good rebounding guard to boot. Even when he isn’t hot, he’s enough of a threat to go Human Torch at any moment—and stays so active with cuts and running around ball screens—that he requires a dedicated defender at all times. That allows the offense to run games to create space and get open shots for others. From a more meta perspective, Kyle also has been the most public about how he’s dealt with last year’s UMBC disaster, which has provided some cover to other guys who may not have been ready to deal with it under the same intense spotlight. It’s given him another dimension of on-court leadership as a result: watch who recalibrates Diakite if things start to get screwy.”

7. Virginia has a sophomore forward that looks to be a potential lottery pick (as was Chuma Okeke before his injury) in De’Andre Hunter. How has his game improved from Year 1 to Year 2?

“On offense, his outside shooting. As a first-year, Hunter shot a respectable 37 percent from deep. This season, he has nearly doubled his number of attempts and upped that to 42 percent, making him a legit outside threat. At the other end of the court, he has adopted the mindset of being UVA’s shutdown guy for any player 1 through 4 (and even some smaller post players). It’s the reason he was named both ACC and NABC’s national Defensive Player of the Year.”

8. You guys, like Auburn, played North Carolina, a team that has a tempo similar to Auburn’s. What was the key in that game, a 69-61 Virginia win on February 11th, to slowing down the Tar Heels and do you think Virginia could employ a similar strategy to try and slow down Auburn?

“Limiting turnovers and shooting well from three. Missed shots against teams like UNC and Auburn turn into transition opportunities in a hurry, especially missed shots from three that turn into long rebounds. Carolina just murdered Virginia on the boards—16 offensive rebounds, fully 40 percent of their offensive misses—but UVA did not hand them extra possessions by turning the ball over a ton; even the 10 giveaways that Virginia surrendered were uncharacteristically high, but low enough to survive. If the Hoos commit themselves to stopping the transition game, that should give them a decent chance to control the pace and style of play.”

9. Who is one player that Auburn fans should be aware of that tends to fly under the radar?

“Before the tournament I would have said Mamadi Diakite, but he has flourished into a starter and major contributor (even before hitting the miraculous shot to send the Purdue game to overtime). Now the most under-the-radar guy is probably Braxton Key, who transferred from Alabama and provides Virginia with some redundancy behind De’Andre Hunter. Key has great size at 6-foot-8 and enough quickness to cover most guards. He is actually leading the team in defensive rebounding rate (23.1) and 5.2 total rebounds per game. Against smaller lineups, UVA can go with Hunter, Key, and Diakite in the frontcourt and impose some size advantage without losing much athleticism. When teams go big, Key slots in well as a wing that can help shut down opposing post players. If he can establish a better outside shot, he can also give the Hoos a sneak shot in the arm coming off the bench.”

10. Lastly, who do you think wins the game and do you have a score prediction?

“Guh. That’s my overall prediction: just a night full of ulcer-inducing, chest-clutching stress. UVA’s best case is that the Tigers played out of their minds against Kentucky—a combination of playing for Okeke and the opportunity to slay a conference-rival blueblood—and Auburn finds it tough to reinvigorate that kind of mental energy after a six-day hiatus; the three-point shooting cools and Virginia can take advantage of size inside against a good-but-not-great defense. The Virginia nightmare is that the cold shooting is on the Hoos’ offensive end and Auburn runs-and-guns all over their heads. I am a big believer that March Madness runs on narrative: more often than not, the better story seems to make its way through. Auburn’s run has been a good story, but UVA’s redemption narrative is stronger. Virginia advances to Monday night, 69-61.”