NCAA basketball tournament 2012: Virginia relieved to earn first bid since 2007

March 11, 2012

Virginia Coach Tony Bennett sat between fifth-year seniors Mike Scott and Sammy Zeglinski as the team watched the NCAA tournamentselection show on Sunday evening at John Paul Jones Arena. Bennett said later he felt confident going into the viewing, but as soon as he sat down he could “feel the nervous energy kind of flowing back and forth.”

The anxiety lingered through multiple commercial breaks for a team that had lost six of its last 10 games, but soon enough their apprehension was quelled. The Cavaliers were pegged as the No. 10 seed in the West Region and will face Florida on Friday in Omaha.

Virginia (22-9) earned its first NCAA tournament berth since 2007 and its fourth in the past 16 seasons.

“It’s a great step,” Bennett said in a teleconference Sunday night. “It’s been too infrequent, and hopefully we can make that consistent. . . . For us in our third year and for the guys that have been in the program and have fought hard, I’m pleased for them, and I think it’s an important step in our process to get consistently good.”

The Cavaliers have faced Florida once before in program history, on March 30, 1992 in the semifinals of the National Invitation Tournament. Virginia won that matchup, 62-56.

Florida (23-10) operates a high-octane offense that features five players averaging double digits in scoring. The Gators finished tied for second in the Southeastern Conference and lost to Kentucky in the semifinals of the SEC tournament. Florida has made 12 NCAA tournament appearances and won two national titles under Coach Billy Donovan.

“When you see a team like Florida, you know they’ve been there; they’ve done that,” said Bennett, who also praised the Gators’ superb guard play.

Friday’s game will feature divergent styles. Florida averages 1.16 points per possession (fourth-most in the nation), while Virginia allows its opponents to average 0.88 points per possession, second-fewest in the country. How much the Cavaliers have left in their collective tank may determine whether they can be as stingy against the Gators.

Virginia’s lineup has been decimated in recent months by injury and attrition. Two players transferred out of the program in late December, forcing Bennett to remove the redshirt from guard Paul Jesperson. Senior center Assane Sene fractured his right ankle Jan. 19 during Virginia’s 70-38 win at Georgia Tech and did not play the rest of the conference slate. He was suspended March 5 for the rest of the season because of a violation of team rules.

On Feb. 11, sophomore guard Joe Harris — the team’s second-leading scorer — broke his left (non-shooting) hand during Virginia’s 70-52 loss at North Carolina. He has played for the past month with thick protective padding on the hand. Harris also suffered a mild concussion during the Cavaliers’ 63-60 loss March 1 to Florida State, but he has not missed a game.

Freshman guard Malcolm Brogdon, the team’s top reserve for most of the season, suffered a left foot injury Feb. 17, the day before Virginia’s 71-44 win against Maryland. Brogdon missed Virginia’s final two regular season contests before undergoing season-ending surgery Wednesday.

Through all of that, the Cavaliers remained buoyed in large part offensively by Scott, an all-ACC first team selection, and junior guard Jontel Evans. Those two players vowed in October not to cut their hair until Virginia returned to the NCAA tournament, and less than two hours after the Cavaliers’ matchup against Florida had been announced, each player was much more aerodynamic.

Said Scott on his Twitter account: “Me and [Evans] already got the cut lol.”

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