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When the Earth opens...

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Virginia's loss in the Elite Eight is another in a soul-crushing list of Virginia collapses. It is also a reason to celebrate.

Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports

Perhaps the best way to describe being a Virginia fan to outsiders is that it's a lot like being an eternal catastrophic pessimist. "Yes, the sunset was lovely from the observation deck of this cruise liner, but what are we going to do when the engine catches fire tonight?" "Does my home insurance cover asteroid strikes?" "How well does this car handle if all four tires blow out simultaneously?"

Well, here we are again - the Earth having opened up beneath our feet and dropped us into a pit of defeat when victory looked certain.

Every team has their gutting losses - the ones that still sting years later - but it is telling that to find an image that encapsulates Virginia's reaction to the drastic collapse Sunday night, one only had to reach back to September.

Consider the list that Sunday night's gut ripper joins:

  • The 2011 ACC Tournament where the basketball team allowed Miami to rally from 10 points down in the final 42 seconds of regulation, and losing in overtime.
  • The 2008 Gator Bowl, where Virginia's offense failed to gain a first down in the final 7:32 of the fourth quarter, enabling Texas Tech to rally from 14 points down and kick a game winning field goal as time expired.
  • The aforementioned Notre Dame football game last September, where the Virginia defense conceded a long touchdown pass with a scant 12 seconds remaining in a game Virginia led against the #9 Fighting Irish.

This one hurts more, because the stakes were so much higher. The men's basketball program's third Final Four berth seemingly within grasp, only to watch it get yanked cruelly away. In the process, the normally stoic and unflappable Virginia team seemed to get rattled for the first time in...forever?

The stakes being so high, however, is the reason why once the shock and numbness wears off, Virginia fans need to smile.

  • When Malcolm Brogdon enrolled at the University, Tony Bennett had a record of 31-31 overall, and 12-20 in the conference at Virginia. Likewise, Evan Nolte, Mike Tobey and Justin Anderson all committed to the program at a similar time. They committed to a program that hadn't been to the Sweet Sixteen in sixteen years.
  • The senior class tied the program record for wins in a four year span, and did so with no Top 50 recruits according to the 247 Sports Composite Index.
  • The trip to the Elite Eight this year was only the program's sixth all time.
Simply put, this team was not supposed to be here. Not this soon and not with this collection of players. Tony Bennett took a Round of 32 level roster and turned it into an Elite Eight team. Virginia fans got so used to watching high-level talent end up on the losing side of games against the Cavaliers, that it is shocking when a McDonald's All-American like Malachi Richardson ends up actually being the best player on the court. The last four years would have been impressive for any team, but given where Virginia was when these players came into the program, it's downright astounding.

Next season, Bennett will have Top 50 recruits at his disposal (4 in fact). He'll have his first McDonald's All-American in Charlottesville since his first season. He'll have a former 5-star recruit for the first time at Virginia. It'll be a different team. It'll be a team of players whose recent memory of Virginia basketball is of a program at the top of the game.

The only reason it felt like the Earth swallowed the Virginia team Sunday night is because they fought and clawed their way out of a much bigger pit of irrelevance. It was the contributions of Anthony Gill, Evan Nolte, Mike Tobey and Malcolm Brogdon that got them here. It is on their backs that the program rode to a brighter future. The fact that their college careers ended in such a heart breaking fashion under the bright lights was because they put themselves and this basketball program under those lights in the first place.