What To Do With Virginia?

Perhaps the most difficult decision of the entire bracket will be to determine how much impact star guard and leading scorer Justin Anderson’s injury will have upon the chances of Virginia. Anderson was sidelined for eight games following a broken pinky finger on his left (shooting) hand. Shortly before he was scheduled to return, he underwent an appendectomy that kept him out the final week of the season. In his return to action in the ACC tournament, he appeared lifeless,  ‎going scoreless over 26 minutes of action in two games and missing all six of his shots.

Let’s attempt to measure the impact of one single player. Before Anderson’s injury, Virginia was one of the most balanced teams in the nation, a finely tuned machine on both sides of the ball that operated surgically on offense, working carefully to create high percentage shots and crashing the boards when those shots missed. As the #9 AdjOff and #1 AdjDef, Virginia was the only team besides Kentucky to be own a top ten efficiency profile on both sides of the ball.

The impact of ‎ Anderson’s injury upon Virginia’s offensive production can’t be understated, and is actually quite remarkable considering he is just one player. Virginia’s offense ranked #9th in AdjOff before his injury but finished the season ranked #26. Interpolating this for the eight games he missed, we can conclude that without Anderson, Virginia operated with an offense in the #75 range while he was unable to play, an absolutely stunning departure in terms of efficiency.

The good news for Virginia is that a similar scenario was not the case on defense, as they maintained the #1 AdjDef ranking despite Anderson’s absence. This alone is enough to qualify them as a Tier 3 Final Four contender regardless of their offense. However, the difference in the probability of actually making the Final Four between ‎the Tier 1 profile that Virginia once showed and the Tier 3 profile that they showed down the stretch is substantial.

The committee didn’t exactly do the Cavaliers any favors either. After spending most of the season a virtual lock for a one seed, winning the ACC regular season outright with a 16-2 record, a couple of stumbles late were enough to delegate them to a two seed. But worse than that, the committee added arguably the toughest 7 seed in Michigan State as a potential second round matchup, and easily the toughest 3 seed in Oklahoma, a Tier 2 Final Four contender, in the Sweet 16. The Spartans put Virginia out of the tournament last year, and the Sooners boast an AdjDef of #5, which could spell trouble if the Virginia offense endures the types of scoring droughts they have suffered from without Anderson at full strength.

‎Now, time to look at some positives. For one, although Virginia may have lost a seed line by losing to North Carolina in the ACC Tournament, an argument could be made that that was the best thing that could have happened to them. Anderson gets a full week to get healthier now and Virginia merely has to get through one hard game against Michigan State before he gets another week to get healthier. Also, the team they are most likely to face in the Regional Final, Villanova, actually presents a favorable matchup for Virginia. Villanova is a team that thrives on three point shooting, but Virginia’s defense has held opponents to .303 shooting from beyond the arc, the 7th best of any team in the tournament.

Another element of Virginia’s game that gives them matchup advantages is their ability to rebound. They rank third among tourney teams in total rebounding percentage, while Oklahoma is actually the ninth worst rebounding team in the tourney by that metric. Virginia also is very careful with the basketball, ranking sixth among tourney teams in least turnovers‎ per possession. It should also be noted that while technically a Tier 2 team, Oklahoma’s AdjO, at #50, ranks at the extreme outer cusp to meet that criteria. Even with Anderson at less than 100%, one would expect Virginia’s offense to be operating on at least an equal level to that, and with the Virginia defense superior to Oklahoma’s, we can expect the Cavaliers to pull this one out.

Conclusion: Virginia’s offense goes as Justin Anderson goes. At 100% effectiveness, they are a bonafide national title contender; with an offense operating like the 75th best in the nation, they figure to get a tough test in the second round regardless of how good their defense is. The answer probably lies somewhere in the middle. But while their top-ranked defense and solid rebounding probably are good enough to carry them through some tough early matchups, Anderson’s production will be the determining factor as to whether they ultimately challenge for the title. This is truly anyone’s guess, but given the nature of the human body as it pertains to being injured (it heals with time), I’m going to take a shot on him improving steadily as the tournament goes on. At the very least, he should make more of an impact than he did in the ACC tournament, and with veteran teammates hungry to avenge last year’s Sweet 16 defeat combined with one of the best offensive coaching schemes and defenses in the land, bet against Virginia at your own peril.

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