It was only a year ago that Virginia lost by 20 points as a -20.5 point favorite in this spot. Because of that, Gardner-Webb will likely take a few more money line bets than usual for a 16-seed. This time, Virginia was up to a -23.5 point favorite (at 5Dimes Sportsbook) early in the week.
It may be popular to rip on Virginia, but it’s still an elite team, hence the spread. As for Gardner-Webb, it may have upset its way into this Tournament, but this is a team that was competitive on the road against the likes of VCU, Furman, Georgia Tech and Wake Forest earlier in the season. Sure, it still lost by 28 points at Virginia Tech, but everyone has a bad day.
In terms of matchup, things don’t look great for the Runnin’ Bulldogs. They are great at shooting beyond the arc, but Virginia ranks first in the country in that category on the defensive end, allowing just 27.2%. Gardner’s defense could also be a major issue since one of the only things it does well is not allow free throws and that’s not something Virginia relies on.
The question is if Gardner-Webb will be able to reach 50 or 60 points. The best way to beat Virginia is by hitting threes so that’s the first place to look. Leading scorer David Efianayi (18.4 ppg) shoots 41.4% from deep, but doesn’t rely on it, and the same goes for DJ Laster (13.7 ppg), who is 46.9% from three. Nate Johnson is the lone player that takes the majority of his shots from deep and he’s at 39.5%, though hasn’t made more than two in the last five Games. The interesting thing for Gardner is that it doesn’t play anyone that’s taller than 6-6, which has to be an issue when Jack Salt, De’Andre Hunter and Braxton Key are all on the cOurt. Even Jay Huff will have a matchup advantage as Virginia’s tallest player at 7-1.
Needless to say, the easy looks that Laster has been getting in the Big South likely won’t be available to him in this Game. If Salt isn’t athletic enough to defend him, Hunter could just lock him down, something Virginia couldn’t do last year because he had a broken wrist. If Laster can’t win in the paint, that’s where Efianayi steps in. However, as Gardner’s leading scorer, a lot of his points come from the free-throw line and that’s a hard thing to bank on against Virginia. If those guys aren’t hitting their usual numbers, it’ll be up to Johnson and Jose Perez to hit some shots against the best three-point defense in the nation.
On the other end, the lack of size could be a major problem for Gardner-Webb, especially against Hunter, who is the one guy that can take over Games with his athletic ability. Sure, Kyle Guy (15.6 ppg, 46.3% 3pt) can go off from three and Ty Jerome does a little bit of everything at point guard, but Hunter (15.1 ppg) is the guy that can do it all, from hitting outside shots to taking anyone off the dribble and winning any matchup in the paint against a smaller team.
UMBC upset Virginia last year in part because it went 12-for-24 from three and Hunter wasn’t available. Unless Gardner-Webb, a team that doesn’t take an overwhelming amount of threes, decides to change its strategy and hit half of them, and then Hunter gets hurt, it’s hard to see the underdog winning. The Hoos will ride their size and defense, but then have a fairly easy time scoring on a below average Gardner-Webb defense.
Our Pick – Virginia -22.5