‘Hoos previews: Cavaliers meet Gardner-Webb Runnin’ Bulldogs in Round of 64

UVA basketballThe time has come. The NCAA Tournament starts Thursday, and 1-seed Virginia’s path to redemption starts Friday against 16-seed Gardner-Webb in Columbia, South Carolina.

The two teams come to the tournament with very different backgrounds. The Cavaliers took home a share of the ACC regular-season crown and entered the conference tournament with the top seed. After dispatching NC State, though, the Cavaliers fell in the semifinal to hot-shooting Florida State as Virginia went cold.

Gardner-Webb, on the other hand, had to win the Big South as the fourth seed in order to make it to the Big Dance, and they did just that, topping five-seed High Point, one-seed Campbell and two-seed Radford en route to the crown.

Gardner-Webb shoots the ball well but is undersized and not particularly good on the defensive end. Still, the senior duo of guard David Efianayi and big man DJ Laster plus impressive freshman Jose Perez makes the Runnin’ Bulldogs potent, even against bigger-conference opponents. They won at both Georgia Tech and Wake Forest in non-conference action.

Virginia won’t overlook anyone after last year’s debacle against UMBC. The Cavaliers will be hungry coming off a loss to Florida State, and with a star trio of Ty Jerome, Kyle Guy and De’Andre Hunter leading the way, will look to get off on the right note in the Round of 68.

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Three Cavaliers to watch:

De’Andre Hunter. Hunter is taller than any player in Gardner-Webb’s rotation and should be able to absolutely dominate whoever matches up with him. Hunter, a likely lottery pick in the upcoming NBA Draft, can take over when needed. He scored 18 points in the second en route to a career-high 26 against Louisville and has scored over 20 on eight separate occasions. The Cavaliers need an aggressive Hunter to set the tone early.

Ty Jerome. Jerome struggled in two ACC Tournament games in Charlotte, but he has fonder memories of Columbia, where he scored 25 points in a regular-season meeting with the South Carolina Gamecocks. Jerome is the conductor of Virginia’s offense — both a terrific passer and an outstanding shooter. He needs to put last week’s struggles behind him and play his best ball when it matters most.

Jack Salt/Mamadi Diakite/Jay Huff. No matter which of these three is on the floor, they need to establish a post presence offensively. Each will have a massive size advantage and should be able to finish around the rim and dominate the boards. If Virginia can’t get post points, it puts a lot of pressure on the team’s guards.

Three Runnin’ Bulldogs to watch:

David Efianayi. A 6-foot-2 point guard, Efianayi is what makes the team go. He is a good outside shooter but is also adept at getting to the foul line. Efianayi was a second-team All-Big South selection for a second straight year, and he needs to be at his best for the Runnin’ Bulldogs to have a chance.

D.J. Laster. Laster has shown a penchant for coming up big in big moments after he scored a career-high 32 points against Radford in the Big South Tournament championship to help Gardner-Webb punch its ticket to the Big Dance. Laster is primarily an inside scoring threat at 6-foot-6, but he has shown nice touch from the outside as well. As the tallest player in Gardner-Webb’s rotation, Laster must be outstanding on both ends to prevent the Cavaliers from dominating inside.

Jose Perez. A member of the Big South All-Freshman team, Perez is a big guard at 6-foot-5 who can slide into the post against smaller opponents. He’s the team’s second-leading scorer, behind Efianayi, at 15.1 points per game, and he also averages nearly six rebounds.

Kenpom says: Virginia 77-55 (98 percent chance of victory)

Final notes

  • Virginia has two players — Jay Huff and Braxton Key — from North Carolina.
  • Gardner-Webb has no players from Virginia.
  • Virginia is 1-0 all-time against Gardner-Webb thanks to a 72-65 win in 2002.
  • This is Gardner-Webb’s first ever NCAA Tournament appearance.

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Team of Destiny: Inside Virginia Basketball’s Run to the 2019 National Championship, by Jerry Ratcliffe and Chris Graham, is available for $25.

The book, with additional reporting by Zach Pereles, Scott Ratcliffe and Scott German, will take you from the aftermath of the stunning first-round loss to UMBC in 2018, and how coach Tony Bennett and his team used that loss as the source of strength, through to the ACC regular-season championship, the run to the Final Four, and the thrilling overtime win over Texas Tech to win the 2019 national title, the first in school history.

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