Boom-or-bust Virginia will head to Orlando, Fla., as the No. 4 seed in the South Region to face No. 13 Furman on Thursday afternoon.
In coach Tony Bennett’s last three trips to the NCAA Tournament, Virginia has experienced two first-round exits and one national championship.
The first flameout was historic, with the 2017-2018 Cavaliers becoming the first No. 1 seed ever to lose to a No. 16 seed (UMBC) in the opening round.
After cutting down the nets for the first time in program history in 2019, Virginia lost its most recent NCAA tourney game as a No. 4 seed to No. 13 Ohio in 2021.
This year, Virginia (25-7) won a share of the Atlantic Coast Conference regular-season championship and reached the ACC tournament final, falling 59-49 to Duke on Saturday in Greensboro, N.C.
Furman (27-7) swept the Southern Conference regular season and tourney titles to make the NCAA Tournament field for the first time since 1980. The Paladins have won six in a row and 14 of their last 15.
Virginia and Furman have met only once, a 79-67 win by the host Cavaliers on Dec. 8, 2004.
“You divvy up the scouts,” Bennett said Sunday of his team’s preparations, per the Daily Progress. “You get your people on the scouts, you watch them, and you prepare as quickly as you can … but it goes quick and you learn as much as you can as coaches and get the basics for your guys.”
Three veteran Virginia players are scoring in double figures, led by Armaan Franklin (12.5 points per game), Jayden Gardner (12.1) and Kihei Clark (10.9 points, 5.4 assists).
Franklin has played in 121 college games (67 for Virginia), Gardner in 148 (67 for the Cavaliers) and Clark in 160 — including the 2019 national championship win against Texas Tech.
The game will be a clash of styles, as Virginia games often are. Furman ranks eighth in the nation with 82.1 points per game and Virginia ranks sixth in scoring defense, allowing 60.3 points per game.
“They can play. I know they can shoot,” Bennett said of the Paladins. “They’re very skilled and they can get up and down.”
Furman is led by conference player of the year Jalen Slawson (15.7 points and 7.1 rebounds per game) and fellow all-conference selection Mike Bothwell (18.0 points per game), both fifth-year seniors.
Sixth-year coach Bob Richey’s Paladins have lost only twice in 2023, a four-point setback at The Citadel on Feb. 15 and an overtime defeat against UNC Greensboro on Jan. 14. Two of their non-conference losses were against NCAA Tournament teams Penn State and North Carolina State.
Furman will be well rested, having not played since its 88-79 win over Chattanooga in the SoCon final on March 6.
“We’re going to have to defend and rebound at the highest level,” Richey said Sunday. “If we can get stops and get rebounds, now we have an opportunity to go out and do what we do. We’re a top-15 offense because of our tempo, our spacing, the amount of assists we have per made basket.
“… It’s part of who we are. It’s part of our makeup. I’m sure they’re going to try to shrink the game.”
The Cavaliers-Paladins winner will meet either No. 5 seed San Diego State or No. 12 Charleston in a second-round contest on Saturday in Orlando.
–Field Level Media