As expected, the Virginia basketball team made the NCAA Tournament field on Sunday. The fact that expectations start there? That’s a sign of how successful the program has become in the Tony Bennett era.
Expectations, however, are not guarantees and Bennett said one of the first goals each season is to play well enough to make the championship field.
”That was one of the things – you want to establish that,” Bennett said. ”We weren’t sitting there wondering if we were going to get in. We knew we were going to get in. … You always start the season and you never take that for granted. That’s always one of the desires or goals – qualify, be good enough to play in March in the NCAA Tournament. That, we feel fortunate about. The opportunity is there.”
The Cavaliers have reached the NCAA Tournament four straight times. The program accomplished that feat only once prior to this stretch, getting into the field from 1981-1984. Ralph Sampson, of course, played on the 1981-83 teams. The 1984 club followed the end of his career with a run to the Final Four.
Under Bennett, Virginia has made the field in five of the last six years. With five NCAA Tournament berths, Bennett has tied Jeff Jones for the second most appearances as UVA’s coach. Terry Holland guided the program into the brackets nine times. Bennett has led UVA to a 6-4 record in the NCAA Tournament. Bennett’s six wins also are tied with Jones for second behind Holland’s 15 wins.
The regular appearances and multiple wins by Bennett’s teams, including a run to the Elite Eight a year ago, is where heightened expectations have grown. It’s easy to forget after 89 wins over three seasons followed by this season’s 22 victories that making the field is no easy task. Winning games once you’re there is even harder.
In the years between Jones’ last NCAA Tournament team in 1997 and Bennett’s first in 2012, the Cavaliers made the field only twice in 14 years with one win. Pete Gillen’s team lost to Gonzaga in the 2001 tourney, while Dave Leitao’s team fell to Tennessee in the 2007 tourney. In fact, the last appearance by Jones and the first by Bennett ended with first round exits as well. That means UVA won only one game in the Big Dance in the 18 years between 1995 and 2014.
Which brings things back to the beginning. The Hoos landed as the No. 5 seed in the East Region, several lines below the comfortable one and two seeds of the past three years but they’re in the dance again and that means they have an opportunity to make a run. Bennett said before last season’s Elite Eight game that the program has to “keep knocking” with a symbolic door knocker along for the ride and this is another chance to do that.
More importantly, however, another tournament berth is a good reminder that prior to this string of success, Virginia didn’t have a door knocker. The bell was broken too. The best Cavalier fans could do was peek in the window and see if anyone noticed them outside. ‘Hello, anybody home?’ echoed around for years.
Now the Hoos get regular invitations to come on in and that’s a reason to be thankful before the madness begins.