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Ranking Virginia men’s basketball’s top five tournament teams

The Cavaliers have had a plethora of successful tournament teams, but only one can take the cake

<p>After multiple missed opportunities during the Sampson era, Coach Tony Bennett led the Cavaliers to the promised land in 2019.</p>

After multiple missed opportunities during the Sampson era, Coach Tony Bennett led the Cavaliers to the promised land in 2019.

From the glory days highlighted by former center Ralph Sampson, a three-time College Player of the Year, to the recent successes under Coach Tony Bennett, Virginia men’s basketball has had its fair share of impressive tournament teams. Here’s a look at the five best teams to don the orange and blue in the Big Dance.

5. 1994-95 (Elite Eight)

The 1994-95 Virginia men’s basketball team — coached by former Cavalier Jeff Jones — came into the season with high hopes, having reached the 1994 ACC Tournament finals, upsetting No. 5 Duke in the semifinals. The team, highlighted by the likes of senior forward Junior Burrough, breakout junior guard Cory Alexander and steady senior forward Jason Williford — who now serves as the Cavaliers’ associate head coach — returned over 77 percent of the minutes played from the year before. This maturity carried the Cavaliers to an ACC-best 12-4 record and No. 13 ranking in the season’s final AP Poll. 

While the 2015-16 Virginia team challenges the 1994-95 squad with a similarly strong regular season, the 1994-95 team arguably had a more impressive tournament run. After dispatching minnows No. 13 seed Nicholls State in the first round and No. 12 seed Miami University in the second round, the Cavaliers downed No. 1 seed Kansas in a wire-to-wire 67-58 victory to reach the Elite Eight. Although the Cavaliers would lose to the defending champion and eventual runner-up No. 2 Arkansas 68-61, they will forever be solidified in Virginia lore as the only non-Terry Holland or Tony Bennett coached team to reach the Elite Eight. 

4. 1982-83 (Elite Eight)

The 1982-83 Cavalier squad, led by the legendary Coach Terry Holland on the bench and college basketball legend Ralph Sampson at the five-spot, had one of the most polarizing seasons in Virginia history. The Cavaliers kicked-off their 1982-83 campaign with back-to-back wins over a Patrick Ewing-anchored Georgetown squad and a “Phi Slama Jama”-led Houston team, but lost to NAIA school Chaminade in what remains one of the largest upsets of all time. 

Nonetheless, Virginia entered the tournament as a No. 1 seed as it looked to secure a National Championship for the departing Sampson. The Cavaliers were especially energized following a loss to NC State in the ACC Tournament finals, looking to send Sampson off with an NCAA title after he had been shut out of an ACC title for all four of his years on Grounds. Close wins against No. 8 Washington State and No. 4 Boston College led the Cavaliers to the Elite Eight, where they faced No. 6 NC State for the fourth time in just over three months. In what became one of the most notable feel-good stories in college basketball history, Coach Jim Valvano and the Wolfpack defeated the Cavaliers and eventually won the National Championship. 

3. 1983-84 (Final Four)

Following the departure of Sampson to the NBA, Virginia leaned on a mature core of senior guards Othell Wilson and Rick Carlisle and junior forward Jim Miller to continue its ACC dominance. Nonetheless, the trio couldn’t fill the large shoes left by Sampson and sputtered to a 6-8 ACC record and a first-round exit in the ACC Tournament, as North Carolina ran away with both the regular season and tournament titles. 

However, in the NCAA Tournament, the Cavaliers would outdo the Tar Heels and their performance from the past year, going on a Cinderella run for the ages as a No. 7 seed. Virginia defeated No. 10 Iona and No. 2 Arkansas in two nail-biters that were decided by a combined three points to reach the Sweet 16. The Cavaliers then downed No. 3 Syracuse and No. 4 Indiana — led by Hall of Fame Coaches Jim Boeheim and Bob Knight, respectively — to reach the Final Four for the second time in school history. While Virginia eventually fell to No. 2 Houston in a 49-47 heartbreaker, the 1983-84 squad will forever be remembered for a run no one could have imagined in their wildest dreams. 

2. 1980-81 (Final Four)

The 1980-81 Cavalier team was one of the greatest ACC teams of the early 1980s, featuring a dynamic duo of senior guard Jeff Lamp and Sampson. The Cavaliers went 13-1 in the ACC and spent four weeks atop the AP Top 25, notably sweeping North Carolina in the regular season. Despite falling to Maryland in an 85-62 drubbing in the ACC semifinals, Virginia went into the tournament looking for its first Final Four appearance.

The Cavaliers did just that, defeating No. 9 Villanova, No. 4 Tennessee and No. 6 Brigham Young en route to the Final Four and riding the strong play of Lamp, who was named to the All-Tournament Team at the tournament’s conclusion. In the Final Four, Virginia would face the Tar Heels for the third time, but couldn’t replicate its past successes, losing 78-65. However, in what would be the last third-place game in NCAA history, the Cavaliers downed LSU 78-74 to leave Philadelphia with the bronze. 

1. 2018-19 (National Champions)

Rounding out the top five is the squad that will forever be etched in history as the team that brought Virginia its first-ever National Championship and, in doing so, rebounded from the first-ever 16-over-1 upset the year prior. The Cavaliers were headed by an electric trio consisting of junior guards Ty Jerome and Kyle Guy and sophomore forward De’Andre Hunter en route to an ACC-leading 16-2 record.

In the tournament, the Cavaliers faced a scare against No. 16 seed Gardner-Webb, going into halftime down six, but exorcised their demons in the second half to run away with a 15-point victory. From there, Virginia downed No. 9 Oklahoma and No. 12 Oregon to reach the Elite Eight, where it faced No. 3 Purdue and needed a prayer from junior forward Mamadi Diakite to send the game into overtime. In the Final Four and National Championship games, the “Cardiac Cavs” continued to spike the blood pressure of Virginia fans, needing three free throws by Guy with 0.6 seconds left to dispatch No. 5 Auburn and mustering clutch overtime play against No. 3 Texas Tech to bring home the championship. 

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