It’s hard to believe the seismic shift in the fortunes of Virginia basketball from just more than two weeks ago. After the Cavaliers’ domination of Duke Feb. 28, the Virginia faithful were on top of the world. Former Virginia Tech coach and current ESPN analyst Seth Greenberg could remind us until he was blue in the face how similar our situation was to that of his team just two years ago, who topped the Blue Devils yet failed to make the Big Dance, but we didn’t care. There wasn’t any chance in our minds that Virginia would fail to get a bid.
Then the last two weeks happened.
The Cavaliers responded to their signature win by dropping three of their last four games. Road losses to Boston College and Florida State and a slaughter at the hands of NC State in the ACC Tournament rapidly cast that self-awarded “tournament lock” status in serious doubt.
When the dust settled on Selection Sunday, the Cavaliers’ bubble had indeed burst. The likes of La Salle, Middle Tennessee State and St. Mary’s made the field of 68 instead of Virginia, despite those teams having produced fewer quality wins than the Cavaliers. But as ESPN’s Jay Bilas said repeatedly, this year it wasn’t about the teams you beat – it was about the teams that beat you.
Virginia fans received a minor consolation when the Cavaliers were awarded a top seed in the NIT, once a prestigious postseason tournament now disparagingly known as the “Not Invited Tournament” – a haven for the teams that weren’t quite good enough. The “reward” is at least one more game in John Paul Jones Arena, as Norfolk State comes to town Tuesday night to open NIT play.
As tricky as this may prove, Cavalier fans, I’m here to try to convince you that for this Virginia team, a trip to the NIT might be the best outcome.
If Virginia had gained a berth, it would have jetted off to the “First Four” — also known as the play-in games — in Dayton in order to earn the right to play against either 6-seed Memphis or 4-seed Kansas State.
It would have been a no-win situation; either they would have suffered the ignominy of play-in defeat, or they would have prevailed only to make a one-day turnaround to get to the round-of-64 host site for the next game. It wouldn’t have been as dispiriting as last year, when the Cavaliers were blitzed by an underseeded Florida team, but chances are pretty good that Virginia would have been sent home early. Only one of the First Four winners last year won in the round of 64, and that South Florida team fell in the next round.
A second consecutive early exit from the Big Dance could have fostered a feeling that Virginia’s best just isn’t good enough. Instead, the Cavaliers enter the NIT with a very real chance to hang a championship banner at JPJ. They will get important practice playing against teams that they should defeat, which, in case you didn’t notice, was Virginia’s single biggest problem this season. If coach Tony Bennett can get his team to close out games against lesser teams, an NIT title is very much in range.
The NIT berth should already be kindling a fire in the belly of junior guard Joe Harris and company, inspiring them to use the NCAA snub as inspiration. Bringing home the NIT crown would only make that hunger more pronounced entering next season.
That’s the dirty little secret of all of this. At this point, it’s really not about the 2013 NIT anymore. It’s about laying the groundwork for next season. The Cavaliers are returning their entire core except for senior point guard Jontel Evans.
The Hampton, Va. native has been an integral component to the team for the last three seasons, and his injury-induced absence at the beginning of this season no doubt contributed to Virginia’s early mercurial play. But his production after returning to the lineup was inconsistent, and late-game errors down the stretch have led some to suggest that the team might be better off without Evans next season.
Evans will be replaced by four-star recruit London Perrantes of Encino, Calif., but every other major contributor should return. In addition, versatile guard Malcolm Brogdon should reenter the fray after redshirting this season with a foot injury, and talented South Carolina-transfer Anthony Gill will be available after sitting out a year per NCAA rules.
That’s not to say that the team is ready to contend for a national championship next year. There is much work to be done, especially for a relatively young team. But the beauty of the NIT for Virginia is that the team could get up to five more games’ worth of run for freshmen Justin Anderson, Evan Nolte and Mike Tobey to gain experience going into next season.
Tuesday’s game against the Spartans could be an important starting point for that next incarnation of Virginia basketball. Of course, an early exit from the NIT could prove even more damaging than bowing out of the Dance before the end of the first weekend. Given the Cavaliers’ slightly erratic play this year, either possibility is in play.
Which Virginia will show up: the team that led Duke from start to finish – one that is ready to build for the future – or the squad that lost to Old Dominion? We’ll find out starting Tuesday night.