After failing to earn a berth in the NCAA tournament last season, the Virginia men’s basketball team celebrated a return to the sport’s showcase event when the field of 68 was unveiled Sunday, less than 24 hours following a disheartening loss in the ACC tournament championship game.
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The Cavaliers (25-7) earned their eighth trip to the NCAA tournament in the past 10 seasons, all under Coach Tony Bennett, and are seeking to win a game in the first round for the first time since 2019, when Virginia claimed its first national championship.
2023 NCAA men’s basketball tournament bracket
One year later, the NCAA scrapped the tournament at the start of the coronavirus pandemic. Last season, with a roster heavily reliant on newcomers, the Cavaliers failed to qualify for the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2012-13, instead settling for an NIT bid.
“We can be really good if we just keep the passion that we’re doing, the energy and just keep executing stuff and just making sure we’re doing the right thing,” Virginia freshman guard Ryan Dunn said. “We could be scary going into March Madness.”
Virginia, the ACC regular season co-champion with Miami, enters the NCAA tournament having won eight of 11 but had its four-game winning streak halted in Saturday’s 59-49 loss to Duke in the ACC tournament title game on the heels of an injury to starting forward Ben Vander Plas.
Bennett announced Thursday that the 6-foot-8 graduate transfer from Ohio would be out for the rest of the season after fracturing his right (shooting) hand in practice the previous afternoon when he got tangled with a teammate trying to gather a loose ball.
Since Vander Plas’s injury, Bennett has been tinkering with the starting lineup and substitution patterns. Vander Plas had started 14 consecutive games playing center in a small lineup, but a more traditional starting group with 7-1 Francisco Caffaro has served the Cavaliers well, too.
Virginia also has received significant contributions lately from reserve center Kadin Shedrick. The 6-11 redshirt junior started 14 of the first 15 games but did not play in the final two contests of the regular season before coming off the bench to provide valuable minutes, including five blocks, in Thursday’s ACC tournament quarterfinals.
Shedrick then had eight points and seven rebounds during a 76-56 trouncing of No. 3 seed Clemson on Friday night in the ACC tournament semifinals while helping to limit center PJ Hall, the Tigers’ second-leading scorer (15.4 points per game), to 13 points on 4-for-12 shooting.
Shedrick gives Virginia a rim protector it had been lacking when Vander Plas entered the starting lineup in a move designed to create space and driving lanes for guards and wings. But Vander Plas never established a rhythm from the three-point arc, and the offense grew stagnant in the final weeks of the regular season.
An inability to finish at the rim became especially problematic in the ACC tournament final when Virginia missed eight layups and shot just 33.3 percent. But the Cavaliers still had a chance down the stretch when junior guard Reece Beekman’s basket trimmed the deficit to 53-49 with 46 seconds to play.
“We’ve got a lot of fight,” said Beekman, voted the ACC defensive player of the year. “I just want to have that motivation and mind-set going into the NCAA tournament.”
The starting lineup remains somewhat in flux. To begin the second half of the ACC tournament semifinals, for instance, Bennett had Dunn on the court in place of Caffaro.
That decision left Jayden Gardner as the only true frontcourt player among the starters. At 6-6, Gardner has thrived thanks to consistently making midrange jumpers. The fifth-year transfer from East Carolina is second on the Cavaliers in scoring (12.1) and leads them in rebounding (5.8).
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He’s also shooting 51.4 percent, the highest among the starters. Gardner is second on the team in free throw attempts (109), trailing fifth-year guard Kihei Clark (127), the only regular remaining from Virginia’s run to the national championship.
Clark is set to appear in his eighth NCAA tournament game, by far the most among players on this roster, but has been trying to emerge from a shooting rut in which he has gone 14 for 55 (25.5 percent) from the field in the past seven games.
“Can’t hang your head too much because there’s more basketball to be played,” said Clark, who shot 1 for 9 against Duke.
The other four starters — Caffaro, Gardner, Beekman and Armaan Franklin — have combined to play in two NCAA tournament games. Gardner and Franklin, a senior transfer from Indiana, will be making their first NCAA tournament appearances.