I think it might have been legendary Chicago Cubs broadcaster Harry Caray who once said that fans of the once-woebegone North Siders were the best fans in baseball. Why?
Because they had to be.
Much like Cubs fans went over a century without winning the World Series, Virginia Cavaliers basketball fans can probably sympathize some after recent years. For the last five years, the Hoos have had regular seasons ranging from good to spectacular, with staggering defensive numbers that have put them in a position to win more than 80 percent of their games in that time span.
There’s just one problem. Like it or not, teams are ultimately judged and a champion is ultimately crowned by a three-week single-elimination thunderdome that rarely produces the nation’s best college basketball team late on a Monday night in early April. Be that as it may, with an NCAA tournament seeding of 1, 2, 1, 5, and 1 since 2014, the Cavaliers have gone just 7-5 in the Big Dance. Evaluated in a vacuum, each season-ending defeat is explainable to at least some degree. Now, after five straight tournament berths without a Final Four appearance and just one truly deep run (the 2016 Elite Eight), I think it’s fair to call this more than just a bunch of flukes. Especially after becoming the first No. 1 seed to lose to a 16 seed last season, it’s fair to say that the Hoos seem to have a fatal flaw when it comes to the postseason*. The question is, what is that malady?
(*Note that the postseason in this case does not refer to the ACC tournament.)
The best way to approach this is to look at the common thread between those five games and determine the direct impact that those factors have had. I’ve narrowed it down to three: injuries, scoring droughts, and poor outside shooting.
2014: Sweet 16 vs. Michigan State
Extended scoring drought: Six points over 7:26 in second half
As Bennett and his upstart group introduced the nation to the Pack Line defense, and the Virginia fan base to winning big games, they seemed to be on a collision course from Selection Sunday with the fourth-seeded Spartans. They met in Madison Square Garden of all places, and after a game that could only be described as a kind of war, MSU prevailed in the classic after Justin Anderson’s last-second heave was just a bit off.
The Spartans ruled the interior in that game with six dunks to provide the edge in an otherwise even night scoring-wise. Joe Harris began an unfortunate Virginia trend in this game: upperclassman guards shooting poorly in NCAA tournament losses. He shot 6-14 overall from the floor and 2-7 from three. His 17 points were tied for a team high along with Brogdon, who shot 4-14, but this is where we begin to see the low scoring numbers team-wide take place. To make matters worse, do-everything forward Anthony Gill left the game early in the second half with a twisted ankle. He was anything but effective when he returned, scoring three points. All in all, though, this was nothing to be ashamed of. They were new on the scene and according to Bart Torvik’s game score metric, it wasn’t even close to their worst game of the season.
2015: Second round vs. Michigan State
Extended scoring drought: No points over 5:49 early in the first half
Maybe these Spartans were under-seeded again. UVA was likely robbed of a No. 1 seed with an ACC regular season championship and 29-3 record heading into the big show, too. And it’s not up for debate that Justin Anderson’s broken little finger and then appendicitis limited the freakishly athletic guard in ways no defense could. This was one that got away for Virginia because of their least efficient shooting performance of the season.
Credit to Michigan State for getting to the line often (finishing with .82 FTA/FGA) and only turning the ball over six times. What stands out in this loss was the Hoos’ shockingly poor three-point shooting. Anderson and the backcourt of London Perrantes and Malcolm Brogdon, then a junior, shot 1-14 from behind the arc, and as a team, UVA was 2-17. And on the interior this Sunday afternoon in Charlotte, it wasn’t Michigan State dominating so much as the Cavaliers not finishing their opportunities. In a game that was ultimately decided by six points, UVA shot 8-18 close to the rim. Their frustration was apparent early as they chucked up the first shot they could find, going against the Bennett maxim of passing up a good look for the sake of creating and capitalizing on a great one. The great ones they did find went unfulfilled, and two weeks after talk of a national championship in Charlottesville was more than rational, it was suddenly summer.
2016: Elite Eight vs. Syracuse
Extended scoring drought: No points over 5:57 in second half
Even though Kevin Harlan’s call of “Back from the dead on Easter Sunday!” as the buzzer sounded still haunts my nightmares, what has to hurt the most for UVA fans isn’t the loss, but the way it happened; up by 14 with 9:47 left, it certainly appeared that Virginia would await the result of the impending North Carolina vs. Notre Dame game to see whom they would play in their first Final Four in 32 years.
If the Cavalier program is built on the five pillars of humility, passion, unity, servanthood, and thankfulness, this is likely the first time where we see a failure of what I might call the mortar. Along with the above point of not settling for a good look, a slogan of Bennett and his assistants, namely Brad Soderberg, is Mike Tyson’s “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”
The Orange began to press, just like Iowa State had less than 48 hours earlier in the United Center when their own season was on the line. This time, however, UVA wouldn’t start dunking all over their opposition in a picture-perfect ending to a signature win. They kept missing their layups. Malachi Richardson suddenly became inhuman for Syracuse. Devon Hall’s season-saving three-pointer was no good with a few seconds left, and that was that.
In a way, the reasonable shooting performance (outside of Brogdon going 2-14 from the floor and 1-6 from three) and lack of injuries at once made that collapse even worse while making the entire tournament performance slightly encouraging in retrospect. If you string together a couple baskets or get a stop or two on the other end, Jim Boeheim calls off the press and this article doesn’t even get written, but the “what might have been” aspect of that game certainly stands out. On the flip side, the only healthy NCAA tournament team that Bennett has had in Charlottesville went to the Elite Eight and was painfully close to sending this program and its ever-humble leader to Houston. Which of those two takeaways should be the preeminent one? I’ll let you decide.
2017: Second round vs. Florida
Extended scoring drought: Four points in final 11:41 of first half
With glue guy Isaiah Wilkins sidelined because of a case of tonsillitis that morphed into walking pneumonia, Perrantes’ last game was no contest. The Hoos’ effective field goal percentage was just 30.6, but even the eye test was enough for us to figure out that a third Sweet 16 in four years wasn’t in the cards that night. Using Torvik’s game score, it was UVA’s worst game since the Tennessee loss in 2013. And man, did it ever feel that way.
2018: First round vs. UMBC
Extended scoring drought: Two points over 7:05 in first half
Did I say worst loss since the Tennessee game? This was the fourth-worst scored game for Virginia (ahead of a few games in 2008 and 2010 somehow) since Torvik began tracking this stuff in 2007-08. You know most of this by now. De’Andre Hunter was done for the year with a broken wrist, Jay Huff couldn’t help because he tore his shoulder muscle, and a much taller UVA team couldn’t get offensive rebounds against the Retrievers, which led to 12 made threes on the other end. The Hoos’ game isn’t built on offensive rebounds and getting to the line, but shooting the ball well and not turning it over. They won the turnover battle that night, but shot 4-22 from three with Devon Hall going 0-6 in his last game and Ty Jerome going 2-9.
Versatility is the biggest reason for these scoring droughts that lead to the frustrated three-point attempts we see this time of year. In 2014, they were laden with experience but were still a year away from seeing Anderson come into his own, just in time for his injuries to come about. The year after that, their wealth of experience almost made up for not having that slasher or interior post threat that they needed late in the game against Syracuse. Had Wilkins been at 100 percent for the Florida game, they still might not have beaten the Elite Eight-bound Gators, but it might have at least been competitive. And last year ... even with players as dynamic as Hunter and Huff sitting out, it’s hard to understand how and why Virginia could have shot and played so poorly. Except for Jairus Lyles going off for 28 points, losing that game defies all logic and description.
The way to keep it from happening again? Aside from “don’t get hurt”, having players like Huff and Hunter available who can both spread the floor and drive the ball inside seems to be a somewhat reliable antidote. We won’t know whether that’s actually true for five months, but in the meantime, that’s probably the best way to explain how a program as solid as Virginia continually falls short in March.