Urban legend has it, if you search deep enough in the recesses of Tony Bennett’s office, tucked away in a dark secret corner you can find a hidden Tom Izzo voodoo doll. The doll obsessively punctured over and over again by Bennett, hoping to return some of the pain Michigan State has inflicted on him and Virginia the past two seasons.
Since being brought on as Virginia’s Head Coach in 2009, Bennett has led the Cavaliers on a climb from afterthought to perennial powerhouse. The Cavaliers officially crashed into the ACC elite two years ago when they registering their first 30-win campaign since 1983, en route to capturing both the ACC regular season and ACC tournament titles. They repeated as regular season champs in 2015 and remain in the hunt for a three-peat heading into the final week of league play. Though as charmed as their run has been, Virginia has yet to make any serious noise in the NCAA tournament.
That’s where the Izzo doll comes in. The Cavaliers have seen their Final Four aspirations flushed down the drain in upset losses to Michigan State two years in a row. In 2014, there was a gut wrenching 61-59 Sweet 16 defeat. Last season saw an even earlier exit, when 7-seed Michigan State ousted then 2-seeded Virginia in the round of 32. Another early round matchup between the two teams seems unlikely. Both Virginia and Michigan State are in contention to be seeded one or two in this year’s March Madness. Any potential matchup would have to wait until at least the Elite Eight, a fact I’m certain the Cavaliers will not be shedding any tears over.
Despite posting a less shimmering win-loss record this time around, the Cavaliers remain confident and a definite title contender. Some, including leading scorer Malcolm Brogdon, even think the Cavs might draw benefit from the additional setbacks.
“I definitely think we’re better equipped,” noted Brogdon, “I think we have a more mature, experienced team. I think we have a team that’s evolved and that’s learned from past experiences of having a great regular season and then relaxing in the post season.”
The residual experience of past March failures isn’t the only factor that could boost this squad’s chances of a deeper NCAA tournament run. Much renowned for their stingy defense, the difference this year could be an improved Cavaliers offense.
“Last year we lived off of our success, we always won we were 16-1(in conference). When you lose and you struggle then you learn. We realize how fine of a line it is with this year, having lost and struggled in some tough games… We’ve learned a lot through the wins and probably more through the losses,” Bennett added.
Virginia is scoring at it’s highest clip of the Tony Bennett era, averaging 71 points per game. Noticeably better shooting efficiency has certainly helped the cause. As a team, the Cavaliers have improved overall and from behind the arc. They currently make 49 percent of their shots from the field and knock down 40 percent from three. Both eclipse last year’s totals of 45 percent overall and 35 percent from downtown. Not too shabby, considering they are besting a crew that a posted a dominant 30-4 record.
The Cavaliers rise in team scoring and shooting percentage has mirrored vast improvements by two of Virginia’s main cogs. Senior leader Malcolm Brogdon has continued his steady ascent; bumping his scoring to 18.5 points per game, up from his 14-point clip last season. In addition to his exploits as a defensive stopper, Brogdon has become a dead eye from deep, stroking threes at a career high 41.5 percent.
Junior Point Guard London Perrantes smoothly operates the offense and serves as a safety valve when needed. Perrantes is contributing 11 points and 4.4 assists per game. He’s also dropping bombs at an insane 51 percent from three point range. He and Brogdon’s prolific sniping have been paramount in the offenses development.
Virginia’s March Madness fate will likely be determined by the team’s ability to hit two magic numbers, 70 and 60. The Cavaliers are 13-0 this season when scoring more than 70 points. Additionally Virginia is 14-0 when holding their opponents under 60 points.
Virginia yet again has Final Four ambitions. Boasting an improved offense, rugged defense, and being battle tested from past failures, the Cavaliers have the makeup to fulfill their title dreams. This could be the year Virginia finally breaks through. If not, it’s back to stabbing the Izzo doll for coach Tony Bennett.