- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 12, 2017

Virginia heads south to Orlando as one of the guys this time, not a favorite with pressure to push its way to the Final Four.

The Cavaliers are a No. 5 seed this season and will play a dangerous and 12th-seeded UNC-Wilmington team on Thursday at 12:40 p.m. as part of the East Region of the NCAA Tournament.

It’s a shift for Virginia. In two of the last three seasons, it has been a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. The other seasons, it was a No. 2 seed. Now, as a No. 5 and operating on the edge of the top 25 instead of the top of it, Virginia faces a different situation.

The Cavaliers left their conference tournament early. After winning its first game against Pittsburgh, Virginia lost to Notre Dame in the ACC Tournament quarterfinals.

The Cavaliers (22-10) have spent the season integrating new people into major roles. Point guard Malcolm Brogdon and forward Anthony Gill left expansive holes when they graduated last season. Senior point guard London Perrantes has tried to pull Virginia though the regular season, bringing along freshman scorer Kyle Guy to go with more seasoned wing players like Devon Hall and Marial Shayok.

Still standard for Virginia is its defense. It led the country in opponent points per game. But, scoring has been more difficult than last season. Brogdon and Gill led Virginia in scoring, helping the Cavaliers to 71 points per game in 2016. This season, Perrantes is the only player in double-figures still on the roster (forward Austin Nichols averaged 11 points before he was dismissed from the program in November). Virginia’s scoring average is down to 67 points per game.

The Cavaliers dealt with a crushing end to the NCAA Tournament last season. Their 14-point halftime lead in the Elite Eight evaporated in the second half against Syracuse. Virginia was a No. 1 seed in that tournament. Being a No. 5 seed this time is a noted change, reflecting the ascension of the program since coach Tony Bennett took over in 2009.

“Our guys, I told them, congratulations,” Bennett said on a teleconference Sunday night. “This is a reflection of the year you had. Now, OK, after you congratulate them, say, OK, the seed doesn’t matter. It just means a five seed is nothing to scoff at. [Though] it is different.”

The Seahawks (29-5) will try to make the depth of Virginia’s run shorter than last season. They sealed their tournament bid by winning the Colonial Athletic Association tournament March 6. The early entrance gives a team that was in the NCAA Tournament last season, and pushed Duke to the edge in the first round, 10 days to rest and prepare.

Bennett has gleaned numerous lessons from coaching and playing in the NCAA Tournament. There is one that sticks as the Cavaliers head into the one-and-done mania of the month:

“Soft doesn’t work in March,” Bennett said.

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