9:59 PM EST, TBS – Line: Virginia -8.5, Over/Under: 119.5
With a Sweet Sixteen featuring mostly chalk, the matchup with biggest disparity in seeding can certainly be found in the South Region, where the Twelve Seed Oregon Ducks face off against the One Seed Virginia Cavaliers. There was at one point in the season in which it appeared that Oregon (25-12, 10-8 in Pac-12) would not be participating in the NCAA Tournament at all, sitting at a mediocre 15-12 after a disappointing 83-90 defeat at UCLA on February 23rd. Lying in the middle of a weaker Power-5 Conference wasn’t going to be enough for Dana Altman’s charges, who in sustaining their third consecutive loss managed to turn things around in the most abrupt of manners, winning their final four contests to close out the Regular Season, besting the likes of NCAA Tournament Selections Arizona State (79-51) and Washington (55-47) in the process. However, that would be far from enough for the Ducks, who ultimately chose not to leave their fate in the hands of the selection Committee, and ran the table in the Pac-12 Tournament, hammering the Huskies once more in the Final (68-48) to book their league’s automatic bid to the Big Dance, which is also their sixth in the last seven years. Indeed, this has been a rather dramatic campaign for Altman & Co., who just three years ago had advanced to the program’s first Final Four since 1939. Injuries rocked this team early, with the season-ending foot injury to the nation’s No. 6 Recruit, 7′-2″ Center Bol Bol (21.0 PTS, 56.1% FG, 52.0% 3FG, 9.6 REB, 1.0 AST, 0.8 AST, 2.7 BLK, 37.4 PER), effectively ending his tenure in Eugene after just nine games, robbing this team of not only their leading scorer, but their leading rebounder and shot-blocker as well. If that wasn’t bad enough, Altman had to go through the first seven games of the season without their other prized Frosh Recruit, Louie King (13.4 PTS, 43.6% FG, 37.9% 3FG, 5.6 REB, 1.3 AST, 0.9 STL, 17.2 PER) due to injury, which meant that he and his Coaching Staff had to adjust their strategy on the fly, after likely building their entire gameplan around the two youngsters no doubt. What we saw in the first three quarters of the term was very much a team that was forced to reshuffle he proverbial deck, while what we are seeing now is a unit that not only has developed an identity, but is absolutely thriving. After all, Oregon was the Preseason No. 14 team in the country, so their current run shouldn’t be oh so surprising. Defense has been their calling card this season, allowing just 62.5 Points (12th Overall) on 39.9% shooting from the field (18th Overall), including a scant 29.1% from beyond the arc (6th Overall), while forcing 13.9 Turnovers (34th Overall), 7.7 of which are Steals (15th Overall), with 4.4 Blocks to boot (19th Overall). Those figures, particularly in defending the perimeter, should make for a rather difficult matchup for the No. One Seed.
When we last Oregon, they followed up their First Round upset of Fifth-Seed Wisconsin (72-54), by hammering Thirteen Seed UC-Irvine in similar fashion, 73-54, extending their winning streak to ten games. Taking advantage of what will be the only time in this Tournament in which they will be branded favorites, the Ducks put their foot on the gas late to run the Anteaters out the SAP Center in San Jose, though this affair was much closer than the final score would indicate. After taking a comfortable 35-23 lead into Halftime, Altman’ charges couldn’t throw the ball into the ocean for a large stretch in the Second Half, going SCORELESS throughout the first seven minutes of the second period, with their opponent putting together a 14-0 run in that span to take a 37-35 lead. However, Fifth-Year Senior Ehab Amin (5.8 PTS, 37.4% FG, 31.3% 3FG, 3.1 REB, 1.2 AST, 1.5 STL, PER) entered the game after not playing at all in the First Half, drilling a much-needed Three-Pointer to turn the tide, parking a 15-3 run of their own to ultimately advance to the Sweet Sixteen. Oregon shot 45.8% from the field, including a blistering 13-of-25 from beyond the arc (52.0%), while limiting UC-Irvine to 39.2% shooting, and harassing them into Fourteen Turnovers. Four different players scored in double-figures for the Ducks, led by Payton Pritchard (13.0 PTS, 42.3% FG, 33.3% 3FG, 3.8 REB, 4.6 AST, 1.8 STL, PER) and the aforementioned King, scoring Eighteen and Sixteen Points respectively, while Amin’s Twelve Points off the Bench proved pivotal in ending the Anteaters’ seventeen-game winning streak. Kenny Wooten (6.5 PTS, 59.4% FG, 4.8 REB, 0.6 AST, 0.4 STL, 2.2 BLK, PER), who has filled the void left by the absence of the towering Bol, was a man possessed in defending the rim Sunday Night, compiling a staggering Seven Blocks to go along with Eleven Points and Eight Rebounds.
Meanwhile, if this particular NCAA Tournament means anything to Virginia (31-3, 16-2 in ACC), it will be to wash away the calamity that was their previous appearance in the Big Dance, in which they became the first No. One Seed in the history of the competition to fall in the First Round to a Sixteen Seed. And it wasn’t the fact that they lost that made the historic defeat so damning, it was in HOW they lost. Folks, this wasn’t a case of a considerable favorite losing a tightly-contested affair, or squandering a seemingly insurmountable lead due to complacency. No, the Cavaliers’ 54-74 humiliation at the hands of Maryland-Baltimore County, was monumental for the fact that Tony Bennett’s charges seemed shook from the jump, heading into Halftime tied at 21-21, only to watch helplessly as the Terriers outscored them 53-23 in the Second Half. It’s safe to say to that that loss haunted this team throughout the Offseason, for how could it not? However, credit must go to Bennet, his Staff, and his team for largely putting that catastrophe behind them in route to capturing a second consecutive Atlantic Coast Conference Regular Season Title and a second straight No. One Seed in the NCAA Tournament. The experience of that loss has served as the burning motivation for this unit, whose slew of Juniors, including the likes of Kyle Guy (15.1 PTS, 45.4% FG, 43.9% 3FG, 4.4 REB, 2.1 AST, 0.7 STL, 20.8 PER), Ty Jerome (13.0 PTS, 43.8% FG, 40.0% 3FG, 4.0 REB, 5.3 AST, 1.6 STL, 22.4 PER), and Mamadi Diakite (7.4 PTS, 56.2% FG, 38.5% 3FG, 4.0 REB, 0.4 AST, 0.4 STL, 1.5 BLK, 20.8 PER), along with Sophomore D’Andre Hunter (15.2 PTS, 52.9% FG, 44.6% 3FG, 5.0 REB, 2.0 AST, 0.6 STL, 0.6 BLK, 25.2 PER), have carried the Program through another 30-win season, the fourth under Bennett’s tenure, matching the School Record of Thirty-One victories set a year ago, with a real possibility to pushing that mark into another stratosphere. As has long been the case, the Cavaliers remain one of the staunchest defensive teams in the country, relegating opponents 55.0 Points (1st Overall) on 38.1% shooting from the field (4th Overall), including 45.3% inside the arc (21st Overall) and 27.8% beyond it (2nd Overall). No team is better at imposing their tempo on their opposition, forcing them to play at a glacial pace in which Field Goal Attempts are at a premium, and good uncontested looks are even harder to come by. This group can be a nightmare to handle in half-court, particularly when they have the opportunity to set their defense, for they have mastered the art of defending without fouling, committing just 14.3 Personal Fouls per Game (18th Overall), leading to a scant 14.0 Free-Throws attempted against them (10th Overall). Disciplined and efficient on both ends of the floor, this team is all about execution, and if their record is any indication, it typically takes a very specific kind of team to get them out of their gameplan. It remains to be seen if Oregon indeed fits that description.
When we last saw Virginia, it certainly appeared that they were using their first two matchups in this Tournament in a cathartic manner. In their First Round meeting with Sixteen Seed Gardner-Webb, they fell behind early, trailing by as many as Fourteen Points in the First Half on their way to facing a 30-36 deficit at Halftime. Rather than succumb to the negative emotions and harrowing memories of last year’s debacle, the Cavaliers righted the ship in route to a comfortable 71-56 victory, outscoring Bulldogs 41-20 in the Second Half. That momentum carried over into their affair with Nine Seed Oklahoma in the Second Round, where Bennett’s troops finally got the confidence-building, comfortable victory that they had been seeking. Indeed, there was little resistance provided by the Sooners in the 63-51 win, which wasn’t really as close as the final score would lead you to believe. After jumping out to a quick 7-0 lead, the Big XII denizens answered with a 13-2 run to take their only lead of the night, only to see that eventually evaporate, trailing 31-22 at Intermission. The Cavs wouldn’t see their lead fall below ten points he rest of the way. In typical fashion, Virginia took control of the game, efficiently dictating the action on both ends of the floor, shooting 48.2% from the field, while limiting their counterpart to a miserable 36.5% shooting overall. Bennett made an inspired change to his Starting Lineup, inserting the aforementioned Diakite into the unit, with the Junior Forward responding in kind, scoring a team-high Fourteen Points on 7-of-9 shooting (77.8%), with Nine Rebounds, a Steal, and Three Blocks. Jerome scored Twelve Points on 5-of-10 shooting (50.0%), including 2-of-3 from downtown (66.7%), while Hunter added another Ten Points on 4-of-9 shooting (44.4%). Furthermore, Virginia handled Oklahoma in the Paint, outscoring them 32-12 in that area of the court.