A little over 12 months after being on the wrong end of the most infamous loss in their sport’s history, the Virginia men’s basketball team captured their sport’s top prize, and did so for the first time in the 114-year existence of their program.
This is a story that’s never been written before because there’s never been one like it. There couldn’t be.
NFL teams can go from losing in the wildcard round of the playoffs one year to winning the Super Bowl the next and no one bats an eye. If an NBA or MLB team drops a game in an early (non-wild card) round of the playoffs, there’s always a chance to get that one back. The ultimate redemption story in college football would involve a miserable double-digit loss season followed immediately by a dream campaign. In none of these sports does a single loss have the potential to stigmatize an entire franchise or program for decades simply because of the timing and the ranking of the opponent involved.
College basketball is the only sport in America with a postseason setup so potentially cruel and so potentially rewarding that a swapping of fates as extreme as Virginia’s could occur from one season to the next. Up until March 16, 2018, the sport’s ultimate loss had never occurred. The door for the sport’s ultimate redemption story had never been opened.
Now here we are. In one month, Virginia changed everything about the present, the past and the future of its program. That’s not hyperbole. That’s the NCAA tournament.
By any rational line of thinking, Virginia basketball was presently one of the sport’s five or six best programs before the 2019 postseason began.
The Cavaliers have been a No. 1 seed in four of the last six NCAA tournaments, and a top-five seed in the other two. They won the regular-season titles in what is widely believed to be the toughest conference in the country in 2014, 2015, 2018 and 2019, and captured that league’s tournament title in 2014 and 2018. No major conference program has won more games over that span than UVA has.
Still, when the NCAA tournament began in earnest two Thursdays ago, Virginia was deemed by many as the No. 1 seed most likely to miss out on the Final Four. The explanation for this rests primarily in the recent past.
In 2014, Virginia dominated the ACC in a manner that bears an eerie resemblance to what they accomplished this season. The Cavaliers earned a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, but it suffered an unexpected Sweet 16 loss to Michigan State. The Spartans played the part of UVA’s foil again a year later, knocking off the second-seed and repeat ACC regular-season champs in the second round.
For a brief hour or so in late March 2016, it seemed like “getting over the hump” was a phrase head coach Tony Bennett would be mercifully rid of forever. Then his latest top-seeded team completely unraveled in the final two minutes of a stunning 68-62 loss to No. 10 seed Syracuse in the Midwest Regional final.
Last season’s tournament “run” by Virginia doesn’t require a brief refresher course.
In theory, these performances in an unforgiving single elimination tournament should have had no effect on how this Virginia team was inspected. This Virginia team, as evidenced by its body of work, may have given us fewer reasons to doubt its merits than any other squad in America. The Cavaliers were the only team in America ranked in the top five of Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency categories, they had a pair of experienced All-ACC guards manning their backcourt, and a future lottery pick in De’Andre Hunter to make a play when their typical offense stalled.
That was one side of the story. A Twitter search of the words “Virginia” and “UMBC” at any point over the past 12 months always told the broader side.
In the college basketball world, despite stockpiles of evidence which should serve as a deterrent, the anecdotal tends to trump the tangible. There is no gradual stigma shed in this sport. Your reputation is your reputation until you do something that turns it inside out and morphs it into its antithesis. The razor-thin margin between two extremes seems wholly unfair, but it’s also a direct reflection of the NCAA tournament and the unabated power it wields.
Every coach who is now synonymous with college basketball success of the highest degree — Mike Krzyzewski, Roy Williams, John Calipari, Bill Self, Jay Wright — was once synonymous with something far less flattering. The narrative is always the narrative until it becomes something else, and that something else is almost always something that bears no resemblance to its past form.
Three decades ago, Krzyzewski was the head coach who was always going to be able to get Duke near the top of the mountain but would always find a way to tumble back to the bottom before he had a chance to plant his flag. Three years ago, Wright and Villanova were the combination that could never make it out of the tournament’s first weekend despite their lofty seeding. Three weeks ago, Virginia was the team that was always going to find a way to choke, and when that choke happened, it was going to happen in a manner that you would have never believed possible.
There are things that always and never happen each and every March. Then they don’t, or they do. Learning nothing, we move on to something else that will certainly never or always happen in the next NCAA tournament, simply because it hasn’t happened yet.
For Virginia, the always had become so discussed and solidified that their redemption story needed to be the ultimate redemption story. The ultimate redemption story wasn’t a trip to the Final Four this season or a national title in five years, it was the ultimate title in the year immediately following the ultimate loss. It’s the only way the two could ever be fused.
Whichever poor team became the first to lose to a 16-seed in the NCAA tournament was always going to instantly become a March immortal. The final score, the team that beat them, the surrounding circumstances, all of it was destined to be remembered forever. There was only one possible way to save this ...
From now until eternity, whenever someone tells the story of Virginia’s loss to UMBC in the 2018 NCAA tournament, their next breath will carry a necessary addendum.
The thing is, that same team, the next year they were a No. 1 seed again and won the national championship. They trailed with less than a second to go in both their Elite Eight and Final Four games, and then needed overtime to win in the title game. It was like fate.
A story that could never be told. Until it could.