Now that the dust has settled on the Virginia Cavaliers’ historic collapse to UMBC Retrievers, the discussion is no longer how it happened but why it keeps happening? Why do UVA teams that have so much regular season success and ACC Tournament success keep failing in the NCAA Tournament?
Since the 2013-2014 season, the Hoos have a 143-33 record (fifth best in the country), but only a 7-5 record in the NCAA Tournament. More specifically Virginia has won two of the past five ACC Tournaments, going 10-3. Those ten wins include five wins over KenPom top #25 teams. Meanwhile the Cavaliers have only beaten one team in the KenPom top #25 in the NCAA Tournament (Iowa St in 2016). Both tournaments are on neutral courts, with quick turnarounds, against tough opponents. Why does UVA fail to live up to expectations in one tournament after having success in another tournament just a week prior? Here are some of the explanations, in no particular order that may explain it.
In the past five years, the Cavaliers were already locks for the NCAA Tournament headed into the ACC Tournament, so a loss did not end their seasons. Therefore there is not as much pressure to win and the team can play looser knowing the consequences are not as dire. However, there was pressure earlier in the season to end the losing streak at Cameron Indoor and Virginia prevailed. Also, other top teams face the same win or go home pressure but have performed better.
The Hoos have played 104 games against ACC opponents in the past five seasons, going an astounding 83-21. UVA seems to have the conference’s number and would seem to explain why the Cavaliers would do well in the ACC Tournament against familiar foes. However, Virginia’s opponents know UVA’s strengths and weaknesses as well. If there was some grand formula to beat the pack line defense I’m sure Coach K, Roy Williams, and Jim Boeheim would have figured it out by now, but they went 0-5 against the Hoos this season. Being familiar with ACC foes did not help UVA in the 2016 Elite Eight collapse against Syracuse. UVA’s opponents in the NCAA Tournament would also be facing an unfamiliar team and defensive scheme in the “gimmicky” pack line.
In 2015, UVA’s second leading scorer, Justin Anderson, broke his finger and missed the last eight regular season games. He came back to play off the bench in the post season, but only shot 1-of-9 from 3 after shooting 48% the before the injury. In 2017, leading rebounder and top defender Isaiah Wilkins came down with a mysterious illness and only played 19 combined minutes in the last three games, of which UVA lost two by double digits. This season, the ACC’s Sixth Man of the Year De’Andre Hunter broke his wrist and Virginia’s first game without him was the UMBC upset. However, the Hoos were completely healthy during their 2014 and 2016 upsets to Michigan St. and Syracuse. Other teams have been dealing with injuries this tournament too but have advanced, like Kansas St. and Purdue.
No Low Post Scorer
Sometimes UVA’s shooters can have a cold night and having a consistent low post scorer would help alleviate some of the scoring load. Anthony Gill and Mike Tobey helped provide that role in 2016, but Salt, Wilkins, and other big men in the other years were just not those types of players. Maybe if a certain big man last year followed the team rules or a unicorn got more playing time this season it would not be an issue. Even while shooting under 30% from three at Duke and in the ACCT vs Clemson, the Hoos were still able to prevail without a big-time low-post scorer. Another top team, Villanova, is 13th in the country with 47% of their shots being three-pointers, so not having a low post scoring threat has worked out fine for them.
Worn Down by System
The pack line defense and mover-blocker offense require both mental and physical energy in order to perfect. This exertion throughout a long season can take a toll on a team. UVA lost 2 of their last 8 games in 2014, 3 of their last 5 in 2015, 4 of their last 13 in 2016, 8 of their last 15 in 2017, and 2 of their last 10 this season. In the loss to UMBC, only seven players saw minutes, while Huff and Anthony only played in 13 games all season. All those minutes for the starters can add up at the end of the season, but other teams in the NCAA tournament play a long season too. Does the pack line wear its own team down more so than a zone, or than a run ‘n gun offense?
Maybe the lack of NCAA Tournament success has gotten to the players’ heads. Maybe Coach Bennett and the players feel even more added pressure to due to previous tournament failures and get a “here we go again” mentality when they get tested. The Florida loss was the only loss to a better seeded team, so getting caught looking ahead or taking a team lightly can certainly be a factor as well. The national narrative of not getting it done in the Tournament can be an extra burden, but somehow Villanova got past it two years ago and Gonzaga last season. It took many notable coaches longer to make a Final Four (Adolph Rupp, Bo Ryan, Jay Wright, Bill Self, Jim Calhoun, etc) and they managed to get over it. For Bennett, it may simply be a matter of time before also joining this group of top coaches.
Worn Down by ACC Tournament
Winning the ACC Tournament can be a blessing and a curse. Back in the day, winning the ACC Tournament was the only way to make the NCAA Tournament and was the only true ACC Championship. Now it might actually be detrimental to NCAA Tournament success due to the extra games and physical effort needed to win. Only one of the past eight ACC Tournament Champions went on to make the Final Four. Only two made the Elite Eight. The ACC teams that have won NCAA title recently didn’t even make the ACC Tourney Final (Duke 2015 and UNC 2017). However, in the two ACC Tournaments that UVA did not make the Final, they were bounced in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, so they extra day of rest did not help. (Obviously, there are other factors in the relationship between losing the ACC Tournament and losing early in the NCAA Tournament, like simply not being as good.) The Big Ten played their Tournament a week early and only have two teams in the Sweet 16, compared to four from the ACC and four from the Big 12, which had their Tournaments on the regular weekend.
Maybe these Virginia teams are just jinxed (looking at you Sports Illustrated.) Did anyone check the Hoos water supply or the carbon monoxide levels at their hotel? Why did the NCAA make them play in front of UNC fans in Charlotte, or against a non play-in game team, or at 9:45pm? Maybe UVA is located too close to Washington DC, home to other recent post season disappointing teams, the Nationals and Capitals.
Maybe it is all of these reasons above, or none of them. Maybe stuff just happens and teams get hot or cold and lose games played by 18-22 year olds.