- The Washington Times - Monday, March 12, 2018

No. 1 Virginia does not have a reputation as a great rebounding team. The Cavaliers’ net rebounding margin of 2.1 won’t jump off the page. Their frontcourt rotation consists of Jack Salt (6-foot-10), Mamadi Diakite (6-foot-9) and Isaiah Wilkins (6-foot-7) — not the most intimidating frames in college basketball.

But what they may lack in size, Tony Bennett’s team makes up for in strategy and scrappiness. Result: the tip drill.

Consider this play in the first half of last week’s ACC Tournament quarterfinal game between the Cavaliers and Louisville. When De’Andre Hunter missed a 3-pointer, Diakite beat two Cardinals, including forward Ray Spalding, for the rebound on the left side of the key. He slid an arm in between them and batted the ball out to the backcourt for the Virginia recovery.

They reset, and the play resulted in Devon Hall draining a 3-pointer — the very definition of second-chance points.

Whether it’s a big like Diakite or a guard under the basket, Virginia finds a way to keep a possession alive — especially if an opponent doesn’t have both hands squarely on the ball.

“Coach (David Padgett) let us know what we needed to do to box those guys out, but I mean, it is pretty difficult boxing out a guy like that,” Spalding said. “Kind of frustrating, as well, when you’re trying to get position and then the guy reaches over and tips it out. It’s a pretty good technique.”

The next day, when Virginia beat Clemson, Tigers guard Gabe DeVoe noticed it as well.

“Their big guys do a great job being active. They tip out a lot of offensive rebounds,” DeVoe said. “I think it’s one of their pet things. So just keeping a body on them, because they’re great at tipping them out.”

Virginia was outrebounded in each of its first five ACC games this winter. Now, in its last eight games spanning the regular season and conference tournament, the Cavaliers have won the battle on the glass six times. When they run into a top-tier big man like Duke’s Marvin Bagley III or North Carolina’s Luke Maye, they are outmatched down low, but in most other cases, their strategy gives them a good chance on any play.

Seven different players have led Virginia in rebounding at least once this year. After Wilkins, Salt and Diakite, the others are guards — Hunter, Hall, Kyle Guy and Ty Jerome. Hall and Guy discussed the technique after beating Louisville in Brooklyn last week, a game in which Guy — a point guard — led the Cavaliers with seven boards.

“Our bigs do a heck of a job of doing that (tipping rebounds),” Hall said. “I think Isaiah (Wilkins) is probably the best at it, even being undersized down there, but he just has so much fight. And our bigs, on our own shots, they crash the glass. Tipping those out are huge momentum swings for us.”

“Yeah, Isaiah is gifted in that aspect. I think I had seven rebounds, and it wasn’t because they couldn’t keep me off the boards,” Guy added to chuckles in the room. “I think he was tipping it out to me.”

Clemson coach Brad Brownell thinks the strategy often works because Virginia creates mismatches under the basket with their screens.

“Sometimes you’re guarding a screen shot by Kyle Guy and the post players are helping to contest the shot,” Brownell said. “Obviously you can’t contest the shot and block out your man at the same time, so now guards are rotating to block out big guys. That’s a big part of why they rebound, I think.”

The Cavaliers were awarded the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament Sunday. Should they advance to the Sweet 16, they may have to face No. 4 seed Arizona and freshman center DeAndre Ayton, who at 7-foot-1 is two inches taller than Duke’s Bagley and rebounds at the same clip (11.5 per game). If Virginia advances even further, No. 2 Cincinnati, the 11th-ranked rebounding team in the country, could be waiting.

Not all strategies work against all opponents, but Virginia would not have gotten where it is now if not for beating talented teams on the glass.

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