Those who don’t know what they’re talking about say that March is the only month that matters in college basketball. It’s the most important month of the season, but not the only one.
Just ask Virginia.
The Cavaliers’ March struggles continued on Friday night with a 71-67 loss to North Carolina in the ACC tournament semifinals, coming just six days after losing to Louisville. But after looking like the nation’s second-best team for most of the season, Virginia (29-3) should hold onto one of the NCAA tournament’s coveted No. 1 seeds, even if it doesn’t look like one of the nation’s four best teams right now.
Were it not for Duke’s stunning comeback in the final minutes of their Jan. 31 contest in Charlottesville, the Cavaliers would have been unbeaten when this month began. Calling its worthiness into question after losing by two points on the road at Louisville and by four on a neutral court to North Carolina is harsh, but also speaks to the razor-thin margin for error when competing for a No. 1 seed. For most teams, those narrow losses would hardly be cause for concern. But when the pool of candidates for a top seed in the NCAA tournament is deeper than the bracket can accommodate, such missteps take on an added significance.
As it proved during its 27-1 start and over the past two seasons (59 total wins, two ACC regular season titles and an ACC tournament title), Virginia is one of the best teams in the country. Whether it is one of the four best is a question that now falls to the selection committee.
Since all the candidates—well, other than Kentucky—have lots of wins and very few losses, it is easiest to start with the defeats. No. 2 Duke has lost four times: twice to No. 11 Notre Dame, a rout at unranked N.C. State and a blowout home loss to Miami, which is at best on the bubble. No. 4 Villanova has lost twice, once at a middling Seton Hall in overtime and once at Georgetown, a top-25 team. No. 5 Arizona has lost three times, each of them coming against teams that will not make the NCAA tournament.
No. 6 Wisconsin lost at home to Duke in December, to a bad Rutgers team in January (though the Badgers played that game without first-team All-American Frank Kaminsky and most of it without starting point guard Traevon Jackson), and at a top-10 Maryland team. No. 7 Gonzaga has only two losses, but spent most of the season beating up on weak opponents in the West Coast Conference and has a strength of schedule that ranks 72nd in the nation.
Against that level of competition, Virginia would appear to be comfortably positioned to retain the No. 1 seed that it had locked down when Friday night began. Head coach Tony Bennett, however, has other things to worry about. To whit: Star guard Justin Anderson, who looked like an All-America for much of the season, played only 26 minutes in the conference tournament after returning from a fractured finger and an appendectomy. He went scoreless on Friday night while his team committed 13 turnovers and shot only 31.5 percent from three-point range. Most troubling, the Cavs’ vaunted defense allowed North Carolina to shoot 55 percent, the highest percentage they’ve allowed in five years.
The surging Tar Heels didn’t just light up the nation’s second-ranked defense on Friday night, they never even trailed. After jumping out to an 8-1 advantage and leading by as many as 11 in the first half, North Carolina took a 30-23 lead into the locker room before extending it to 13 in the second half. Virginia, despite ranking 349th among 351 teams in tempo, needed only six minutes to cut that margin to one. Trailing 61-60 with 2:20 to go, All-ACC guard Malcolm Brogdon, who scored 23 of his 25 points in the second half, drove down the lane and lost the ball out of bounds. Virginia never again had possession with a chance to go ahead, and Carolina closed out the game by scoring on its final two offensive sets in the half court before hitting six of seven free throws.
Afterward, Tar Heels coach Roy Williams stood up for his vanquished foe. “Losing to Louisville at Louisville and losing in the ACC tournament semifinals doesn’t mean you’ve been bad. Tony has done a fantastic job. They get those guys healthy, they can win a national championship.”
Indeed Virginia can. And despite Friday’s loss, its road to doing just that in Indianapolis should not be any more daunting than it was when the day began.