UVA Basketball: Three keys for Virginia to go far in March

uva basketballVirginia knows what March disappointment feels like. The Cavaliers experienced it a few days ago with a 69-59 loss to Florida State in the ACC Tournament semifinals, which sent the regular-season champs home a day earlier than expected. There are plenty of reasons the Seminoles came out on top — superior shooting and a much-improved defensive gameplan are two to start — but it really comes back to something Tony Bennett has stressed to his players: playing possession-by-possession. The Seminoles were better on both ends on a possession-by-possession basis. The Cavaliers scored more than four consecutive points just three times on Friday; the Seminoles did it five times.

For Virginia, one of the most consistent possession-by-possession teams in the regular season, to carry that consistency to the NCAA Tournament a few things need to happen.

Ty Jerome’s return to form will be crucial.

When Jerome registered 24 points against Louisville in the final regular-season game, Virginia was looking to be in good hands considering good guard play wins in March.

Then Jerome produced consecutive offensive duds. Against NC State, he made just one shot, a breakaway layup after a steal, but fellow guard Kyle Guy came to the rescue with 29 points on the strength of seven three-pointers.

Looking for a bounceback effort against Florida State, Jerome had anything but. He missed all five of his first-half attempts and finished 4 of 13. The final numbers from Charlotte will not make Jerome happy: 5 for 24 shooting and just 12 points, the fewest Jerome totalled in back-to-back games all season

“Sometimes the ball doesn’t go in,” Jerome said Friday. “[I’ll] just go back, get back to Charlottesville, get back in the gym and get ready for our next game.”

Jerome shows many of the qualities a team wants in a lead guard in March. Now a junior, he has plenty of experience. He’s willing to take and able to make big shots. He’s a fierce competitor and, at 6-foot-5, won’t get overwhelmed by big opponents. If he can get his shot going again, Virginia is a completely different team. Maybe the best news for Jerome and his teammates is that they are done with Charlotte — site of last year’s loss to UMBC — for good. The team’s next stop, Columbia, South Carolina, is where Jerome scored a season-high 25 points against the Gamecocks in a non-conference win.

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Mamadi Diakite needs to play better.

For as good as Jack Salt was in two games in Charlotte, Diakite was nearly as bad. After spending much of February blooming into Virginia’s go-to big man, Diakite was nearly unplayable in the ACC Tournament, racking up five fouls — the equivalent of fouling out — in 20 combined minutes in the two games.

Diakite is an emotional player, and that can be a good thing. He played some very good ball in some of Virginia’s most important regular-season games. But on the first postseason stage of the season, Diakite struggled with fouls he has worked so hard during his time at Virginia to limit, including one gruesome, unnecessary finger straight into the eyeball of NC State’s D.J. Funderburk. He seemed, simply, a little to amped up.

The list of reasons Diakite is a key figure for this team is a long one. He’s the quickest big man, which makes him the most versatile defensively. He’s the team’s leading shot blocker. He’s shown the ability to score in one-on-one situations. He’s developed nicely as a pick-and-roll option. On a team that mostly lacks players with outstanding physical tools with NBA athleticism, Diakite has both.

Diakite’s play is a good indicator of how Virginia’s games turn out. In the first loss to Duke and the ACC Tournament loss to Florida State, Diakite really struggled. In the second loss to Duke, Diakite was actually playing well but suffered an injury and played just 10 minutes, leaving the Cavaliers without one of their best athletes against an extremely athletic team. On the other hand, he had strong performances in crucial wins at Louisville and Syracuse and helped carry the offensive load in a Jerome-less win over Miami. He also had a career-high 18 at Boston College to open conference play.

Can Diakite still feed off the energy and emotion of the NCAA Tournament but harness it enough to stay disciplined, focused and, ultimately, effective? That answer will be coming sooner rather than later: He has a 3-inch height advantage over Gardner-Webb’s tallest rotation player.

Is it De’Andre Hunter’s time?

Hunter has seen two March flameouts in his time as a Cavalier but has been unable to stop either. During his first year, which he redshirted, Hunter saw the Cavaliers score just 39 points in a second-round blowout loss to Florida.

Last year, Hunter won ACC Sixth Man of the Year and was quickly becoming one of Virginia’s most indispensable players before he broke his wrist in an ACC Tournament semifinal against Clemson. After playing in the following game, a championship win over North Carolina, the full extent of the injury was revealed, and Hunter was done for the year. Again, he could only watch as the Cavaliers fell to UMBC.

Hunter is usually pretty reserved during interviews, using a low monotone to answer questions. But last week, when asked about how he felt to finally be on track to help his team try to win a national championship, he perked up, his eyes lit up and a smile crept onto his face. Hunter is undoubtedly a huge part of what sets this Virginia team apart from others. He’ll be lottery-bound in the NBA Draft if he leaves after this season. Bennett has never had that in Charlottesville.

Hunter has put his superb talent level on display several times throughout the season, none more impressive than his career-high 26 points against Louisville in which he outscored the Cardinals by himself in the second half, 18-15.

All that ability doesn’t matter if he’s not aggressive, though. Against Florida State on Friday, he went over nine minutes at one point in the second half without a field goal attempt. Virginia went from up 43-42 to down 62-53. In a win-or-go-home situation, teams need their best players every possession, and if there’s a close game as the game reaches crunch time, Hunter can be the difference. Few teams have a player of his talent level and physical skills. In the six-game quest for a championship, there are times when you need a player who can carry you offensively. Hunter has shown he can be that guy. Should the situation arise, he’ll need to show it again.

Story by Zach Pereles


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