Virginia starts NCAA title defense against Ohio

·3 min read

Nearly denied an opportunity to defend its national championship for a second straight season, Virginia heads into the NCAA Tournament under less-than-ideal circumstances.

Seeded fourth in the West Region, the Cavaliers (18-6) will face No. 13 seed Ohio (16-7) on Saturday night in Bloomington, Ind.

Most of Virginia's players have been in quarantine since Friday, when the Atlantic Coast Conference regular-season champs had to withdraw from the ACC tournament semifinals after a positive COVID-19 test put their NCAA Tournament availability in jeopardy.

The Cavaliers celebrated their NCAA selection on Sunday over Zoom. They won't practice together until Thursday and won't travel to Indiana until Friday, according to head coach Tony Bennett.

"This is such a unique and strange year," Bennett said. "It is what it is, but we're getting a chance to go down there and get ready, and we'll make the most of it, for sure (while) respecting who we're playing."

They're playing a Bobcats team that defeated Buffalo, 84-69, in the Mid-American Conference championship game last Saturday in Cleveland.

Ohio is making its first appearance in the NCAA Tournament since making a run to the Sweet 16 in 2012, when the Bobcats defeated Michigan and South Florida before falling to North Carolina.

Ohio's season was interrupted multiple times by the pandemic, including a three-week layoff in February and a nearly two-week break at the start of this month.

"I'm a proud coach and I know that we made a lot of people in Bobcat Nation happy," second-year coach Jeff Boals said after beating Buffalo. "The most proud I am of this group is their character. What they've been able to go through this last month and a half to get to this point."

The balanced Bobcats have five players scoring in double figures, led by MAC tournament MVP Jason Preston with 16.6 points, 7.2 assists and 6.8 rebounds per game. Dwight Wilson averages 14.9 points, followed by Ben Vander Plas (12.8), Ben Roderick (12.4) and Lunden McDay (10.3).

"My dad and my sister both played in the NCAA Tournament," Vander Plas said. "For the both of them, it's their greatest basketball memory. To be able to do it with this team, I'm just so excited."

Ohio isn't likely to be intimidated by Virginia. Back on Nov. 27, the Bobcats took Illinois -- a No. 1 seed and now the No. 2 team in the country -- down to the wire in a 77-75 loss in Champaign, Ill.

The 15th-ranked Cavaliers are led by Sam Hauser (16.0 points, 6.7 rebounds) and 7-foot-1 Jay Huff (13.1 points, 7.1 boards, 2.6 blocks). Trey Murphy III (11.3) is the only other player averaging in double figures for a Virginia team that is finally getting a chance to defend its 2019 title. The 2020 NCAA Tournament was canceled due to the pandemic.

"Our guys earned this opportunity," Bennett said. "We go in grateful, humbly, and we'll be as ready as we can, given the circumstances."

Ohio is 2-1 all-time against Virginia. The Bobcats won the most recent meeting, 78-72, at home on Feb. 26, 2003.

--Field Level Media