North Carolina and Virginia certainly aren’t boasting about this reality, but it’s there: The Tar Heels and Cavaliers face more pressure than any other Sweet 16 programs.
Yes, that includes Oklahoma. Yes, that even includes Kansas.
One could conduct a genuine debate about Virginia versus Kansas — that’s a close call — but ultimately, the Hoos probably do face more heat this weekend.
If Kansas loses, it’s a disaster.
If Virginia loses, it’s a BIG disaster.
Unfair or not, welcome to the cauldron of second-weekend pressure in the NCAA tournament.
In the cover photo, above, Dean Smith reacts to an impending NCAA tournament loss. As great as he in fact was, Smith endured a miserable NCAA tournament run in the 1980s. After his first national championship season in 1982, Dean improbably missed the Final Four for the remainder of the 1980s. He missed in 1990, but beating top-seeded Oklahoma as an 8 seed in the round of 32 kept his streak of consecutive Sweet 16s alive, at 10. That 1990 NCAA Tournament was actually a success. From 1983 through 1989, though, North Carolina somehow fell short of the place it belonged.
Granted, the 1983 through 1985 losses occurred before the shot clock entered college basketball in the 1986 tournament. In 1987 through 1989, UNC lost to plainly better teams — Jim Boeheim’s best Syracuse team; Lute Olson’s first great Arizona team; and the national championship Michigan team with Glen Rice, Terry Mills, Loy Vaught, Sean Higgins, and Rumeal Robinson.
Nevertheless, a total of eight straight seasons — all with Sweet 16s, mind you — never reached their desired destination. The weight of time and failure crashed upon Dean Smith’s shoulders. Imagine College Basketball Twitter in 1989. #FireDean just might have been a hashtag…
Well, as the 2016 East Regional semifinals arrive, we encounter a situation not that different from what Dean Smith faced 25 years ago, in 1991.
North Carolina was the No. 1 seed in the 1991 East Regional, held in East Rutherford, New Jersey. The Tar Heels simply HAD to get back to the Final Four — not just as an extension of their annual aspirations, but to get rid of the cloud which hung over the program. Mark Macon and Temple put up a great fight in the 1991 regional final, but North Carolina’s team was better than Macon’s individual brilliance. John Chaney wasn’t able to reach his first Final Four with the Owls, but Dean returned to the big show at long last.
That East Regional title was cathartic and transformative for Smith and the Carolina program. Final Fours in three of the next six seasons, complete with the 1993 national championship, rounded out Smith’s career before he handed the baton to his longtime assistant and friend, Bill Guthridge, in the fall of 1997. When North Carolina stared down its long Final Four drought at an East Regional 25 years ago, it came through.
The Tar Heels — currently removed from the Final Four for the past seven years under Roy Williams — don’t want that streak to continue. Partly because of the possibility of upcoming NCAA sanctions, this could be Carolina’s last chance to make the Final Four until 2018 or even 2019. Coaches coach and players play at North Carolina in order to make the Final Four. If UNC can’t crack the code at an East Regional in which Indiana (5) is the highest remaining seed other than the No. 1 Tar Heels, it will be a very cold and lonely summer in Chapel Hill.
The heat is on.
It’s little different for the other top-seeded ACC team in the Sweet 16.
The best era of Virginia basketball was the early 1980s, when Terry Holland coached the Hoos to two Final Fours and an Elite Eight. Above, Holland walked off the floor in Philadelphia’s Spectrum after losing a 1981 Final Four national semifinal to North Carolina.
That loss stung the UVA program 35 years ago. Losing in the Final Four is painful enough; losing to a conference rival on that stage has to carry an extra-sharp bite. However, in recognizing that point, history could repeat itself in a very meaningful way for these ACC schools.
The bracket is set up that if Virginia and North Carolina both win two games this weekend, they’ll get to reprise that 1981 national semifinal at the 2016 Final Four.
Virginia would dearly love such a reunion — not primarily because it wants ACC bragging rights and a chance to avenge its loss in the ACC Tournament final a few weeks, but because it would mean the Hoos wold have ended their 32-year Final Four drought.
Kansas, for all the struggles it has endured in March under Bill Self, does not carry the weight of a Final Four drought of nearly one-third of a century. Kansas, for all the importance it places on basketball success — more than Virginia, without debate — is not saddled with the “now or never” urgency the Cavaliers are facing in Chicago.
Understand this about Virginia: The Cavaliers have had to hear over the past several seasons that Tony Bennett’s style just doesn’t work in the NCAA tournament. The slow pace minimizes possessions and creates close games. The offense bogs down. Malcolm Brogdon has to carry the team, or else. Blah, blah, blah.
Know what hurt Virginia more than anything else in the past two NCAA tournaments?
Playing Tom flippin’ Izzo and Michigan State, that’s what.
Virginia has a very simple statement to make in a Midwest Regional with only one other single-digit seed, the Iowa State team which awaits in Friday’s semifinal. If UVA wins two games, all the narratives about Tony Bennett this, Tony Bennett that, instantly vanish. Making the Final Four is its own sweet and inherent reward, but Virginia would also smash longstanding criticisms of the program and its coach if it can escape the second weekend of this NCAA tournament.
That’s more of an obstacle — with more of a reward at the end — than anything Kansas faces in the Sweet 16.
Everybody wants to rule the world, as the song goes, and everybody wants to make the Final Four.
Two programs, more than any others, NEED to make the Final Four.
Step into the klieg-light glare of pressure, UNC and Virginia. Your moments of searing truth have arrived.