BC-BKC--NCAA-South Region Preview
COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — Virginia has watched the motivational pick-me-up videos. The players have relived the loss when they are too tired to do one more drill at practice. And the Cavaliers have finally answered the last question about being the first No. 1 seed to lose in a NCAA Tournament game before getting a chance to redeem themselves.
On Friday, 370 days after the stunning 20-point loss to UMBC, Virginia (29-3) gets to take the court again as a top seed, this time against Gardner-Webb.
“We’re ready to put on a show so we can talk about something else,” junior guard Kyle Guy said.
Virginia coach Tony Bennett’s rehabilitation plan started with a motivational video about how a setback can open the door for something greater. “If you learn to use it right, it can buy a ticket to a place that you couldn’t have gone any other way,” Bennett said.
Kyle and his teammates used the loss as motivation anytime a practice seemed too tough.
“Whenever somebody is tired or you’re trying to fight through a rep or take a play off or something, I always think back to that,” Guy said.
The draw did Virginia as few favors as a No. 1 seed can get. Gardner-Webb is the best of the 16th seeds, according to the NCAA’s NET rankings, and won on the road at both Georgia Tech and Wake Forest.
The Runnin’ Bulldogs (23-11) beat the No. 1 and the No. 2 seeds in the Big South Tournament on their home floors to get to their first ever NCAA Tournament.
In their first practice after winning the conference tournament, Gardner-Webb coach Tim Craft showed his team clips of the great NCAA Tournament upsets of the past 20 years, including that UMBC win.
“Hey, anything can happen in this tournament. That’s why this tournament is great. Let’s get focused on preparing to play the best we can play,” Craft said.
Virginia still has the same methodical game plan and stifling defense as it had last season. No one allows fewer points a game. The biggest difference in this Cavaliers team is an improved offense, ranked second in adjusted offensive efficiency (points per 100 possessions) by KenPom.com.
Gardner-Webb can’t get anxious and nervous when the Virginia vise starts to tighten, Craft said,
“If we come out and play tight, we’ve got no shot,” Craft said.
MISSISSIPPI VS. OKLAHOMA
The 8/9 game in the South region matches up a couple of teams that stumbled into the tournament.
No. 8 Mississippi (20-12) lost five of its last seven, while ninth-seeded Oklahoma (19-13) lost eight of its last 12 games. Both lost their conference tournament openers.
While Rebels coach Kermit Davis would have like to play deeper into the Southeastern Conference Tournament, the eight days off have been a blessing.
“The last couple of days — a little fresher legs and fresh minds,” Davis said.
Ole Miss is returning to the tournament in Davis’ first season for the first time since 2015. The Sooners have been three times in the past four years, including a Final Four appearance in 2016.
Four players remain from that Oklahoma team, including Jamuni McNease. The 6-foot-10 senior center has struggled with ankle and foot problems, playing more than 20 minutes in just one game since November.
Kruger said McNease practiced at full speed this week for the first time in a long time.
“He wants to go, and we’ll certainly throw him in there and see how he feels,” Kruger said.
Where Virginia ends up in the NCAA bracket, upsets follow.
In the past five years, a seven seed or worse has won the Cavaliers region. Last season it was No. 11 Loyola-Chicago.
Virginia has been a No. 1 seed in four of its past six NCAAs.
The journey to the NCAA Tournament has been such a whirlwind that Iowa forward Nicholas Baer confused where he was with who he was playing.
Baer said he and the Hawkeyes were “really looking forward to this opportunity to play in Cincinnati, and hope we’ll be here for a while.”
A reported said: “It’s Columbus, you knew that?”
Baer recovered: “I did know that.”
The Hawkeyes do play Cincinnati in the first round, though, on Friday afternoon at Nationwide Arena in Ohio’s capital city.