INDIANAPOLIS — No team will be arriving in Indianapolis shrouded in more mystery than Virginia.
The last team to cut down the nets as NCAA basketball champions will be the last team to travel to this year’s tournament, stuck quarantining back in Charlottesville awaiting one more round of test results.
When the Cavaliers, the South Region’s four seed this year, do get to town, it’s unclear who they’ll bring with them.
“I think the whole year, there’s a lot of uncertainty,” said senior forward Sam Hauser. “You didn’t even know if you’re going to be able to play a game until you’re on the floor for warmups.”
UVA hasn’t said which player tested positive for COVID-19 following its last game, a win over Syracuse in the quarterfinals of the ACC tournament a week ago, but coach Tony Bennett did confirm that player won’t be available for at least the team’s first-round game Saturday against 13-seed Ohio, the MAC tournament champion.
Kansas, the three seed in the West region, traveled to Indianapolis without three of its players because of positive tests, the first of which forced the Jayhawks out of the Big 12 tournament.
Duke, which had to leave the conference tournament a day before UVA because of a positive test and is not in the NCAA field, now has an outbreak that reportedly includes up to seven players. The Cavaliers are hoping they’ve avoided similar spread.
“We just want to be able to have a chance to play,” said Hauser. “ … Right now, there’s a lot of hope.”
Assuming Virginia (18-6), which won the ACC regular-season title this year, has at least the NCAA minimum five players available and cleared through COVID testing, the team will practice Friday morning at John Paul Jones Arena, the group’s first since before the conference tournament, then travel to Indianapolis on Friday.
That will be coach Tony Bennett’s first chance to see how his players’ conditioning has held up through this pause, and how much of the scouting report and game plan for the Bobcats (16-7) they’ve truly ingested over Zoom sessions.
“We’re going to be able to have one practice on Friday morning before we head out to Indy,” said Hauser. “We’re probably going to have fit a lot into that practice.”
The team is scheduled to have a walk-through Saturday, assuming it passes two rounds of COVID testing in Indianapolis.
“This certainly beats the alternative,” said Bennett. “Yeah, you’d want to be in Indy. You’d want to be doing stuff. But we’re not. But we’ll make the most of it.”
If UVA basketball is a puzzle going into this year’s tournament, Ohio coach Jeff Boals said, “they have great pieces.”
For his part, Boals isn’t anticipating any major scheme changes just because a player — or maybe more — is unavailable.
“If it was any other team, you’d probably worry about it,” he said. “But they do what they do. It’s almost like the New England Patriots. You put another guy in there and they’re doing the same thing and it’s working the same way.”
The Virginia way starts with Bennett’s trademark pack-line defense, a scheme Boals gained experience coaching against when he was an assistant at Ohio State and Bo Ryan was using the pack at Big Ten foe Wisconsin.
But this season, Boals said UVA boasts an offense equal to, if not more impressive, than it’s always-stout defense, which, after leading the nation the past four years, currently ranks sixth, allowing 60.5 points per game.
“If you look at their team this year, it’s a little different than it’s been,” said Boals. “Their offense is more efficient than their defense, and their defense is still their defense. That’s their calling card.”
But how might that offense and defense look if it has to play without junior point Kihei Clark? What if UVA doesn’t have senior forward Jay Huff? What if the rejuvenated Trey Murphy III is the player who can’t compete?
For his part, Hauser said he’d be willing to play even if the team was down to just five eligible players, and he believes — “for sure” that the Cavaliers can still play Virginia basketball, even with a roster disruption.
“I know Coach Bennett, if he could coach, he’d probably go coach those five guys,” said Hauser.