Over the past five seasons, Virginia has produced no national titles and no Final Fours. They have three Sweet Sixteens and one Elite Eight appearance, coming in 2016. Heading into this year’s Sweet Sixteen as a No. 1 seed again, Tony Bennett and the Cavaliers are looking to exorcise their NCAA Tournament demons and finally make a run at a national championship.
Around this time last year, Virginia was making huge waves in the world of March Madness for all the wrong reasons. 31-2 and the No. 1 overall seed in the tournament, Virginia faced off against the now legendary 16th-seeded UMBC Retrievers in what is arguably the greatest upset in sports history. Fans around the country marveled at the modern-day David and Goliath story unfolding on their screens.
That game changed the way fans watch the 16 vs. 1 game forever. Now, fans watch the game knowing there is the innate possibility that the No. 1 seed can lose on any given day. No. 1 seeds are now 139-1 against No. 16 seeds, and as the number in the left column continues to grow over the years, that “1” will stick out like a sore thumb. Come March, highlights of the 74-54 anomaly will now be played every year. The game will live in infamy for the Cavaliers, Tony Bennett and Virginia fans for years to come.
It’s not just last year’s debacle that the Cavaliers want to move past. In 2014, the No. 1 Cavs lost a 59-61 heartbreaker to the No. 4 Michigan State Spartans. Virginia came back in 2015 as a No. 2 seed and lost to Michigan State again, 54-60 in the Round of 32. In 2016, No. 1 Virginia cruised through the Midwest into the Elite Eight with relative ease, only to be upended by ACC foe, No. 10 Syracuse. 2017 was a down year by their standards, coming in a No. 5 seed, but Virginia got hammered by No. 4 Florida 39-65 in the Round of 32. Coach Tony Bennett has had a rough track record in the NCAA Tournament up to this point. This is surprising for a coach that has successfully navigated a vaunted ACC for the past five years and won multiple ACC regular season and tournament titles.
A new opportunity
This year’s Virginia team is battle tested and has the experience and depth to make a run at a national title. They’re loaded in the backcourt with veteran stars Ty Jerome and Kyle Guy, as well as Kihei Clark. The frontcourt is stellar as well, led by future NBA lottery pick DeAndre Hunter. Jack Salt gives the lineup size, sets screens and rebounds well. Mamadi Diakite has also emerged as a scoring option in the paint in recent games, adding more size and depth down low. The team plays the best defense in the country, a signature of Tony Bennett’s Virginia teams. Their perimeter defense is particularly frightening, as most teams in the Sweet Sixteen rely heavily on the 3-point shot.
Bennett’s Cavaliers are hoping to write a new story this year as they head into the Sweet Sixteen to play the red-hot No. 12 Oregon Ducks, who won the PAC-12 Tournament after a shaky start to the regular season. Virginia got past their first game against No. 16 Gardner-Webb after a poor first half that left many to question the team’s mental fortitude. Virginia turned it on in the second, winning 71-56. In the Round of 32, Virginia used another strong second half and cruised by No. 9 Oklahoma 63-51. The team finally looks like they’ve moved past last year’s failure and are ready to change the narrative. Sure, a championship this year won’t make people forget about last year, but it would make for quite the comeback story and make last year’s pain much easier to live with.