By all accounts, if the Virginia Cavaliers (21-1, 10-0) don’t win the 2018 ACC men’s basketball regular season crown, it will be considered a pretty big upset.
That said, if the Virginia Cavaliers win the ACC but end up falling short of the 2018 Final Four, it will be considered…par for the course under Tony Bennett.
It might seem harsh to look at the No. 2 team in the nation, who is riding a 13-game winning streak and has wins over UNC and Duke, and see something negative. Unfortunately, that’s the situation that Virginia’s basketball program has created for itself by falling short of lofty goals following great regular seasons recently.
Bennett took over the program in 2009, inheriting a 10–18 team. He immediately started the program down the road to recovery, going 15–16 in his first season, 16-15 in his second, and getting Virginia back to the NCAA Tournament by year three with a 22–10 finish. After an NIT appearance in 2013, Virginia rejoined the ranks of basketball’s top programs. They had broken the running narrative about UVA’s mediocrity and given themselves a chance for a fresh one.
Be careful what you wish for.
The 2013–14 season saw the Cavaliers win the ACC regular-season title for only the second time ever, which also led to their second-ever ACC Tournament title. They finished No. 3 in the regular-season polls, their highest ranking in 30 years and earned a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Unfortunately, they lost to No. 11-seed Michigan State in the Sweet Sixteen and a brand-new Virginia basketball narrative was born. Great regular season, not-so-great when it counts.
In 2014-2015, the Cavaliers finished with their best regular season in program history at 28–2 and became the first ACC school not named North Carolina or Duke to win back-to-back ACC regular season championships. They faltered in the ACC Tournament semis but still earned a 2-seed in the NCAA Tournament. Things started well enough in the first round but when they once again met Michigan State, this time in the second round, they lost once again, reaffirming the narrative and also proving they really need to stay away from the Spartans.
In 2015-2016, Virgina finished the season 29–8, tied for second in the ACC. They made it to the ACC Tournament finals, losing to UNC, but still put together enough of a resume to earn another No. 1 seed. Once again, they were staring at a showdown with Michigan State (the No. 2 seed in the bracket). However, MSU was shocked by Middle Tennessee State in the opener and all signs pointed to the Cavaliers finally overcoming the narrative and making good on all their success.
They reached the Elite Eight and simply needed to knock off 1o-seed Syracuse, a team they’d beaten easily during the season, in order to advance to the Final Four. They even took a 35-21 lead into the locker room at halftime, seemingly assured of victory. And then, with nine minutes remaining, Syracuse started pressing and Virginia fell apart. The Orange shocked the Cavs 68-62 and took their place in the Final Four.
Once more, Virginia was the team that could easily beat you in the regular season but fell apart in the end.
2016-2017 was a little bit of a step back for Virginia, who finished a respectable 23–11 (11–7), good for fifth in the ACC. They ended up a No. 5 seed in the NCAA Tournament and might have had a chance to ride under the radar for once. But they were bounced the second round by Florida instead.
Now, however, the Cavaliers are back to where they seem to belong. At the very upper echelons of college basketball. Tony Bennett has done wonders for the program in his nine seasons there, compiling a 278-117 record and five NCAA Tournament appearances (and a sixth en route). But the fact remains that when it comes to great coaches and great programs, we measure success in Final Fours and National Championships. Maybe that’s unfair, but it’s still the way things go. Just ask Jay Wright, head coach of the No. 1 Villanova Wildcats. Under Wright, Villanova had been a really good program, but it wasn’t until they pushed aside the stigma of “good but not good enough” to win the 2016 National Title that they were both universally recognized as being great. It’s just the way it goes.
It’s certainly worth applauding everything that Virginia has accomplished on the court so far this season, and they’re almost certainly going to add another ACC regular season crown to their collection by the time it’s all over. But if they follow that up by once again falling short in the NCAA Tournament, failing to reach the final weekend and the Final Four, that’s what everyone will remember. And for all its success, it will only reinforce the narrative that Virginia has created for itself.