Can Virginia redeem itself this year? That’s one of many intriguing story lines in this region.
Team to beat
A year after Virginia became the first No. 1 seed to lose to a 16-seed (Maryland Baltimore County), look for the Cavaliers to make a different kind of history this season. Tony Bennett’s proficient, highly-seasoned club entered the ACC Tournament ranked first nationally in scoring defense (54.6 ppg) and 3-point defense (27.3 percent), and second in turnovers per game (9.1). Following last year’s embarrassment, the Cavs might also lead the country in incentive. Look for them to make a deep run … assuming they can get past 16-seed Gardner-Webb, that is.
A script made for March
No team in the 68-squad field enters the tournament with a more poignant story line than Old Dominion. In September, sixth-year coach Jeff Jones announced a recurrence of the prostate cancer he initially battled four years ago. On Saturday, cameras captured Jones struggling to remain composed as confetti fell on him following his club’s 62-56 victory against Western Kentucky in the Conference USA tournament final. If sentimentality were a seed, ODU would be on a 1-line. Alas, the Monarchs are a 14 seed trying to knock off Purdue.
Here’s the good news for Tennessee: Auburn isn’t in this region. The Volunteers have only lost five times all season, and two of those defeats came against Auburn over the past nine days, including Sunday’s 20-point blowout in the SEC championship. Without those losses, Tennessee might have been a No. 1 seed. Instead, Rick Barnes’ Vols will settle for a No. 2 seed and a realistic shot at advancing to the program’s first Final Four.
Tampa Bay ties
Kansas State guard Barry Brown has received all kinds of accolades this season. The former Gibbs High standout was named the Big 12 defensive player of the year and was a unanimous first-team conference selection. The senior also led the Wildcats to the Big 12 regular-season title and a No. 4 seed in the South region. If the Wildcats get past No. 13 seed UC Irvine, Brown could potentially face another local, Wisconsin guard Tai Strickland (Tampa Catholic/St. Petersburg) in the next round. Strickland, the son of former NBA guard and USF assistant Rod Strickland, saw limited action during his freshman season.
UC Irvine enters with a 16-game win streak and fresh off a 28-point win over Cal State Fullerton (the largest in Big West Tournament title game history). Leading scorer Max Hazzard (12.5 ppg) was the conference tournament’s MVP and belongs on any all-name bracket. Add in all-Big West forward and defensive stopper Jonathan Galloway, and the Anteaters could challenge Kansas State in the first round.