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Virginia basketball’s March Madness pain has never felt worse

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The ‘Hoos have to deal with the unfortunate reality of being the first top seed to ever lose in round one.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-First Round-Virginia vs UMBC Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Virginia was the best team in college basketball all season. This was an indisputable fact for anyone who paid attention to the sport before the second week of March.

The ‘Hoos were not supposed to be this good, which made their rise even more stark. UVA was originally picked to finish sixth in the ACC in the preseason. It ended up having the best season in ACC history — 20 wins in 21 tries, a regular season and conference tournament championship, an undefeated record on the road.

Virginia lost two games all season by a combined eight points. It pulled off the single most incredible comeback of the year, erasing a four-point deficit to Louisville with under one second to play. Its defense wasn’t just No. 1 in the country in efficiency, it was also one of the stingiest units since KenPom started tracking data in 2002.

Virginia was historically good all year. Now they’ll forever be remembered for making history for all the wrong reasons.

UMBC actually did it, becoming the first No. 16 seed to ever beat a No. 1 seed. But it was how they did it that made this even more humiliating for the Cavaliers. UVA was throttled — losing by 20 points in a game they were favored in by 20.5 points. UMBC almost covered Virginia’s spread in a 16-1 upset.

This type of pain is nothing new for Virginia, and that might be the hardest part. The ‘Hoos were already on the wrong side of the biggest regular season upset in college basketball history when they lost to Chaminade in 1983. Virginia’s recent NCAA tournament futility makes it hurt even more.

Virginia just can’t breakthrough in March under Tony Bennett. For as consistently great as this program has become, it’s impossible to shake the routine disappointments in the NCAA tournament.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-First Round-Virginia vs UMBC Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Virginia was not an NCAA tournament staple before Tony Bennett took over. In the eight seasons that proceeded his hiring, UVA made just one tournament appearance. Under his watch, Virginia has risen from a program that fought to finish above .500 to one of the most consistent winners in the sport.

Bennett’s first great year in Charlottesville came in 2014. Virginia had gone from missing the tournament the year before to being a No. 1 seed. The ‘Hoos made it to the Sweet 16, where they were dispatched by a talented MSU squad. At the time, it was easy to see the program was rising.

The next year UVA grabbed a No. 2 seed in March. They lost again to Michigan State, this time in the round of 32.

The following campaign felt like the season Bennett was always building toward. Malcolm Brogdon and Anthony Gill were seniors, London Perrantes was a junior, and there was a strong wave of underclassmen adding depth. The ‘Hoos made it all the way to the Elite Eight, where they held a 16-point lead in the second half against Syracuse.

The Orange roared back to stun Virginia and dash its Final Four hopes. Suddenly UVA’s tournament struggles became an even bigger story than its upstart success.

Virginia was so good this season that you wanted to believe it was different. Teams like Duke, Michigan State and Arizona had more talent, but they didn’t run through the regular season in America’s toughest conference the way UVA did.

Virginia knew who it was — a team that operated at the slowest pace in college basketball (No. 351 out of No. 351), a team that played the country’s best defense, a team that played with an enviable amount of unity and cohesion. The roster was mostly made of three- and four-star recruits, but it still consistently beat teams with one-and-dones.

Tony Bennett has put on a clinic in implementing a system and recruiting to it. The only thing missing is validation in March.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-First Round-Virginia vs UMBC Peter Casey-USA TODAY Sports

Kyle Guy’s injury might have been the first warning sign. Virginia’s leading scorer sprained his MCL in the last game of the regular season against Notre Dame.

Even though Virginia had a No. 1 seed wrapped up, Guy did not miss a game. He played 36 minutes against Louisville in the ACC tournament opener, then 38 minutes against Clemson and 36 minutes against UNC. He didn’t look as explosive, but he was still effective.

Virginia took an even bigger blow when forward DeAndre Hunter broke his wrist just before the tournament started. Hunter was UVA’s breakout player, putting together an ACC Sixth Man of the Year season no one saw coming. He gave Virginia a long, athletic 6’7 forward who was coming into his own as a scorer. He was even starting to gain buzz as a first round pick. With one bad break, he was sidelined for the tournament.

Hunter wouldn’t have changed anything on Friday, not with the way UMBC was playing. The Retrievers hit 50 percent of their threes and consistently beat Virginia at the point of attack all night. The No. 1 defense in the country looked like a shell of itself.

Virginia didn’t just lose — Virginia was torched. The monkey on Tony Bennett’s back will stay there for another year.

There was a time when Mike Krzyzewski, Roy Williams and Jay Wright were each known as coaches who couldn’t break through. It only takes one special team under the right circumstances to do it. This year looked like it could have been it.

Instead, Virginia is still waiting.