For the third time in a decade, five Virginia schools grace the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. The first two instances saw a team from the commonwealth reach the Final Four.
So is VCU, Virginia, Virginia Tech, Liberty or Norfolk State primed to reach the sport’s grandest stage, or at least create havoc? Recent performances combined with the bracket unveiled Sunday are not encouraging, but if nothing else, March basketball is about the improbable.
The state’s five representatives are well acquainted.
Among the last teams selected in 2011, VCU famously reached the Final Four. One year later, Norfolk State stunned Missouri, and in 2019, Liberty upset Mississippi State, Virginia Tech advanced two rounds for the first time in 56 years, and UVA won the national championship.
But sequels are often problematic, and these are no different.
The West Region’s No. 10 seed, VCU opens Saturday against seventh-seeded and Pacific 12 regular-season champion Oregon, and were the Rams to survive, they’d almost certainly encounter All-American Luka Garza and Iowa in the second round. The Ducks’ loss to Oregon State in Saturday’s Pac-12 tournament final ended a six-game winning streak, and the Hawkeyes rank second nationally in offensive efficiency.
“Nobody thought we’d be in the NCAA tournament this year,” VCU coach Mike Rhoades said Sunday after the Rams’ Atlantic 10 tournament final loss to St. Bonaventure. “Not only are we going to be in the NCAA tournament, but I don’t think a lot of teams want to play us.”
Virginia Tech finished third in the ACC standings and is ranked 22nd in the most recent Associated Press poll, but the NCAA selection committee seeded the Hokies 38th overall, a reflection of a conference schedule KenPom.com ranks 15th among 15 teams. The South Region’s No. 10 seed, Tech faces Florida on Friday, with a likely date against Ohio State awaiting the winner.
COVID-19 pauses sentenced the Hokies to only three games in the last month, and sixth man Jalen Cone (ankle) hasn’t played since Feb. 27.
Atlantic Sun regular-season and tournament champion Liberty is the Midwest’s No. 13 and encounters No. 4 seed Oklahoma State on Friday. Led by the nation’s premier freshman, Cade Cunningham, the Cowboys eliminated Big 12 regular-season champ Baylor from the league tournament before falling to Texas in the title game.
As often the case for the MEAC tournament champion, Norfolk State will compete in the First Four, Thursday versus Sun Belt winner Appalachian State. The survivor draws undefeated Gonzaga in the opening round. ’Nuf said.
Which brings us to UVA, perhaps the most fascinating case in the 68-team field. The reigning national champions won the ACC regular season, only to exit the conference tournament prior to their semifinal against Georgia Tech because of a player’s positive COVID test.
The West’s No. 4 seed, the Cavaliers are scheduled to meet Mid-American champion Ohio in the first round Saturday, with the winner facing either Creighton or Cal-Santa Barbara. During a 17-minute news conference Sunday night, UVA coach Tony Bennett wasn’t asked a single question about the Bobcats, and with good reason.
The story is COVID, and the Reader’s Digest version is the Cavaliers will be without the infected player for the tournament’s first week and may not be able to stage a full-scale practice before Saturday’s tip, an unprecedented postseason challenge.
Oh, and if UVA advances two rounds, its probable Sweet 16 opponent would be Gonzaga. Most everyone recalls what transpired Dec. 26 when the Cavaliers and Bulldogs played.
The state’s first season with five NCAA tournament teams was 2011, when Richmond and VCU reached the Sweet 16, and the Rams made the Final Four. Eight years later, Virginia made its indelible run.
California and Texas share the record for most teams in the field, seven, the former in 2002, the latter in 2010.
VCU and St. Bonaventure give the Atlantic 10 multiple teams in the bracket for the 15th consecutive tournament, while the ACC’s seven are second only to the Big Ten’s nine. Yet for all the ACC’s depth, this is only the second time since seeding began in 1979 that none of its teams is a top-two regional seed.
The first occasion was 1990, when Duke and Georgia Tech advanced to the Final Four.
A year ago, the pandemic’s impact just beginning, we mourned the NCAA tournament’s cancellation. Sunday we reveled in a bracket to parse, and anticipating his team’s bid, VCU guard Bones Hyland spoke for many.
To compete in March Madness, he said, is “definitely a blessing.”