The NCAA Tournament is set to tip off later than usual this year due to the pandemic, with the First Four tipping on Thursday, while the rest of the tournament is set to start at noon Eastern on Friday.
As much as we’ll miss sneaking in glances at tournament games in the middle of the week from the work computer (the NCAA website still has the boss button available if you want to feel that twinge of nostalgia,) the tournament being wrapped around the weekend makes the first round that much more watchable, which means more names have the potential to be introduced to more households.
The Ohio Bobcats have been a favorite to pull off an upset in media this week after several electric performances in the MAC Championship Tournament, and will be setting to face the defending national champion Virginia Cavaliers, who are currently ranked 16th in the Associated Press Top 25.
The eyes of the country will be upon this game, as Virginia has proven upset-prone in the past (hello, UMBC) and the MAC has proven a consistent first-round threat in recent years thanks to Buffalo (hello, Arizona,) so suffice to say this could make or break some brackets, as many amateur bracketologists have likely chosen this game as their 4-13 upset.
#13 Ohio Bobcats (16-7, 9-5 MAC) vs #4 Virginia Cavaliers (18-6, 13-4 ACC)
- When: Saturday, March 20th at 7:15 p.m. EST
- Watch: TruTV (a valid cable subscription is required for viewing)
- Where: Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall, in Bloomington, Indiana.
- Odds: Virginia is an 85.9 percent favorite to advance to the Round of 32, per ESPN’s Power Index.
Ohio Quick Facts (regular season stats):
- Points scored: 80.2
- Points allowed: 73.7
- Rebounds (Off/Def): 34.5 (9.6/24.9)
- Assists: 18.1 (5th in the NCAA)
- Last tournament appearance: 2012 (Sweet 16)
- Head coach: Jeff Boals, third season in Ohio (first NCAA appearance)
Virginia Quick Facts (regular season stats):
- Points scored: 68.6
- Points allowed: 60.46
- Rebounds (Off/Def): 31.75 (8.7/23.2)
- Assists: 13.9
- Last tournament appearance: 2019 (National Champion)
- Head coach: Tony Bennett, 12th season in Virginia, 15th overall (11th NCAA appearance)
The Bobcats come into the game winners of six of the last seven games they’ve played, dating back to Feb. 2, and took down three of the four top seeds en route to clinching the regular season bid, including the #1 overall seed Toledo Rockets in the semi-finals.
The reason for such a big window of games? A COVID outbreak severely affected the Bobcats’ schedule, with five straight games cancelled in mid-February, and issues with other teams cancelling two games at the beginning of March. The cancellation period in March was well-timed, coming off a loss to Buffalo. After that, they got healthy (as they dealt with regular injuries as well) and reeled off their tournament run.
They’re hot at the right time, and have a dangerous offense to boot, which tends to be the recipe for successful mid-major runs in the NCAA tournament. The ‘Cats are efficient from the floor, scoring on 48.9 percent of field goals overall, including 36.1 percent from three-point range, and excel at distributing the ball, averaging 17.9 assists per game (sixth in the nation.) They’re also pretty good at creating second-chance opportunities, averaging 8.7 offensive rebounds per game. If there’s one weakness in their offensive game, Ohio shoots 70.1 percent from the charity stripe, which could come back to haunt them in a close game.
Defensively, the Bobcats allow 73.7 points per game (253rd in the nation), which is a bit concerning considering how they operate offensively, but they make up for it with pressure, picking up 6.8 steals and 24 defensive rebounds per game on average.
The Cavaliers, winners of the 2019 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament, are still considered the national champions, as the 2020 edition of the tournament was cancelled due to the start of the coronavirus outbreak, and once again look to be a tough out for any team which should come across them.
Virginia comes into the game on a bit of a hot streak, winning three-straight games coming into their game against Ohio. They beat Syracuse via buzzer-beater in the first round of the ACC Tournament , and were set to play eventual tournament champion Georgia Tech, but were forced to withdraw due to a positive COVID test. The Cavaliers have apparently been unable to practice due to a subsequent quarantine, per reports, and won’t arrive in Indianapolis until Friday afternoon, which could be something to keep an eye on moving forward.
Virginia had to crawl back into the good graces of the AP poll, as prior to their three-game win streak, they had lost three straight conference games, so Friday could be a case of which Virginia shows up to play.
The Cavaliers aren’t the highest-scoring offense, but they’re still efficient, making 48 percent of their field goals, including 38.1 percent of their three-point attempts. They also sink 80.1 percent of their free throws, collect 13.8 assists per game and don’t turn the ball over terribly often, with 9.4 turnovers, creating a 1.48 assists-to-turnover ratio.
Defensively, Virginia is one of the best teams in the country, with a scoring defense of 60.4 points (sixth-best in the country.) They hold teams to about 42 percent from the field per game, and average 4.2 blocks and 24 defensive rebounds per game as well. Their defensive margin is dictated by their ability to set their half-court offense. When the offense is creating the pace of the game, it allows the Cavs to set up their defense and force teams off their pace.
Players to Watch
Jason Preston is the talisman of the Ohio effort, and has been tabbed as one of the “mid-major players to watch” by all the traditional outlets. It’s for good reason; Preston is a first-team all-MAC guard, averaging 17.7 points per game, 6.7 rebounds and 6.9 assists per game in the 2020-21 season. He posted two excellent games in Cleveland to secure the automatic berth, including a perfect shooting night for 27 points vs. Kent State, and had a showing-out vs. tournament favorite Illinois, with 31 points, 8 assists and 6 rebounds in the 77-75 loss.
Ben van der Plas is the other guard for the ‘Cats, and he’s nothing to shake a stick either, averaging 12.8 points, 5.7 rebounds and 3.8 assists per game. He’s also the starting team’s best free-throw shooter, averaging 78.4 percent per game from the charity stripe.
Dwight Wilson III is the frontcourt presence for the Bobcats, and is their most efficient scorer in the paint, averaging 14.9 points and 7.5 rebounds per game, while shooting 65.6 percent from the floor.
Marquette transfer Sam Hauser is the Cavs’ leading scorer, averaging 16 points, 6.7 rebounds, 1.8 assists per game, shooting 51.8 percent from the floor, including an incredible 43.4 percent from beyond the arc. At six-foot-eight, 218 lbs., Hauser, a first-team all-ACC forward, will prove to be a matchup problem, as his size and shooting ability will test the limits of Ohio’s defenses.
Joining Hauser in the frontcourt is the seven-foot-one, 240 lbs. Jeff Huff, a second-team all-ACC forward. Huff is the most efficient of Virginia’s players from the field, converting 59.7 percent of his shots, including 40.3 percent from three-point range. He averages 13.1 points, 7 rebounds, an assist and 2.6 blocks per game
Trey Murphy III leads the offense from the guard position, averaging 11.3 points per game, 3.4 rebounds and 1.3 assists per game, while shooting 50.5 percent from the floor, including 42.9 percent from three-point range (second amongst UVA starters) and a team-leading 92.7 percent free-throw percentage.
Oddly enough, there’s actually a common opponent between Ohio and Virginia: Kent State.
The Cavs scheduled Kent State as a out-of-conference test back in December, and they had to sweat it out, as the Golden Flashes crawled their way back into the game in the second half after relinquishing a brief lead to tie the game at the buzzer. Virginia eventually came back to win in overtime thanks to a 9-2 run in the extra period.
The Bobcats, meanwhile, went 1-1 against KSU, with another scheduled game cancelled. They lost their first game by a score of 89-79 at home. In the second meeting, Ohio dunked all over the Flashes (albeit a depleted version of the team missing two starters due to “undisclosed reasons” prior to the game) in the MAC Championship Tournament, running away with a 85-63 win which wasn’t as close as the score might indicate.
In their games against a full-strength Kent State, both teams showed different sides. Virginia kept up in a back-and-forth game full of runs, while Ohio fell behind early and had to rally just to being the score to within 10.
Ultimately, consistency is going to be the key to success, and right now, Ohio has looked extremely consistent in their recent matches. Most importantly, they’re also healthy and have a week of practices under their belt, something Virginia won’t be coming into Friday’s game.
All said, however, Virginia has incredible size, especially in the frontcourt, and that could be a struggle for a team which hasn’t seen many forwards over six-foot-ten.
It’ll be close, but the seed history isn’t favorable to the 13-seed; the fourth-seed holds a 111-29 advantage in historical matchups. This means Virginia will likely advance, but in a year where the only thing to expect is the unexpected, this game is still a strong candidate for an upset pick.