Less than 24 hours after claiming the ACC tournament championship for the second time in five seasons, the Virginia men’s basketball team celebrated yet again, this time back home in Charlottesville, after securing the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA tournament.
Coach Tony Bennett and his players held a private viewing party to watch Sunday night’s unveiling of the field of 68, and it didn’t take long for the Cavaliers (31-2) to learn they would be heading to Charlotte to open the NCAA tournament on Friday against No. 16 seed Maryland Baltimore County (24-10) in the South Region.
The winner faces either No. 8 seed Creighton or No. 9 seed Kansas State in Sunday’s round of 32.
The tournament’s other three top seeds are Villanova in the East Region, Kansas in the Midwest and Xavier in the West.
“Everybody’s capable in this tournament. That’s just how it is,” Bennett said. “To get a one seed is, I guess, a reward for a heck of a regular season and then postseason games in the conference tournament, but then you get your seeding, and then it starts over. The parity as far as a one seed, a two seed, college basketball has become a little bit of a wash that way. I don’t get too caught up in it.”
Virginia is making its 22nd appearance in the NCAA tournament and a school-record fifth in a row under Bennett, who directed the Cavaliers to a program high for victories following Saturday night’s 71-63 win against North Carolina at Barclays Center.
It’s the third time the Cavaliers enter the NCAA tournament as a No. 1 seed since Bennett took over in 2009. They bowed out before the Final Four in both previous instances — falling to No. 10 seed Syracuse, 68-62, in a 2016 region final after leading by 14 at halftime; and losing to No. 4 seed Michigan State, 61-59, two years earlier in the round of 16.
Virginia was a No. 5 seed last season and fell to fourth-seeded Florida, 65-39, in the round of 32.
“It’s definitely special,” Virginia forward Mamadi Diakite said of being a No. 1 seed. “If we have the [top] spot, why not enjoy it? But still we’re going to be focused on what we have to do on Friday.”
Virginia goes into the NCAA tournament in search of the first national championship in program history. It hasn’t been to a Final Four since 1984.
If it is to reach the Final Four in San Antonio, Virginia may have to beat either Pacific-12 regular season and tournament champion Arizona, a No. 4 seed, or Southeastern Conference tournament champion Kentucky, a No. 5 seed, in the round of 16 in Atlanta. Cincinnati, the American Athletic Conference regular season and tournament champion, is the No. 2 seed in the South Region.
But the Cavaliers also carry plenty of momentum into this week thanks to a record-setting jaunt through the ACC.
The Cavaliers became the first program to win 17 games in the conference during the regular season, with their only loss coming to Virginia Tech, a 61-60 overtime defeat at John Paul Jones Arena. Virginia also is the only school to go 9-0 on the road in the ACC, eclipsing Duke’s previous record of 8-0 set in 2011-12.
The signature triumph of the regular season for the Cavaliers came against Duke, a 65-63 win on Jan. 27 at Cameron Indoor Stadium, where Virginia had not won since 1995. It had lost 17 in row at the fabled venue until limiting the top-scoring team in the country at the time to just 22 points in the first half and getting 17 points from Kyle Guy, who was recently voted first-team all-ACC.
The sophomore guard was named ACC tournament most outstanding player after scoring 16 points with four assists and no turnovers in the championship game.
Guy averaged nearly 17 points in the ACC tournament over three games in as many nights while playing with a brace on his left knee to protect a sprained medial collateral ligament suffered in the first half of the regular season finale, a 62-57 victory over Notre Dame in Charlottesville.
Part of Virginia’s ascent to national championship contender has come, according to Bennett, from so far having avoided serious injury. Bennett has had the good fortune of using the same starting lineup for all but one game this season, that being on senior day when reserve guard Nigel Johnson, a graduate transfer, started in place of Guy.
Other ACC programs such as Duke, Clemson and Miami, all part of this season’s NCAA tournament field, have had standout players either miss games or incur season-ending injuries.
“Preparing well, that’s really important because we haven’t watched UMBC play a lot over the years,” Bennett said. “You’re so locked into league play and the conference tournament. We just had a three-game gauntlet. Now of course you turn your attention to what’s next. You prepare as well as you can and get as much film and expect everything when you play teams you’re more unfamiliar with.”
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