By Steve Silverman
The Virginia Cavaliers are the standard bearers in college basketball, and they go into the NCAA tournament as the unanimous No. 1 team in both the AP and Coaches’ poll.
But, the Cavaliers don’t get the respect that teams like Duke, Kentucky, North Carolina and Kansas have received when they have been in the top spots. Instead, they are viewed as a grinding, tough, defensive-minded team that tends to play boring basketball.
They are tough, grinding and defensive-minded, but that should not be held against head coach Tony Bennett’s team. They have raised their defensive play – which has been strong for years – to a new level. They pack it in when opponents try to attack down low, but they get out to the perimeter when opponents want to shoot the mid-range or outside shots. No matter what, the Cavs are going to contest every possession.
Players like Isaiah Wilkins, Ty Jerome, De’Andre Hunter, Jay Huff and Kyle Guy make it tough for opponents to get off clean shots. They harass shooters, ball handlers and passers, and that’s why Virginia shuts down opponents so often.
Roy Williams did not mince words when he his team dropped a 61-49 decision at Virginia in early January. “This was a case of their defense being significantly better than our offense,” Williams said.
The weary look on his face told as much a story about the way the game went as his blunt words.
Most opponents have found quite a bit to praise about Virginia’s non-stop defensive effort. It’s all about the quickness of the Virginia recovery. The Cavaliers anticipate each dribble, pass or shot attempt and their defensive prowess typically leads to significant offensive spurts.
Guy, Jerome and Devon Hall regularly provide the offense, and they are Virginia’s three double-digit scorers.
No, Virginia is not going to dazzle with offense. But, the Cavaliers do enough in that area to take advantage of the damage that their defense does.
While the Cavaliers have been a close-but-no-cigar team for years, this could be the tournament where they bust the door down.
Watch out for the Irish
After wins Tuesday and Wednesday in the Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament, Notre Dame has placed itself on the bubble as far as making the Big Dance is concerned.
Mike Brey’s team was torn apart by injuries this season, but the Irish have gotten healthy at this point in the season and they have the ability to do some damage.
They have a brilliant leader in Bonzie Colson and one of the best coaches in the business in Mike Brey. When big-time senior scorers are coupled with a high-level strategist, it is a very tough combination to beat.
If you don’t think Notre Dame belongs in the tournament, you might want to talk to Virginia Tech. The Hokies led the Fighting Irish by 21 points in the second half Wednesday, but they could not sustain their advantage. Notre Dame came back and won the match-up by a 71-65 score.
“I think we really dug in defensively, and that helped us on the offensive end,” said senior guard Matt Farrell. “When we defend, we think we can be a very good team.”
The presence of Colson helps the offense and the defense. Colson is averaging 20.3 points and 10.1 rebounds per game, while Farrell is averaging 17.0 points per night and sophomore guard TJ Gibbs is an excellent complementary weapon with 15.4 ppg.
The long-armed Colson is healthy and has tremendous savvy in the scoring area. Once he hits a hot streak, he is almost impossible to stop.
If the Irish get into the tournament, watch out for this surprise team. They are capable and dangerous.
Ayton could be dominant in postseason
The Arizona Wildcats are not considered an elite team this season. The issues surrounding the program and head coach Sean Miller are difficult to look past, but with the NCAA tournament right around the corner, we will look at the on-court scenario and not worry about what happens in the courtroom.
Arizona looks like a fourth-seed at this point, give or take one seed. However, when freshman DeAndre Ayton is on his game, the Wildcats will be quite difficult to stop. He is averaging 19.9 points and 11.4 points per game, and there’s nobody in the Pac-12 who can handle him when he has the ball in his hands in the primary scoring areas.
There may not be many defenders around the country who can contend with him, either.
The only reason the Wildcats are not a better team is that there are moments when Ayton is on the court that his teammates don’t get him the ball.
Ayton is not always going to shoot, but he is Arizona’s best option. Their second-best choice is junior guard Allonzo Trier, who is averaging 18.9 points and 3.3 assists per game.
This is an excellent 1-2 punch, and it just may allow the Wildcats to be a very tough out after the brackets are announced Sunday night.
Numbers, we have numbers …
It has been a difficult stretch for Oklahoma freshman Trae Young, but the Sooners’ phenom still leads the nation in scoring and assists. He is averaging 27.4 points and 8.8 assists per game. … It’s difficult to find a more efficient option than Udoka Azubuike of Kansas. He connecting on 77.4 percent of his shots, while Donta Hall of Alabama is nailing 73.3 percent of his attempts. … Junior forward Ajdin Penava of Marshall has blocked a whopping 4.3 shots per game, and that leads the nation.