As recently as mid-January, anyone who suggested that the Virginia Cavaliers would be the only ACC team to reach the NCAA tournament's regional semifinals would have been fitted for a straitjacket.
The Jan. 13 defeat at Duke's Cameron Indoor Stadium was an excruciatingly close one at one of college basketball's most formidable strongholds, but when the game was over, it was still a loss. It was the kind of loss expected of a Virginia team that already had the following warts on its resume:
- only 38 points scored in a home loss to Wisconsin;
- a loss at Green Bay in coach Tony Bennett's return to his alma mater; and
- a 35-point annihilation by Tennessee.
A 13-game winning streak ensued after that Duke loss, and by the time that run was over, the Wahoos had messed around and clinched the ACC regular-season championship—and yet skeptics lingered.
Virginia only played tournament-quality conference foes North Carolina, Duke, Pitt and Syracuse once in the regular season, they said. The Cavaliers couldn't score, cracking 70 points only three times between Jan. 25 and Mar. 15. Supposed top guns Malcolm Brogdon and Joe Harris only shot a combined 43 percent from the floor, a rate that would prove fatal in close games against elite competition.
But for every discouraging point, there's a counterpoint.
Virginia bounced Pitt and Duke from the ACC tournament held in Greensboro, N.C., usually a home away from home for Duke. The Cavs went 13-1 during that long span of low-scoring games, allowing a mere 52.7 points per game. And at least three Virginia players have cracked double-figure scoring in six of the team's seven March games.
“I think maybe if we win the national championship people will believe in us," Brogdon said to ESPN's Dana O'Neil before Virginia's Sweet 16 encounter with Michigan State.
Will it even happen then?
As the ACC prepared to officially welcome Pitt, Syracuse and Notre Dame back in May, Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski slapped a bull's-eye firmly on the new-look league's proverbial back during a news conference.
I love what's happening with our conference. We're going to be a 10-bid conference. We're going to be the best conference in the history of the game. It's exciting to be part of that.
It was a bold statement even then, considering the ACC has only averaged five tournament bids per season since 2004. Georgia Tech's NCAA tourney runner-up finish that year is still the last time an ACC school not named Duke or North Carolina crashed the Final Four.
How many ACC teams made this season's tournament? Six. And we repeat: Only Virginia reached the Sweet 16.
The ACC wasn't SEC bad, but it certainly wasn't "best conference ever" good. The 11-bid Big East of 2010-11 never had anything to fear.
Coach K's statement has gone from bold to ludicrous, at least in the context of this season. Remember, mid-table fixture Maryland leaves this summer to be replaced by recent Final Four fixture Louisville. After that, all bets are off.
No, Virginia didn't run a gauntlet to go 16-2 in the league, but it made every opponent feel like it was doing just that.
Never mind scoring 70 points in a game. If the opponent only scores 60, you only have to score 61 to win. The Cavs gave up 70 or more to only four opponents all season, and Maryland needed overtime to get there in the regular-season finale.
The opposition averages a mere 55.5 points per game against Virginia, which is the lowest average in the country. ACC opponents struggled even harder, scoring only 54.0 points per game. And a nation collectively yawns.
Wake Me Up When Someone Scores
ESPN's Tournament Challenge tracks how far each team is picked to advance every season. In the 2013 tournament, Gonzaga was a highly polarizing No. 1 seed, but it still drew Final Four love on 27.2 percent of all brackets. A respectable 5.6 percent projected the Zags to win it all.
This season, Virginia stepped out of a scrum of twos and threes who all wanted to dress up like No. 1 seeds, and the team was regarded as just another pretender. The Cavs were a Final Four pick on 22 percent of all brackets, with only 3.8 percent choosing them as national champions.
Friday night's opponent, fourth-seeded Michigan State, was shown much more respect. The Spartans are a Final Four pick on 47.1 percent of brackets and national champions on 14.6, the latter figure second only to overall top seed Florida.
A preseason national top-three selection, the finally healthy Spartans are a popular choice to win the title, especially from media members eager to validate their preseason optimism. Virginia finds itself in the rare position of top-seeded underdog, with Michigan State a 2.5-point favorite, according to Vegas Insider.
Why? Again, it goes back to defense. It's hard for the casual fan to get excited about defense unless the team gets a ton of steals and highlight-worthy transition baskets. Virginia gets steals on only 8.5 percent of opponents' possessions, per college basketball analyst Ken Pomeroy (subscription required), good for 112th in the nation. Only 16.1 percent of the Cavs' total shots come in transition, according to Hoop-Math.com.
Both Virginia's and its opponents' average possessions check in at nearly 20 seconds, according to Pomeroy—these figures rank in the 30 slowest in the country. Calling this team methodical is like calling the Atlantic Ocean damp.
Don't assume that the Cavs can't hang if the game gets a little faster, though. They just dispatched Memphis in the round of 32, scoring 78 points on 66 possessions, according to Pomeroy. Virginia hasn't reached those totals in a regulation game since a win over Florida State on Jan. 18.
No one expected Virginia to be here back in November. Few expect them to survive much longer. And the players have an Alfred E. Neumanesque "What, me worry?" attitude about it.
“It’s kind of funny," forward Anthony Gill told O'Neil. “We know we’re overlooked, but that’s fine. We know what we’re capable of."
The rest of the ACC harbors hopes that Virginia's capable of beating Michigan State. After all, an ACC team has figured in the last seven Elite Eights and 36 of the last 40. For a league aspiring to greatest-ever status, absence from the regional finals represents a stunning disappointment.
For more from Scott on college basketball, including links to his podcast, check out The Back Iron. This week: talking Kentucky-Louisville with writer Jeff Greer of Louisville's Courier-Journal.