I knew we’d see a 16 seed win one day.
We’d seen enough 15 seeds pull the upset to know it was possible. We saw the blueprint when teams came close but couldn’t finish the job. The addition of the play-in games made the top seeds face four of the six worst teams, not just the bottom four. When a team who should have been a 14 or 15 was lumped into the 16 spot, they’d win some day.
I knew that.
I didn’t know they’d beat the top overall seed. I didn’t know they’d win in a blowout. And I definitely, absolutely didn’t know I’d be rooting against Cinderella versus Goliath.
Before you grab your torches and pitchforks and head for my house, let me explain.
This had nothing to do with my bracket or wagers of any kind. I did pick Virginia to win it all, and those picks were published at another website as so-called “expert” picks. However, I’ve long been an advocate of tossing your bracket into the trash happily in favor of chaos and fun. I wrote all about that back in my “Ten Commandments of Successful Bracket” column.
Had it been anyone but Virginia, I’d have painted my face yellow and barked like a Retriever while rooting for UMBC. In my head, the day we saw an upset, it wouldn’t be a Virginia. It was a Duke, UCLA, Kentucky, or Kansas. It was a team full of future lottery picks who didn’t care as much as their opponents. They’d have a hate-worthy head coach on the sideline already wearing a championship ring, able to scoff the game off and move on.
Virginia doesn’t check any of those boxes. Virginia checks boxes that nearly no other program in the nation occupies, save for maybe Wisconsin. Tony Bennett’s teams aren’t just a good program in the college basketball landscape; they are a symbol of something much greater.
Ask any casual college basketball fan (or better yet someone who steers much more towards the NBA) about Virginia and they’ll gladly present a diatribe of what’s wrong with college basketball.
Ask a diehard college basketball fan, like myself, about Virginia, and the Hoos are painted more as a monolith for what’s great about not just college basketball, but the sport as a whole. Defense, ball movement, patience, and decision making are praised. Charlottesville is where half-assed effort and hero ball go to die.
Virginia’s success this year was not insular; it meant something more. This team, that featured little to no NBA talent and that played the absolute slowest pace of any of men’s college basketball’s 351 teams, was as important as it was divisive.
For those, like me, who think college basketball is as good and as fun now as it ever has been, Virginia’s success in the NCAA Tournament was paramount. You can win by scoring less than 70. You can score without isolating one player on the side of the floor or running pick-and-roll 100 times per game.
UMBC threw a wrench in those plans.
Don’t get me wrong: I like this UMBC team. I wrote their Bracket Projection for ESPN.com after watching them stun America East favorite Vermont in the Catamounts’ own gym. I even wrote that UMBC’s best case scenario in March was pulling “a historic upset.” If I might peel back the curtain for a moment, clearly I wrote those words before knowing the Retrievers would play Virginia. I filed that column days before Selection Sunday, assuming we’d see UMBC play a 3 or 4 seed. When they drew Virginia, I shrugged off their chances as bad luck from the Selelction Committee.
Clearly, that was the wrong instinct. The Retrievers blitzed Virginia, pushing the envelope early in the second half. UMBC made the game more hectic than Virginia likes, and the Hoos were caught with their pants around their ankles.
Many, as I feared, immediately jumped to blame the loss on Tony Bennett and his style of coaching. Surely Virginia must be ripe for an upset, since their methodical ways leave them vulnerable to a change in pace or an off night.
It’s not far off from the way people spoke about Jay Wright’s Villanova program before 2016. Prior to their National Championship run, Wright’s Wildcats reached the second weekend of play just four times in fourteen years. In that same time period, they were upset by a lower seed on three occasions. Wright’s penchant for guard-led offense and a high number of 3-point attempts left something to be desired. In 2016, it all came together and the Wildcats couldn’t miss. Rather than being over-reliant on outside shooting, they were buoyed by it, simply because the shots went in.
This year was supposed to be the year Bennett and Virginia proved their doubters wrong. The Cavaliers looked bulletproof. Losing ACC Sixth Man of the Year Deandre Hunter to injury was supposed to be a bump in the road, not the straw that broke the camel’s back. Instead, Virginia was killed by the same slingshot that killed most other Goliaths before, a cold shooting night. The Hoos shot just 4 for 22 from outside the arc, while UMBC hit 12 of 24 threes. Look at any other big upset and that line of the box score is sure to stand out. Arizona was 2 for 18, while Buffalo was 15 for 30. That game felt like there was a much bigger issue, with Arizona’s lack of effort and total defensive meltdown, which Virginia’s loss didn’t seem to have.
UMBC outplayed and outshot Virginia, but it wasn’t because of Virginia’s style of play. Whether that game had 60 possessions or 90, Virginia wasn’t executing offensively and played its worst defensive game of the season, by a large margin.
This loss is not a referendum on BennettBall, nor a nail in the coffin of classic college basketball. It’s a reminder that sometimes basketball is a cruel game. Had Virginia made more shots early in the second half, UMBC may still win, but it’s a far different game. If they played the game again and again, Virginia wins far more often than not. But basketball, especially college basketball and the terrors of a single elimination tournament, are about minimizing those “not” instances. Villanova and others have found ways to remove the “not” and win six straight games in March. That can meaning rolling the dice and hoping for a month of hot shooting or finding alternative answers.
For Virginia, the coaching staff returns, along with most of the rotation players. They may not go 31-2, win the ACC regular season and tournament championships, and be the top seed in the Big Dance. In Charlottesville, no one would care, if instead, the Hoos found a way to hold off those nights of “not.”
I’ll be watching, silently rooting for them. Because if beautiful basketball can’t win, what’s the point?
Shane McNichol is the founder, editor, and senior writer at PalestraBack.com. He has also contributed to ESPN.com, Rush The Court, SALTMoney.org, Larry Brown Sports, and USA Today Sports Weekly. Follow him on Twitter @OnTheShaneTrain.