The Virginia men’s basketball team didn’t know when the top seeds would be announced during Sunday’s two-hour NCAA selection show, so as they gathered in a Charlottesville restaurant, they weren’t taking any chances, not during dinnertime.
“Because the show was so long, nobody knew when they were going to announce the No. 1 seed or the bracket; I think some of the guys were in the buffet line getting their food,” Virginia Coach Tony Bennett said with a chuckle. “There was a roar when the name came up, and then everybody started whispering, ‘Hey, this looks like the bracket that got leaked.’ ”
Like the rest of the college basketball world, once the Cavaliers learned they were the No. 1 seed in the Midwest Region, they peeked at the fully fleshed-out tournament bracket that surfaced online just 25 minutes into the official selection television show. Virginia discovered it plays 16th-seeded Hampton on Thursday in Raleigh, N.C. and down at the bottom of the bracket saw their NCAA tournament Achilles’ heel: Michigan State. Michigan State, the No. 2 seed in the region after winning the Big Ten tournament Sunday, has knocked Virginia out of the tournament the past two seasons. Should the teams meet again this year, a Final Four spot would be at stake, March 27 in Chicago.
But first up for the Cavaliers is an intrastate matchup with Hampton (21-10), the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference champion. The Cavaliers are 7-0 all-time against the Pirates, including a 69-40 win in their most recent meeting, in November 2013.
“I saw that, yeah, of course,” Bennett said of Michigan State. “All the brackets are good, you just hope you’re fortunate enough and playing well enough to get to that game where both teams have a chance. That’s all you can hope for, for sure, but I think you would be so foolish to look too far ahead, because you’ve got to show up and play.
“We’re playing a [Hampton] team that won in the NCAA tournament last year, won their conference tournament, I think their top six players are seniors — they’re good. They have [former Virginia forward] Akil Mitchell’s brother on their team too, so they got that going for them.”
Virginia (26-7) is one of seven ACC squads to make it into the 68-team field. North Carolina also earned a No. 1 seed, in the East Region.
The Cavaliers left Verizon Center on Saturday night saddled with the disappointment of a close loss to North Carolina in the ACC tournament final, but with their self-esteem intact. Bennett and his players assumed they would get either a No. 1 or No. 2 seed, and in fact, after drawing a top-two seed in each of the past two seasons, they considered themselves more deserving of the top spot this time around.
“Absolutely, I think we’re deserving of it,” Malcolm Brogdon said after the ACC title loss Saturday about getting a No. 1 seed. “. . . Regardless of the seeding, we’re going to go in, and we’re going to try to impose our will on whoever we play with whatever seeding we have.”
The Cavaliers’ self-belief came from surviving a tumultuous season. Virginia scraped its way back to a No. 2 seed in the ACC tournament after losing three consecutive road games to underdogs Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech and Florida State in January. Late-season talks between Bennett and his players often centered on just how much the Cavaliers had learned from their losses, and how the hard times forged a stronger team better suited for a deep run in the NCAA tournament.
“We are moving forward with momentum,” Brogdon said. “We didn’t win this tournament championship, but we have momentum regardless. We beat some good teams: We beat Miami, Georgia Tech. We finished the regular season strong. We just got to keep it going and refocus.”
The strong finish Brogdon referred to includes wins at home over ranked North Carolina and Louisville, and just two losses in February: to Duke and Miami, both on the road.
Selection committee chair Joe Castiglione also noted on the selection show that Virginia’s strength of schedule was a big factor in its seeding. Statistical website KenPom.com ranks Virginia’s schedule as the fourth-toughest in the country, and the Cavaliers closed out their regular season playing five teams that sat toward the top of the ACC.
That Brogdon, the ACC player of the year, led a stellar group of seniors in a year packed with stellar groups of seniors added to Virginia’s résumé, Brogdon’s 18.8 points per game ranked third in the ACC, and the combination of Brogdon, forward Anthony Gill and center Mike Tobey was as dangerous as any veteran group in the country.
Virginia finished second in the ACC after losing a fierce title game Saturday night. Uncharacteristically poor shooting did in the Cavaliers against North Carolina, which earned its 15th No. 1 seed Sunday. The Cavaliers shot a season-low 33.5 percent from the field, and Brogdon was limited to 15 points, still a team high.
But with the loss behind them, Bennett was able to reflect on how much progress his program has made over the past few years.
“[Tobey’s] first year, we’re watching whatever — bracketology — and we’re saying, ‘Are we on the bubble, last four in, last four out?’ worried about that,” Bennett said. “And now, we were wondering if we’re going to be a one or a two seed. Pretty appreciative to be in that spot.”
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