Virginia earns first NCAA tournament berth in five years, will play Florida in Omaha on Friday

No matter what happens Friday when Virginia takes on Florida in the first (err, second) round of the NCAA tournament, there is significant value in Coach Tony Bennett’s ability to say, at the very least, that the Cavaliers have made the field of 68 under his watch.

Virginia earned its first NCAA tournament berth since 2007 and its fourth in the past 17 seasons when the selection committee released the bracket Sunday.

“It’s a great step,” Bennett said Sunday night. “It’s been too infrequent, and hopefully we can make that consistent. . . . For us in our third year and for the guys that have been in the program and have fought hard, I’m pleased for them, and I think it’s an important step in our process to get consistently good.”

Collectively, the Cavaliers went .500 (31-31) during Bennett’s first two years at the helm in Charlottesville, but this season Virginia finished 22-9. As Bennett and his staff move forward in the near future with recruiting and program development, they will point to this season as something of a breakthrough.

And for fifth-year seniors Mike Scott and Sammy Zeglinski, they’ll be able to say they ushered Virginia into a new stage of success. Scott was a first-team all-ACC selection and finished second in the conference’s player of the year voting, while Zeglinski averaged a team-high 32.2 minutes per game this season. What Sunday’s accomplishment meant for their legacies was not lost on Bennett, either.

“To be able now to go out and say, ‘We got ourselves into the NCAA tournament,’ I think it’s something that they’ll remember that selection show,” Bennett said. “It’s something they’ll remember, that they left [the program] in a good place.”

For now, though, the Cavaliers’ attention will turn to a Florida squad (23-10) that tied for second in the Southeastern Conference this season. Whereas the 10th-seeded Cavaliers are known for their defensive prowess, the seventh-seeded Gators are touted for their offensive efficiency.

Florida averages 1.16 points per possession (fourth highest in the nation). Virginia allows its opponents to average 0.88 points per possession, which is the second-lowest mark in the country. Five Gators average double figures in scoring. The Cavaliers gave up fewer points per game this season (53.7) than all but one team in the nation.

“Their ability to score from all positions is significant,” Bennett said. “That versatility in terms of having a threat from each position to score in double figures is significant from the offensive end, and I know they’re athleticism and their tenacity defensively is something that stands out on the defensive side.”

Only one team in the country (Virginia Military Institute) attempted more three-pointers this season than Florida. The Gators are led offensively by a trio of guards (Kenny Boynton, Bradley Beal and Erving Walker) and a 6-foot-10 forward (Erik Murphy) who each attempt an average of at least 3.6 three-pointers per contest. Murphy made 44.2 percent of his three-pointers this season, while Boynton (6-foot-2) shot 42.7 percent from beyond the arc.

In the post, Florida is anchored by Patric Young, who stands 6-9 and 247 pounds. Young shot 60.8 percent from the field and averaged 6.4 rebounds per game this season. The Gators lost reserve forward Will Yeguete for the season after suffering a broken foot Feb. 21. Yeguete was Florida’s third-leading rebounder (6.3 rpg).

For purposes of comparison, Bennett said that of Virginia’s ACC opponents this season, Florida most closely resembled North Carolina State. Similar to the Gators, N.C. State possessed athleticism across the board. The Cavaliers defeated N.C. State, 61-60, in Raleigh in late January and lost to the Wolfpack, 67-64, on Friday in the quarterfinals of the ACC tournament.

Bennett said Virginia’s ability to corral the long rebounds that are sure to come off of Florida’s three-point attempts and negate second-chance points by the Gators will be crucial.

Also, Bennett joked that for some good luck the Cavaliers might take a trip to TD Ameritrade Ballpark and rub the statue of Virginia baseball coach Brian O’Connor. O’Connor is from Omaha and in addition to being a notable figure in Creighton baseball history, he also guided the Cavaliers to College World Series appearances in two of the past three seasons.

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