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NCAA Tournament Preview: Virginia

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Looking at Cal’s first round opponents, the 10 seed Cavaliers - with a very familiar face on the sidelines.

NCAA Womens Basketball: Virginia at Notre Dame Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

When: Friday 2:00 pm PT
TV: ESPN2 or ESPN3, depending on your geographic area.

It’s to Lindsay Gottlieb’s immense credit that I haven’t really spent much time thinking about Joanne Boyle.

Don’t get me wrong - I’m still immensely grateful to Cal’s previous head coach, who revived a deader-than-dead program and eventually led the 2nd best Cal team I’ve followed to the Sweet 16. But two years after she left Cal was in the Final Four.

Meanwhile, Virginia is making their first NCAA tournament appearance in eight seasons and their first under Boyle. After getting a huge raise to head back east, there’s actually been speculation that Virginia would move on after six NCAA-less seasons at a program that once made the tournament 20 years in a row with 3 final four appearances. But neither have Boyle’s Virginia teams been truly awful - they’ve been perpetually on the wrong side of the bubble until finally making the tournament in her 7th season in Charlottesville.

It all makes for a fun match-up that gets me thinking about the Hampton-Walker-Gray-Lawson years that established a foundation for successful Cal women’s basketball.

Roster

Starters

PG Dominique Toussaint, 5’9’’ So. - Ball dominant PG, hot-and-cold barometer of UVA’s offense. Can create lots of looks or create lots of turnovers, or both.
G Brianna Tinsley, 5’7’’ Fr. - Combo guard provides similar production as Touissant, but at lower usage rates.
G Aliyah Huland El, 6’1’’ Sr. - UVA’s best all-around shooter
G Jocelyn Willoughby, 6’0’’ So. - Stretch 4 is one of the best 3 point shooters in the nation but only attempts 1 or 2 a game despite shooting them better than 2 pointers? OK, that’s weird.
C Felicia Aiyeotan, 6’9’’ So. - Kinda has the typical insanely-tall profile - tons of blocks and rebounds, high shooting percentage on a bunch of bunnies, zero shooting ability.

Bench

G J’Kyra Brown, 5’11’’ Sr. - back up ball handler/shooter has the same high assist, high turnover profile that’s typical of UVA’s offense
F Lauren Moses, 6’2’’ Sr. - Back up big is a step down as a rebounder from Aiyeotan, but can make noise on the offensive glass.
F Lisa Jablonowski, 6’3’’ So. - Very low usage big is another rebounding step down from Moses. Minute eater - will UVA need her to eat minutes?

Virginia plays a tight, balanced rotation of 8 players in competitive games, with a very guard oriented scoring focus. Aiyeotan is really the only reliable post scorer, but even she is only 5th on the team in total shots attempted.

And when I say balanced, I really mean balanced. Nobody even averages 30 minutes/game, although it’s probably a safe bet than Toussaint will get heavier minutes in an elimination game - she played 35 in UVA’s critical ACC tournament win over Georgia Tech. Five players average between 11.3 and 7.3 points/game, and after Aiyeotan they’re very much rebound-by-committee

Statistical profile

When I look at Virginia’s stats (on HerHoopStats.com!) almost everything seems decidedly mediocre. But those stats don’t adjust for schedule, so it makes sense that a team that went 11-7 in ACC games might have average-ish stats. But generally speaking, there are two notable things about Virginia:

  1. They play slow basketball - No surprises, we are talking about Joanne Boyle, after all. The Cavaliers are 285th in the nation in pace, and will likely prevent Cal from getting out in transition - which wasn’t really a strength/focus for the Bears much this year anyway. But if that also means that UVA won’t look to exploit Cal’s occasionally iffy transition defense, all the better.
  2. They’re good at defending without fouling. This is probably Virginia’s hallmark. The Cavs were basically tied in FG% defense in ACC play with 3 and 4 seeds Florida State and NC State, and without leading to a parade of free throws. Exactly how much of this is due to having a 6’9’’ rim protector playing 23 minutes/game I can’t precisely say, but I’m betting it helps.

In pretty much every other way Virginia is mediocre and exploitable. Their offense is heavily turnover prone and everybody but Aiyeotan struggles to finish inside the arc. Cal is the superior rebounding team on both ends of the floor. They don’t get to the line much.

Keys to the Game

Have a healthy Kristine Anigwe. No, nobody has any particular clue what’s been up with Kristine over the last few weeks of the season, or what caused her fatigue issues in the Pac-12 conference tournament. When she’s actually been on the court she’s been pretty close to her usual self, though, so hopefully two weeks off means the same, but more so.

What does Cal do when Aiyeotan isn’t on the court? On paper, Virginia is significantly weaker when their 6’9’’ weapon is on the bench. Limited inside scoring, significantly weaker rebounding, and limited rim protection. I’d particularly keep an eye on Penina Davidson, who might well have a match-up advantage much of the game - especially as an offensive rebounder. More on that below.

Defend the 3 point line. If there’s an obvious way for Virginia to win this game, it’s with an advantage from deep. The Cavs have 4 different players who are solid threats from outside. Meanwhile, Virginia’s offense tries to shoot a decent amount of 3s while Cal’s defense tends to allow a decent percentage of 3s. Cal either needs get out on shooters or simply hope shots clang off the rim.

Can Cal create a bunch of 2nd chance opportunities? Cal has quietly gotten better on the offensive glass, and currently sport a 37% offensive rebounding rate, good for 47th in the country. Virginia, on the other hand, allows opponents to rebound 33 % of their own misses. If Cal has a cold stretch, 2nd chances could be a critical source of offense.

Our Computer Overlords Predict

Sagarin Predictor: Cal by 2

Virginia very much feels like a USC-type team. Solid, dangerous, capable of beating Cal . . . but still, a team that Cal would be expected to beat most of the time. I’m not worried, except for the part where they might hit a bunch of 3s and nobody ever knows which version of Cal deep shooting will show up.

The game will be at a slow pace, and I doubt that one team pulls away from the other, so there’s a pretty solid chance you’ll be pulling on your hair and chewing your nails in the 4th quarter.

Embrace it. Go Bears.