Virginia has been here before.
Friday night, the Cavaliers enter the NCAA Tournament against UMBC without De’Andre Hunter, the ACC’s Sixth Man of the Year and rising star who broke his wrist during the ACC Tournament.
It’s eerily similar to previous postseasons for Tony Bennett’s program. In 2015, potentially on his way to first-team All-American status, Justin Anderson broke his finger in February, missed a few weeks of play, and was never as effective the rest of the postseason. Last year, current ACC Defensive Player of the Year, Isaiah Wilkins suffered through a mysterious illness in March, killing a frontcourt that already suffered from a lack of depth.
There have even been persistent rumors that ACC Player of the Year Malcolm Brogdon played hurt during the 2016 NCAA Tourney, a run that came up just short of the Final Four for the Cavs.
So, no, this is nothing new for UVa. The question is, is this a different kind of Virginia team?
That’s actually been the question for weeks. We’ve seen Virginia have great regular seasons — this is the Cavs’ third ACC title and third No. 1 NCAA seed in five years — but we’ve never seen it this dominant, winning the league by four games and losing only twice all season.
Still, the Cavaliers have a hard time swaying skeptics. They aren’t a blueblood program, though they have consistently beat the likes of North Carolina for half a decade now. Critics ridicule the low scoring offense and lack of blue chip recruits.
So of course when the Hunter news broke the non-believers immediately pegged UVa for a loss in the Sweet 16 or earlier. Hunter was Virginia’s best athlete. The best pro prospect. The x-factor on offense.
*HE* was the difference.
Well, yes and no. Bennett hasn’t had too many players like Hunter, a 6-8 forward with a 7-2 wingspan who can play the 3 or work as a stretch 4. He can go one-on-one or eat the middle of a zone for breakfast.
The Cavaliers will certainly miss him. If the anticipated Sweet 16 matchup with Arizona occurs, his absence changes the game plan.
But despite the narrative developing, he’s far from the only reason this Virginia is different. These Cavs do everything Bennett’s previous teams have done, only better. Almost perfectly.
Nobody sets better screens than Virginia center Jack Salt. Nobody is better at running off a screen than Kyle Guy. It’s no coincidence Guy doubled his scoring output from a season ago and was a first-team All-ACC pick.
Virginia’s big men, Wilkins especially, have always been exceptional at recovering after caught on a switch. But this season they aren’t just getting back in position, they are blocking shots when they get there.
Bennett’s teams usually have guards who can make 3-pointers. They haven’t always had players like Guy or Ty Jerome who think nothing of draining shots from well past NBA range.
This isn’t just Virginia basketball. It’s Virginia basketball on steroids (not literally, we should stress, given the presence of Arizona and Allonzo Trier in the South Region).
Yes, losing Hunter hurts and anything can happen in the NCAA Tournament. But this Virginia team really is different. If Bennett has had a group that can overcome the annual March injury, it’s this one.