For the second year in a row, and the fourth time in six seasons, the Virginia Cavaliers have claimed at least a share of the ACC regular season title. Now, with the double-bye and No. 1 seed in hand, UVA will look to go back-to-back as conference tournament champions in Charlotte, starting at noon on Thursday when the Hoos face either No. 8 NC State or No. 9 Clemson—two teams they bested on the road.
Of course, it would be a significant feat for UVA to win three games in three days, achieving complete conference domination yet again along the way. But what are the other factors that might come into play? And just how important is an ACC Tournament title? Let’s discuss:
NCAA Tournament positioning
Maybe the most tangible result of a championship in Charlotte would be the number one seed that would come with it. Even if it is not the tournament’s top overall ranking—that distinction would likely go instead to current AP No. 1 Gonzaga—the Hoos would still, more importantly, ensure placement into the East regional.
Though Virginia has played in advantageous sites in years past and still come up short (UVA’s losses in 2015 and 2018 both came in Charlotte), it never hurts to play closer to home. And while UVA would most likely have to get through the first two rounds in either Columbia, South Carolina, or Columbus, Ohio—both more than 300 miles away from Charlottesville— the East’s Sweet Sixteen and Elite Eight are set in Washington D.C., home to a major Wahoo fanbase.
The Possibility of Beating Duke
The Blue Devils have been Virginia’s bugaboo this season, delivering both of the Hoos’ losses on the year. Whether it was Duke’s physicality, which overpowered the Cavaliers in Durham, or an unexpected three-point barrage—shooting 61.9 percent from three, some 30 points above their average—in the February 9th rematch at John Paul Jones Arena, UVA has failed to contain the team’s freshmen superstars.
Still, while surefire lottery picks RJ Barrett and Zion Williamson combined for a whopping 101 points in the two contests, Virginia, a usually exceptional shooting team, struggled from long range. Against Duke, UVA—the ACC leader in three-point percentage at 41.4—was an abysmal 3-17 from deep at Cameron Indoor and just 5-14 in the final twenty minutes from three at home.
Does some of the credit need to go to Duke’s defense? Of course, but it cannot account for the entirety of such an aberration, and certainly is not the reason for some of the missed open looks. From a mental standpoint, then, a win over the Blue Devils this weekend, especially if the Duke lineup includes Williamson, could bring the Hoos even more confidence heading into March Madness.
The Value of Losing
Dare I say there may be some merit to a loss? Before writing this opinion off, let’s take a look back to the end of 2018, when, following their historic ACC run, UVA became the first ever one-seed to lose in its opening NCAA Tournament matchup. It was the ultimate roller-coaster ride for a team that, with just six days in between, climbed to the top of the college basketball world before falling to one of its deepest, most infamous depths.
In an interview with the NCAA’s Andy Katz last week, Head Coach Tony Bennett summed it up, “After winning the ACC regular season and the tournament championship […] we were the toast of the town, and it was enjoyable, and then after losing, we were criticized at the highest level.”
This is not to say a Bennett-led team ever takes anyone for granted, especially now after last season’s historic ending, but it might suggest that a loss can prove to be a humbling and, potentially, motivating experience. It also means that, if the Hoos were to drop a game before Saturday’s final, Virginia would have a little more rest before beginning the grind that is the NCAAs.
Since 1990, 14 teams have won their conference tournaments prior to capturing the national title—a 53.8% association (the Pac-10 did not hold a postseason tournament in the ‘90s when Arizona and UCLA won titles, in case you were questioning my often questionable math).
Such a high correlation is not all-too surprising when you consider the fact that almost every NCAA champion has sat at or near the top of their league standings in the regular season and thus expected to advance far in conference tournament action. In taking a closer look at the statistics over the last 28 years, then, we’ll notice that only seven title winners lost in the semifinals; North Carolina accounts for three of these occasions, and none have fallen any earlier.
So, I guess maybe it’s OK to lose, but probably not before the final round.
Whatever UVA does in Charlotte starting on Thursday, expectations—and, given last season’s disappointment, its accompanying pessimism, at least from some unforgiving pundits—will continue to remain high for the Hoos as they head back to the NCAA Tournament. In the meantime, we can only wait and see how Virginia handles this year’s edition of the ACC Tournament.