OU-UVA: Ohio takes aim at another magical March moment

It’s not hyperbole to say the Bobcats haven’t faced a team like Virginia all season.

But no, the question isn’t if Ohio can knock off the Cavaliers on Saturday night in the first round of the 2021 NCAA Tournament. The ‘Cats are capable, and Virginia is dealing with circumstances that may impact how sharp it will be in the West Regional matchup.

The question is can OU conjure up the right formula to crack an opponent that is traditionally capable of mucking up any offensive game plan, has a newfound sharpness offensively to win at that end of the floor, and has the experience drawn from a national title run in 2019.

Dwight Wilson III and Ohio face Virginia in the 2021 NCAA Tournament on Saturday, March 20 at Assembly Hall in Bloomington, Ind. Photo courtesy of Ohio Athletics/Midge Mazur

Tip off in the West Regional first-round game between Ohio (16-7) and Virginia (18-6) — a No. 13 seed vs. No. 4 matchup — is set for 7:15 p.m. at Assembly Hall in Bloomington, Ind. The game will be broadcast nationally on truTV.

UVA head coach Tony Bennett will be coaching in his 500th career game, and the first thing associated with the long-time coach is his infamous Pack Line defense. The approach gets results. Bennett’s teams at Virginia have never allowed more than 63 points per game in a season. This year UVA gave up just 60.5 points a game, good for sixth in the country.

Bennett, whose father is the namesake for Ohio forward Ben Vander Plas, has made the Pack Line dreaded factor in the ACC.

It’s an approach that should be familiar to Ohio fans. Former coach Saul Phillips used many of the same precepts in Athens during his five-year run. Current coach Jeff Boals has continued to emphasize many of the concepts included in a Pack Line defense; when Boals talks about ‘covering gaps’ that’s a core principle straight from the same defensive playbook.

This season UVA ranked 33rd nationally in the KenPom.com defensive efficiency rankings. But it’s more than good defense that helps keep scores down. The ‘Hoos are also the ‘slowest’ team in the country (357th out of 357 Division I teams) when it comes to tempo. This means UVA games feature the lowest possession count in the entire country at just 60.1 per game.

Ohio, for comparison, averages 69.3 possessions. UVA also checks in in the top 10th percentile in both average possession length (20.3 seconds) and average opponent possession length (18.7 seconds). The Cavaliers take their time nearly every trip down the floor, and the defense gives up few quick, easy looks to the opposition.

Good defense, plus a slow pace, means low scores. Against Virginia, every possession matters a little more.

“They don’t beat themselves,” Boals said. “They know what they do and they do it extremely well.

“Especially in the last 12 seconds on the shot clock, you have to engage even more.”

Junior point guard Jason Preston was even more direct.

“We just have to lock in,” he said. “Take every possession like its’ our last, we’ll have a good chance to move on.”

To be successful offensively, Ohio will have to be patient, disciplined and balanced. Forwards Dwight Wilson III (14.9 ppg) and Ben Vander Plas (12.8) will need consistent post touches. Preston will need to be decisive in his decision making. And wings Ben Roderick (12.4) and Lunden McDay (10.3) will have to make open jumpers when they’re there.

“They tend to make you a jump-shooting team,” Boals said. “They make you shoot tough 2s.”

Virginia’s length will as deep as anything Ohio has seen all season. Jay Huff (7-foot-1) and Francisco Caffaro (7-0) give the ‘Hoos two 7-footers in the rotation. Forwards Trey Murphy III (6-9), Sam Hauser (6-8) and Justin McKoy (6-8) mean UVA will have 3 ‘bigs’ on the floor most of the time.

There’s reason to believe Ohio can create some opportunities however. Ohio was a good offensive team all season – at 113.7 points per 100 possessions OU checks in at No. 29 nationally. The Bobcats also rank 13th in the country in effective FG percentage (55.8) and 23rd in assists on made field goals (59.8 percent).

Ohio passes the ball well, and gets makeable shots that it has knocked in most of the year. It’s a sharpness that will be tested.

“And then you have to find other things, in transition or on the offensive glass, to give yourselves some chances at easy scores,” Boals said.

If Ohio can generate good offense, it will still have to limit a UVA offense that has been uber-efficient as well. The Cavs ranked 12th with 116.3 points per 100 possessions, and in the top 20 in free throw shooting, 2-point shooting, 3-point shooting and effective FG percentage.

Hauser (16.0 ppg), Huff (13.1) and Murphy give UVA three double-digit scorers. Ohio’s interior depth hasn’t been a strong suit this season, and the ‘Hoos could be poised to punish OU on the glass and in the paint.

The ‘Cats, who have played like a top 30 team over the last 10 games of the season, haven’t faced as efficient an offense all season.

“We know they’re one of the best teams in the country, one of the best defensive teams in the country,” Preston said. “It’s not going to be a walk-in-the-park game no matter the circumstances.

“We’re going to be ready.”

In the intangibles department, it’s tough to judge. UVA will have a massive experience edge, as it has four players with experience from the title team in ’19, a national title winner as head coach, and five players with NCAA experience.

But Virginia has also been unsettled since a positive COVID-19 test knocked them out of the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament. UVA spent the week quarantining and meeting via Zoom in Charlottesville, and didn’t even arrive in Indianapolis until Friday. Bennett will have just one on-court practice to get his team ready, IF there are no further COVID complications.

And no one is sure yet who will be out for the Cavaliers, or how the rotation might be complicated.

“Not ideal,” Bennett said.

Ohio will playing in the tournament for the first time since 2012, but does have solid institutional history. OU became a first-weekend darling with a pair of wins in 2012, sprung a 14-vs-3 upset in 2010, and took Florida to the brink in a first-round matchup in 2005.

And the Bobcats simply don’t know what they don’t know. They’ve picked up some backing as a popular first-round upset pick. They’re playing free and loose. And they’ve had a full week of on-court work to get ready.

With a talent in Jason Preston dictating the terms, balance, confidence as a terrific recent track record, the Bobcats are preparing to win. Five double-digit seeds won on Friday in the first round; OU believes at least one more will be added on Saturday at Assembly Hall.

“It’s a dream come true. I’m very excited for the opportunity,” Preston said. “This is all kind of new to us. We’re all just young and excited.”

Boals spent the week handling every interview and story pitch thrown his way. He appreciates the opportunity to showcase his current team, and his alma mater. He would relish the chance to continue to tell the Bobcats’ story another couple of days with a victory.

“It’s a great group of guys. They’re loose, they’re confident,” the coach said. “I’d rather have that than the alternative coming into this.”

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