When the Virginia men’s basketball team gathered on Sunday night to watch the NCAA tournament selection show, Coach Tony Bennett told the Cavaliers there was a good chance their name would not be called.
In some ways, he said, they deserved a better fate. But on the heels of three losses in four games to end the season, including their most lopsided defeat of the year in Friday’s ACC quarterfinals, Bennett was realistic, knowing well that “we had our chances to play our way in, and we didn’t.”
His hunch was dead on.
Virginia saw its bubble burst Sunday evening as it was left out of the 68-team NCAA tournament field. The Cavaliers instead earned a No. 1 seed in the National Invitation Tournament and will play Norfolk State on Tuesday night at John Paul Jones Arena in the first round. It is Virginia’s first NIT appearance since Bennett took over the program in 2009.
Middle Tennessee State, Saint Mary’s, La Salle and Boise State were the final four at-large teams included in this year’s NCAA tournament field, and all of them were selected for the play-in games this week in Dayton, Ohio. NCAA tournament selection committee chairman Mike Bobinski confirmed Sunday night that Virginia was one of six teams being considered for the final spot. It instead went to Middle Tennessee State, which lost in the semifinals of the Sun Belt Conference tournament last week.
Bobinski indicated Virginia’s 3-10 record away from John Paul Jones Arena was the deciding factor in its exclusion. Middle Tennessee State went 11-4 on the road this season, although none of its wins came over teams ranked in the top 100 of the RPI, a metric used by the selection committee to rank teams.
“Really a very difficult resume for us to get our arms around, in all honesty,” Bobinski said of Virginia, which had seven losses to teams ranked worse than 100 in the RPI.
“It was as unique a team sheet as I’ve ever seen in my four or five years on the committee and we spent a lot of time trying to sort that out to the best of our ability. They weren’t particularly strong on the road. They did have the Wisconsin win, but other than that they didn’t do a whole lot of damage away from home. You put that all together, they just didn’t pass muster as one of the 37 at-large teams for us.”
Even Bennett couldn’t overlook the sheer number of confusing defeats that counteracted any momentum Virginia gained from impressive wins over the course of the season.
It went 0-3 against the Colonial Athletic Association, including losses to Delaware and a five-win Old Dominion team that were particularly devastating for Virginia’s poor RPI rank (75). The loss to the Blue Hens in the NIT Season Tip-off prevented Virginia from playing No. 11 Kansas State, No. 17 Pittsburgh or No. 6 Michigan at Madison Square Garden. Instead, the Cavaliers faced North Texas and Lamar in consolation games and ended up with a nonconference strength of schedule ranked No. 303 in the country.
“It came down to the committee saying, ‘All right, are we gonna take the teams with quality wins or look at some of the hard losses,’ and we had those,” Bennett said.
However, the Cavaliers still managed to put themselves in position to earn an at-large bid, finishing fourth in the ACC regular season standings with wins over North Carolina, North Carolina State and Duke. They went 8-4 against the RPI top 100, a better mark than any of the play-in game participants.
But after beating the Blue Devils on Feb. 28, Virginia dropped consecutive road games at Boston College and Florida State on the final possession. According to Bobinski, it cemented why Virginia was left to ponder the NIT on Sunday evening.
“We had a chance to probably secure it and we didn’t get it done down the stretch,” Bennett said.