Yes, Virginia, there is a big reward. The Cavaliers won the Atlantic Coast Conference regular- season title, added the conference tournament championship Saturday night in Brooklyn and reaped the benefit of both by being named the No. 1 overall seed for the NCAA Tournament.
The announcement Sunday evening was both validation and vindication for a team that was not ranked in the preseason and was picked to finish sixth in its own conference.
Unlike some of the highly regarded teams in the country, Virginia has no “one-and-done” player — a freshman who is heralded enough to be headed directly to the NBA Draft after a single college season.
“Yeah, our one-and-done . . . is a shot goes up and [we] get a defensive rebound,” coach Tony Bennett said of his defense-oriented team after beating defending national champion North Carolina in the final at Barclays Center late Saturday.
Virginia is seeded first in the South Regional as one of nine entries from the ACC in the 68-team field. More than that, the squad is a symbolic standard-bearer for a sport that is marked by parity and a tournament that figures to be wide open. If the Cavaliers can emerge to take the season by storm, it is logical to think a lesser seed can spring up and win the title in San Antonio.
For now, though, the Cavaliers (31-2) carry the mantle. They proved they can do more than just hold the other side. They are improved offensively, too.
“I think that we know who we are,” Isaiah Wilkins said after the win Saturday. “I think that’s something that we have to do, so we don’t have a really big margin for error. We don’t have any one-and-done guys or anything like that. As older guys, you develop over the years, from going to playing like five minutes my first year to now, and you grow.”
The No. 1 team will open the tournament Friday in Charlotte against UMBC, which upset Vermont for the America East Conference title after having lost to Stony Brook in the penultimate regular-season game.
Villanova (30-4), which won the Big East Tournament championship just before Virginia won the ACC title in the same city Saturday, is the top seed in the East Regional, joining regular-season champion Xavier (28-5) to give the Big East half of the four No. 1 seeds. Kansas (27-7), making its record 29th consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance, is the other regional top seed.
“We’re going to approach it the same way we’ve approached every day: stay together, play Villanova basketball,” said Jalen Brunson, Player of the Year in the Big East, which has six teams in The Big Dance.
Among those is Seton Hall, which will play North Carolina State in the first round. The metropolitan area also will be represented by LIU Brooklyn, matched against Radford in the play-in round Tuesday (the winner gets Villanova), and Iona, which has the formidable task of meeting Duke.
Selection Sunday annually brews controversy. This time there was instant questioning about why Oklahoma and Syracuse made the field and Notre Dame, USC and Oklahoma State did not. “The games in November and December mean as much as games in February and March,” committee chairman Bruce Rasmussen said, referring specifically to Oklahoma, which is led by NCAA scoring and assist leader Trae Young but finished the season poorly.
Rasmussen added that Davidson’s victory over Rhode Island in the Atlantic 10 final Sunday afternoon knocked Notre Dame out of the field.
It was a way of acknowledging that March Madness actually began early. There is no telling what the rest of the month might bring. As Virginia’s Bennett said, “There’s so much parity in this tournament, you get as healthy as you can, as ready as you can. And don’t overcomplicate it.”
Big 12 7
Big East 6
Big Ten 4
Atlantic 10 3
Mountain West 2
MARK HERRMANN’S FINAL FOUR PREDICTION
Virginia beats Michigan
Villanova beats Michigan State
Virginia beats Villanova