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D’ARPINO: Putting Virginia’s early exit from tournament into perspective

Disappointing loss shouldn’t take away from all the success of Virginia basketball this season

For most of the season, Virginia found itself on the good side of making history. However, in the NCAA Tournament, that wasn't the case, as the Cavaliers (31-3) became the first No. 1 seed in tournament history to lose in the Round of 64 when No. 16-seeded UMBC pulled off a stunning upset. 

To say Virginia merely lost the game to UMBC (25-11) would be an understatement. The Retrievers absolutely dominated the Cavaliers, holding Virginia to 18.3 percent three-point shooting while they shot 50 percent from beyond the arc themselves. They also were the first team to score more than 70 points on Virginia all year. The loss was so shocking and unexpected, it sent the college basketball world reeling. How does a team predicted to have a 98.5 percent chance of winning, according to the ESPN BPI, end up losing by 20 points? 

Simply put, it’s March Madness, and that kind of stuff happens. 

Is it disappointing? Yes. Confusing? Yes. Does it make Virginia's 2017-18 season a failure? Absolutely not. 

If you need a reminder of what Virginia accomplished this season, the Cavaliers were the outright conference champions, dropping only one game in all of ACC play. They went 9-0 in ACC road games, which made for a new conference record. Also during the regular season, Virginia held Syracuse to the fewest points scored by a Syracuse team at the Carrier Dome, and the Cavaliers beat Duke at Cameron Indoor for the first time in 23 years. When Virginia was named No. 1 in the AP poll on Feb. 12, it was the first time since 1982 that the Cavaliers had climbed that high in the national rankings.

After the regular season, Virginia went on to win the ACC Tournament, which was just the third time that the program had achieved that feat. They had five different players pick up All-ACC honors, along with Coach Tony Bennett being named the ACC Coach of the Year. All of this made Virginia unanimously the the top-ranked team in the country heading into the NCAA Tournament. 

That’s an outstanding list of triumphs for any team, but for a team who entered the season unranked — as Virginia did — it’s even more spectacular.  

But, of course, what’s on people’s minds is that Virginia just got humiliated by a team who was ranked the 111th-best team in the country going into the tournament. The loss will be in the record books, it’ll be the headline for a while and people will call it one of the biggest chokes in sports history. 

However, it can’t be forgotten that this was one loss in a season in which Virginia won over 90 percent of their games. So let’s make it clear that it was terrible loss, but Virginia was by no means a terrible team this year. 

Virginia overwhelmed their opponents with incredible defense this season, which certainly didn’t go unnoticed. Opposing coaches were often quick to say that Virginia was one of the most difficult teams to play against. One of the teams that couldn’t contend with Virginia was North Carolina – who the Cavaliers convincingly beat twice this season. The first matchup was a 61-49 win at John Paul Jones Arena, and the other win was in the ACC Tournament final. 

“It's a big ol' butt-kicking, is all it was,” North Carolina Coach Roy William said of the regular season game. “Their defense was a million times stronger than our offense … Their defense was really good. I told Tony it's about as good of a defensive game as I've had anybody play against us, and maybe ever.”

Many other coaches expressed similar sentiments about the quality of Virginia this season.

“Tony is one of the best coaches in the game, probably in college and pro, and their program obviously speaks for itself,” Georgia Tech Coach Josh Pastner said after falling to Virginia for the second time in the season. “They continue to stay healthy, they will have a shot to go to the Final Four and win a National Championship."

Well, the Cavaliers didn’t end their season with the National Championship that many expected they would. But the best teams frequently don’t. 

Just look at the 2014-15 Kentucky team who won every single game of their season until they reached the Final Four and suffered a season-ending loss. Or, look at Houston during the 80’s, otherwise known as Phi Slama Jama, who made three straight Final Four appearances without ever getting to cut down the nets. Even within the program, Virginia never reached the National Championship game with three-time National Player of the Year Ralph Sampson on the roster. 

When March rolls around, good teams lose.  

And while Virginia’s exit to the tournament was far earlier than those teams mentioned — which are considered among the best in college basketball history —  other top-notch programs have gone out in the first weekend too. For example, No. 2-seeded Georgetown lost to No. 15-seeded Florida Gulf Coast in the first round of the 2013 NCAA Tournament and No. 2-seeded Michigan State was stunned by No. 15-seeded Middle Tennessee in the Round of 64 in the tournament in 2016. 

Even Duke — one of the most decorated programs in college basketball history — has made early exits more than once. In 2012 the Blue Devils, who were a No. 2 seed, lost to Lehigh in the first round. Just two years later, Duke was a No. 3 seed and ending up losing to Mercer in their first contest of the tournament.  

What did Duke do the year after that loss to Mercer? They won a national championship. 

Could that be Virginia’s fate? It certainly might be. 

The Cavaliers will lose two phenomenal captains and players in senior guard Devon Hall and senior forward Isaiah Wilkins, as well as lose graduate transfer Nigel Johnson. But they’ll have returning captain, junior center Jack Salt, who will provide great leadership for the team. They’ll have sophomore guard Kyle Guy, an All-ACC First Team selection, and sophomore guard Ty Jerome to make for a dangerous offensive duo. Sophomore forward Mamadi Diakite, who had a breakout season, will still be around. And it’s exciting just thinking about what All-ACC Sixth Man of the Year, redshirt freshman guard De’Andre Hunter, will accomplish in his second year with Virginia.

The Cavaliers were an elite program this season, and the fluke loss to UMBC is no reason to doubt that the next few years will be any different. 

Perhaps the best way to move on from this season is to think about what Bennett said after Virginia’s heartbreaking loss to Syracuse in the final moments of the 2016 Elite Eight matchup.

“Weeping may endure for the night, but joy comes in the morning,” Bennett said. “We will have some tough nights because you're so close you could taste it, but absolutely joy will come in the morning for what these guys have established for Virginia basketball.” 

While the Cavaliers and their fans may currently be upset over this loss, when Virginia plays in John Paul Jones Arena next season, they’ll do so with banners recognizing the 2017-18 ACC regular season and tournament championships hanging above them — serving as a reminder of all the joy that this season brought. 

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