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In or out — are Virginia’s tournament hopes on the line?

How Virginia could be a 5-seed or miss the tournament entirely

<p>The Cavaliers' NCAA Tournament hopes are on the line as they stare down the final three games of the regular season.</p>

The Cavaliers' NCAA Tournament hopes are on the line as they stare down the final three games of the regular season.

Since the golden age of Virginia men’s basketball began in 2013-2014, the Cavaliers (20-8, 11-6 ACC) have missed the NCAA Tournament just once — a lost season in 2022. As the calendar flipped from 2023 to 2024, it looked like Virginia might miss March Madness for the second time in three seasons. 

After starting 9-1 without playing a true road game — seven contests at the John Paul Jones Arena and three neutral-site affairs — Virginia lost their next three road games in blowout fashion, only beating lightweight programs Morgan State and Louisville during that stretch. This dropped the team out of the projected brackets of most experts. 

The team was lethargic, shooting poorly and not defending up to the lofty standards of Coach Tony Bennett’s pack line defense. As the academic semester began, Bennett made the bold call to shake up his starting lineup and rotation. His new starting five — senior guard Reece Beekman, a trio of sophomore guards in Andrew Rohde, Ryan Dunn and Isaac McKneely, and graduate forward Jordan Minor — was much better balanced in terms of positional height than previous lineup iterations had been. 

After that lineup was introduced, the Cavaliers won eight straight, all against staunch ACC competition. Virginia sat in or around the bottom of the AP Top 25 for a few weeks, peaking at No. 21 two weeks ago before dropping out after losing to Pittsburgh at home and getting massacred by Virginia Tech on the road. 

ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi currently has Virginia as an 11-seed come tournament time, down from the 8-seed it had been the past few weeks. The Cavaliers are projected as the third to last team in the tournament, placing them firmly on the bubble — the unofficial 10 or 11-seed cutoff that teams need to beat if they are not conference champions receiving automatic bids to the NCAA Tournament. 

The Cavaliers have three regular season games remaining — Boston College on the road, No. 8 Duke in Durham and Georgia Tech at home in the regular season finale — before the ACC tournament in Washington, D.C. Approaching Selection Sunday, now is the time to conjure up a winning streak. Entering the homestretch, it is worth examining the most likely postseason scenarios and how they leave Virginia — highly seeded, sneaking into the tournament or playing in the dreaded National Invitational Tournament. 

Predictability — beating unranked teams, losing to ranked teams

In their final three games, Virginia is favored against Boston College and Georgia Tech, and a heavy longshot against Duke. If those games all go as projected, Virginia will likely enter the ACC Tournament as the 3-seed behind North Carolina and the Blue Devils. This would likely leave the Cavaliers with a third-round matchup against either Wake Forest or North Carolina State, the teams Virginia went 1-1 with during the regular season. This game could make or break the rest of Virginia’s postseason — they could win and score a rematch with the ACC 2-seed, a chance at an upset and a near-guaranteed tournament berth or they could get upset and live in anxiety on Selection Sunday. 

If the favored team wins every game for the rest of the season, Virginia has a solid chance to make the ACC Tournament semifinals and enter the NCAA Tournament as high as an 8 or 9-seed. 

Upset-happy — beating the odds to knock off a Tobacco Road rival

This is the best scenario for the Cavaliers. In this hypothetical, Virginia wins its easier games and upsets Duke. Getting a double-bye in the ACC Tournament and maybe even making it to the tournament final would go a long way towards boosting NCAA Tournament hopes. This hot streak would have the potential to launch the Cavaliers up the bracket for the NCAA Tournament, as high as a fifth or sixth seed. 

This is, however, the least likely scenario — the hot shooting and late-game magic from the mid-season win streak are in the rearview mirror now. ESPN Analytics gives the Cavaliers a 5.2 percent chance to win all three of their remaining regular season games.

It is worth mentioning that if Virginia wins the conference tournament — during which they would almost certainly need to beat Duke or North Carolina, if not both — then they would receive an automatic bid and a probable seed somewhere in the range of sixth to eighth in the NCAA Tournament. 

Return to bad form — another blowout loss could spell trouble

On the flip side of the coin, losing to Duke as well as dropping a game to either Boston College or Georgia Tech could have dire consequences. The 2022 Virginia team blew its chance to sneak into March Madness by dropping three of their final four games. If the Cavaliers face a similar streak and lose another game where they are the favorite, crashing the NCAA Tournament becomes essentially impossible.

Even worse, a further late-season slide could affect Virginia’s place in the ACC standings. Right now the Cavaliers have the third seed in the ACC Tournament and a one-game lead on Clemson and Wake Forest. Letting both of those teams overtake them in the final standings would lose Virginia its double-bye and force the team to play an extra game and face higher-seeded opponents in the ACC Tournament. 

“Our job is to fight like crazy to not disqualify ourselves for [the tournament],” Bennett said after the Wake Forest victory Feb. 17. “All we can do is walk into that qualitative process, not get caught up in ‘you gotta win this, you gotta win that.’ You had better play at a high level.”

In this scenario, Virginia would likely enter the selection process with a minimum of 11 losses, a KenPom standing in the 70s and a NET rating in the 50s. That is not a tournament-caliber team, and the Cavaliers must avoid this scenario to make it in March. 

The truth

Right now, Virginia’s previous eight-game win streak in the ACC has given them the chance to cement themselves as a middle-tier seed, but it might ultimately be a long shot to make it to the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament. If the Cavaliers can rediscover the form that enabled their hot streak and collect a scalp or two, then they could end up as a 6 or 7-seed. However, the team has struggled in recent weeks, and a fall from grace could see them NIT-bound for the second time in three years.


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