- The Washington Times - Monday, March 28, 2016

CHICAGO — After housing the misery that comes with an unforeseen collapse, the visiting locker room at United Center was quickly moved back to being just a room. There were only Virginia signs still hanging in various stalls — no people once the Cavaliers had moved out. Signs associated with the NCAA were plucked off walls in the hallway as the area was stripped back to nondescript white concrete.

But, that room will forever be the place that Virginia’s sinking feeling first reached its gut after a 68-62 loss in the Elite Eight against Syracuse. At halftime, the Orange had both feet in a bear trap. By the end, they were trying to explain how they are going to the Final Four in Houston.

This loss, perhaps more so than the early NCAA tournament exits of the past two seasons, will sit with the Cavaliers. Because of it, almost everything changed. The only idea that sticks is Virginia’s reputation as a regular-season powerhouse that can’t live up to its seeding in the NCAA tournament.

“I will look back through stuff,” Virginia coach Tony Bennett said. “I’ll watch the film, and I’m sure there will be things I’ll look at and all that stuff will come.”

There are two key considerations from Sunday night. First is the decision-making by Virginia against Syracuse’s press. Just two nights before, when also trailing by double digits in the second half, Iowa State tried the same rallying tactic against the Cavaliers. It opted for a full-court press. Virginia shredded it, easily breaking the press in the backcourt by using primary ballhandlers London Perrantes and Malcolm Brogdon. The Cavaliers converted with ease against the Cyclones until the Iowans capitulated.

Against Syracuse, Virginia often broke the press with the same amount of precision. But, once in the frontcourt at full speed, conversions were a problem. Mix in a couple turnovers, and second-guessing begins. Should Virginia, which had a substantial lead, wants to play a plodding game and gave Syracuse fits in the half court, have pulled the ball out after breaking the press?

“We’ve had some trouble against presses, but we’ve had such success attacking it and getting points on the board,” Bennett said. “And there’s maybe a couple we got going a little fast, we could have backed out perhaps. I’ve got to watch the tape and get a feel for it.

“But when you have two-on-ones or three-on-ones, I think you have to look to take it, and again, so I’m OK with what I saw, but perhaps I’d change my mind, maybe there’s one or two we could have backed up. I think it was more the turnovers, whether it was a ball that went out of bounds, and there was a little miscommunication when we were inbounding it, that hurt us. We scored a couple of those, but not enough.”

Another vital second-half change was Syracuse abandoning offensive ball screens. Instead, it drove the ball one-on-one, passed it out if necessary, then drove it again. This dictated play to Virginia the way the Cavaliers’ superior help defenses dictated it to the Orange in the first half. It also put Virginia in foul trouble, and kickstarted freshman Malachi Richardson, who scored 21 points in the second half — much of it against Brogdon, the ACC defensive player of the year. Richardson’s 21 points were the same total the Orange had as a team in the first half.

“He’s an extremely talented freshman,” Brogdon said. “He has a hesitation to his game that makes you freeze a little bit, and he can shoot it from range and he can get to the rim. I thought we struggled with him all game. He was able to get to the line, and I think that really hurt us.”

Three key seniors leaving the program will overhaul Virginia’s look heading into next season.

The impact of Brogdon’s departure is hefty and apparent: He was the ACC player of the year. That will be a load to replace emotionally and statistically. Anthony Gill and Mike Tobey are graduating as well. That is a towering blow.

Gill and Tobey combined to play 33.7 minutes per game. At times, they played together. More often, they substituted for the other. Those two leaving means 6-foot-11 freshman Jack Salt will become the team’s most experienced big man. He averaged 6.6 minutes in 21 games this season. Jay Huff, a 6-foot-10 center from Durham, North Carolina, has also signed to play for the Cavaliers next season.

The changes in the post will make Virginia a very wing-oriented team next season. Perrantes will be back as the starting point guard. Fellow starters Devon Hall, who said he will never forget Sunday’s loss, and 6-foot-7 Isaiah Wilkins also return. Guards Marial Shayok, who showed flashed in the tournament, and Darius Thompson will also have more time in the rotation.

The Cavaliers won’t be inexperienced. They will likely start a senior, a redshirt junior, a junior, and either a redshirt junior or junior to go with the raw Salt. But, they will be distinctly different, saddled with an inescapable bad memory that took hold in a United Center locker room.

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