Tony Bennett and the Virginia Cavaliers are back.
After a one-year absence from the NCAA tournament, the Hoos are in peak form on the hardcourt. Virginia traveled to the Continental Tire Main Event in Las Vegas over the weekend and emerged with victories over then-No. 5 Baylor and then-No. 19 Illinois to claim the title belt.
No, really, it was a literal title belt.
The enormity of the victories cannot be overstated, not just because the impact they’ll have on the season, but because the Cavaliers played with heavy hearts following the tragic shooting that claimed the lives of three Virginia football players — Lavel Davis Jr., Devin Chandler and D’Sean Perry — the night of November 13.
Bennett returned all five of his starters from the 2021-22 squad and added grad transfer Ben Vander Plas (Ohio) and a top-notch recruiting class that ranked No. 14 nationally. The early returns for the Wahoos are encouraging.
Beyond the arc — where Virginia struggled immensely last season — the No. 5 Cavaliers are off to a blistering pace. Through four games, UVA is shooting 46.9%. That’s good for second in the nation, per KenPom. Five players for the Hoos have attempted at least 12 threes this season, and they’re all shooting between 46% and 50% from deep. Armaan Franklin, who finished last season with a 30% mark beyond the arc, is 10-for-22 early (46%).
The improved shooting from outside has done wonders in the paint, opening up more driving lanes for bigs like Kadin Shedrick, Jayden Gardner and Vander Plas. It’s also allowed the Cavaliers to drive the lane and, as a result, draw more free throws. Virginia is currently third nationally in free throw rate — one of Ken Pomeroy’s Four Factors — which “…captures a team’s ability to get to the free throw line.” For reference, Virginia’s best mark in that stat in the last five seasons was 279th in 2019 (when they won the National Championship).
Defensively, the Cavaliers might have the nation’s best on-ball defender in Reece Beekman. One game after Illinois’ Terrence Shannon Jr. went off for 29 points, 10 rebounds and two turnovers against UCLA, the potential All-American put up a paltry nine points with six turnovers and five fouls. The difference? Beekman. The third year guard was getting it done on both ends of the court, too.
— ACC Digital Network (@theACCDN) November 21, 2022
Beekman’s emergence means good things for Virginia all over the court. He’s got excellent court vision — Beekman has an assist rate of 42.6%, good for 17th best in the nation — and dished 10 assists against Baylor for a points-assist double-double. He’s not the only one sharing the ball well. The Cavaliers are fourth in overall offensive efficiency and are assisting 72.6% of their made buckets (good for 5th nationally). For comparison, No. 1 North Carolina is 336th with a 39.3% assist rate.
All of this is to say … Virginia is back. They are back to a defensive level that will annoy all of their opponents with individual players who are impactful. Offensively — although early — they’re hitting shots better than they have in recent years while having a lineup that offers depth and variety. It’s a mix of youth — first years Isaac McKneely and Ryan Dunn have high ceilings — and experience (yes, Kihei Clark is still playing).
You can still get great odds on the Hoos for both winning the national championship and taking the ACC. North Carolina has shorter odds to win the conference, but this is the perfect time to get really great value on a team with (seemingly) all the pieces needed to contend for a title.
The Cavaliers are passing the eye test early, have a champion-caliber head coach in Bennett and look to be ready to stay in the top-15 of both offensive and defensive efficiency. If you can jump on those +2000 odds to win the title, you have to do it.
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