The UVA Cavaliers came out of nowhere to have an amazing season, claiming the ACC regular season and tournament titles under the guidance of ACC Coach of the Year Tony Bennett. Shortly after beating Duke in the ACC Final, the powers that be gave UVA a #1 seed in the NCAA tournament, snatching a spot that was supposed to belong to Michigan or possibly Villanova. The Cavaliers don't have the star power that some of these other programs do, but their defensive tenacity has earned them their spot, as the numbers will show.
Wild Stat of the Week: 90.7 Defensive Rating for the UVA Cavaliers (8th in the nation)
Every analyst in the world will tell you that once you're in the Big Dance there is an extreme focus on defense and rebounding, the two things Virginia does best. Three of the last four NCAA winners, the outlier being the 2010 Connecticut team, had top 15 defenses. That's as far back as College-Basketball Reference's numbers go for defensive rating, but Kansas's national championship team in 2008 also held opponents to third lowest field-goal percentage in the nation. Clearly defense is one of the most vital parts of winning it all, and the rankings should reflect that. Michigan has a top five offense, but didn't even come close to cracking the top 100 in defense, while Villanova doesn't make it into the top 15 of either category, a fairly unimpressive resume for a would-be #1 seed.
The powers that be actually opted to make all the #1 seeds top 15 defenses, a move I can't imagine was a coincidence on their part. They realized that great defense consistently beats great offense on the biggest stages. Virginia's elite defense was able to lock down Duke's elite offense in the ACC final, and in last year's NCAA final, Louisville's 4th ranked defense defeated Michigan's 3rd ranked offense.
To this point I've only talked about Virginia's defense, but you still don't grab a #1 seed with no offense. As Duke and the rest of the ACC will now attest, there is a lot to worry about on the other side of the floor as well. Virginia doesn't have players who can create their own shot off the dribble, so installing an offense like that of the Kentucky Wildcats, who feature seven McDoanlds All-Americans, makes no sense. Instead of focusing on the dribble-drive, Tony Bennett has installed an offense based off of cuts and picks leading to room for jump shots. Guard Malcom Borgdon is a triple threat as a ball-handler, shooter and rebounder. Fellow guard Joe Harris provides hard defense and extra defense, and forward Akil Mitchell is a high-energy rebounding machine. Their season average of 65.8 points per game is not particularly impressive, but they've shown the ability to up that number against elite competition. In games against North Carolina, Notre Dame, Syracuse, and Duke the Cavaliers scored 76, 70, 75, and 72 respectively, all in wins.
Virginia has a relatively easy path to the Final Four, most likely meeting Michigan State in the Sweet 16 and either Villanova or Iowa State in the Elite Eight. Michigan State is a dark horse candidate for the Final Four, but none of the teams they are likely to face have the elite talent of a Kentucky or Kansas whom other #1 seeds will most likely have to get by on their way to the Final Four. Virginia earned their #1 seed, but now have the pressure of keeping their intense level of play up over the tournament and at least making the Final Four. The Cavaliers haven't made it past the second round of the NCAA Tournament since 1995, but the 2014 model is prepared to reestablish UVA as a powerhouse and make a deep run and find themselves in Arlington for this year's Final Four.