If you were making a list of the best college basketball coaches who have yet to make it to the Final Four, Virginia’s Tony Bennett would have to be at or near the top.
Bennett’s coaching prowess has been on full display this season. After losing his three most experienced backcourt players from last season, this was supposed to be a rebuilding year in Charlottesville with the Cavs in the middle of the pack in the ACC.
Instead, Virginia is arguably playing as well as anybody in the nation and right now have to be considered the favorites to win the ACC. But is this the year the Cavs can get back to the Final Four for the first time since 1984?
It’s becoming easier to think this might be one of UVA’s best shots under Bennett, who has been to two Sweet 16’s and an Elite Eight in his career. Unlike several previous seasons, it’s hard to think of many teams that present obvious matchup issues for the Cavs.
Last season, Virginia struggled to find consistent scoring and opponents that put a lot of defensive pressure on the perimeter could disrupt everything the Cavs wanted to do offensively.
Not so this year. Virginia has several offensive weapons capable of going off for big games, particularly in the backcourt. Kyle Guy and Ty Jerome have range far beyond the three-point line, which has extended defenses and opened up the lane for big men Isaiah Wilkins, Mamadi Diakite and Jack Salt. Meanwhile, Devon Hall and De’Andre Hunter seem to get to the rim with ease.
Defensively, the Hoos are as good as ever, evident Saturday when Virginia once again held North Carolina under 50 points. According to KenPom, UVA ranks No. 1 nationally in defensive efficiency.
If there’s a vulnerability, perhaps it’s handling an aggressive full court press. The Cavs lone loss thus far came against that style at West Virginia. Of course, both the Hoos and Mountaineers are both ranked in the AP top-three this week; a rematch on a neutral court might be a pick ‘em affair.
Two seasons back
When the Malcolm Brogdon-led Cavaliers blew a double-digit second half lead to Syracuse in the 2016 Elite Eight, there was a sense among some Virginia may have squandered the best opportunity at a Final Four it was bound to get for the foreseeable future.
But given the overall youth of the UVA roster, it’s looking more like 2016-17 was the aberration and the Cavs should be frequent contenders, even without a superstar the caliber of Brogdon. Remember, Virginia’s last Final Four came just after losing Ralph Sampson to the NBA.
This year’s Virginia team seems to have what it takes, and with a coach like Bennett it’s really a matter of when, not if, his team will play on the final weekend of the season.