CHARLOTTESVILLE—Braxton Key wasn’t around for the inglorious end of Virginia’s 2017–18 basketball season. He was still at the University of Alabama, preparing to transfer and looking for a new school.
When he arrived on Grounds, Key found that the Cavaliers’ historic first-round NCAA tournament loss to UMBC wasn’t a taboo subject. Au contraire, it became the compelling force behind second-ranked Virginia’s reascent to the top of the Atlantic Coast Conference regular-season standing—and its impetus for the weeks ahead.
“They talked about it a lot,” Key said Saturday after a hard-fought 73–68 victory over Louisville earned the Cavaliers (28–2, 16–2) the top seed for the ACC tournament, which starts Tuesday in Charlotte. “You’d think it would be something they wouldn’t want to talk about. But it fueled this team throughout off-season. It was really a blessing in disguise.”
Nearly every player on every team talks about the need for increased urgency when March arrives. But the stakes may be higher for Virginia than for any team in the country.
First, there’s the UMBC thing. The Cavaliers have had to address it since the first day of practice in October, and the highlights of the only 16th-seed upset of a No. 1 will be shown ad nauseam until they play their first game in this NCAA tournament, next Thursday or Friday.
If that weren’t enough, Virginia is also dealing with the very real (and rare) possibility of losing most of its nucleus whenever its NCAA tournament quest ends.
Blue-collar center Jack Salt is the only senior on the roster, but it’s a foregone conclusion that versatile sophomore De’Andre Hunter will turn pro (and become a likely lottery pick). Junior guard Ty Jerome, who controlled Saturday’s game, is also considered a potential first-round choice, and sharp-shooting classmate Kyle Guy could forego his eligibility--although of the three, he could most stand another year of seasoning.
In his decade as Virginia’s coach, Tony Bennett has built a stable program that’s far better suited for the rigors of a full season in the land’s toughest league than a single-elimination playoff. He has lost just one player (Westmoreland County native Justin Anderson) to the pros early. This potential exodus speaks to the talent level he’s now able to recruit, despite his program’s notoriously unglamorous defense-first style.
“To be honest, we had higher expectations for this year than last year,” Jerome said.
No matter who leaves, next year’s edition of the Cavaliers figures to remain competitive. But Bennett’s not likely to have this good a chance to win ACC or NCAA titles in 2020 (or maybe ever). So there’s arguably more pressure on the Cavaliers than anyone over the next month.
“We talk about it all the time,” Bennett said. “ ‘It’s 40-minute territory,’ as we say in the games. Possessions matter, and this is the test.
“Consistency over 18 games, now you’re in a situation when it’s one and done. A hot team or a matchup, you just have to be ready to go, And that’s a different kind of challenge, so hopefully we’ll be ready for it.”
Truly, the Cavaliers are better built, as they showed Saturday in rallying from a seven-point, second-half deficit. They have more consistent shooters than at any point in the past. They’re less susceptible to opponents with quick guards (like UMBC), thanks to freshman ballhawk Kihei Clark.
They have shot-blockers in junior Mamade Diakite and the ever-improving Jay Huff, and unselfish role players like Key, who made a huge 3-pointer and grabbed three key offensive rebounds. And it never hurts a team’s confidence to have to battle as the Cavaliers did Saturday to achieve one of their goals.
“They’ve got a chance to win it all, They do,” Louisville coach Chris Mack said. “They’ve got high-level talent. Tony is the best coach in the country. They know who they are. They know what their identity is.”
At the moment, their national identity is the only NCAA No. 1 seed to lose to a No. 16. The next month could go a long toward changing that. How can they do it?
“Just trying to be laser-focused, but also playing freely,” said Guy, who took the UMBC loss harder than anyone.
If the Cavaliers can solve that paradox, April may not be the cruelest month this time.