South Region No. 1 Virginia had to deal with some pressure as the 2019 NCAA Tournament began, thanks to the team’s surprising exit from last year’s event. After taking care of Gardner-Webb on Friday, Tony Bennett’s Cavaliers extended their tournament stay with an 63-51 win over No. 9 Oklahoma Sunday night in Columbia, South Carolina.
The key was an adjustment that Bennett made to his rotation, inserting Mamadi Diakite into the starting lineup in place of Jack Salt. To defend a team with front court players like Oklahoma’s, sophomore Brady Manek and senior Kristian Doolittle, a more mobile option was needed and Diakite fit the mold. Manek finished with 13 points — all scored in the first half — and Doolittle was limited to eight on 4-for-10 shooting.
Braxton Key and Jack Salt, who combined to score 14 points and grab 11 rebounds, gave Virginia good minutes off the bench as the Cavaliers stymied a team that scored 95 points in its first round win over Ole Miss.
Diakite’s presence gave Virginia the ability to defend Kristian Doolittle with just one man as opposed to having to send help, which would not have been the case with a less mobile big man. Not only did Diakite block three shots, but he also scored 14 points and grabbed nine rebounds to lead the way. Not a bad outing two days removed from his 17-point effort against Gardner-Webb.
Ty Jerome added 12 points with three assists and three steals for Virginia, which will play either No. 12 Oregon or No. 13 UC Irvine in next week’s regional semifinals in Louisville.
Virginia can go eight deep — they essentially went seven on Sunday with Salt playing just a handful of minutes — and this lineup has more versatility than last year’s did. The 7-foot-1 Huff is a mobile big who can knock down perimeter shots, and the additions of Key and Kihei Clark have also been important. Those players were all factors at various points this weekend, helping to make up for the fact that Kyle Guy has gone cold from the field.
In Columbia the junior guard shot 4-for-23 from the field in Virginia’s two wins, and that includes an 0-for-10 night from three against Oklahoma. For some teams, having your best shooter struggle to this extent would essentially guarantee a loss. That’s not the case for Virginia, which in addition to its stout defense can now call upon multiple players capable of picking up the slack.
With Virginia out of the first weekend for the first time since 2016, there will be chatter about Tony Bennett’s program getting the proverbial monkey off of its back. And in that regard this team could be similar to Villanova’s 2016 national title team, which also had to deal with the stigma that can come with early tournament exits.
There will still be pressure for Virginia to deal with, especially with a double-digit seed being their opponent in the Sweet 16. But this team has the personnel needed to deal with it, as they showed in the win over Oklahoma.