RALEIGH — As Virginia tells it, that didn’t matter: the notion of what did or didn’t lie ahead, the unwritten chapter of the program’s 2016 NCAA tournament future. On Saturday night, 20 minutes after the Cavaliers capped an edge-of-your-seat, 77–69 second-round win over No. 9 Butler, several Virginia players spent time answering questions about Michigan State. Why? Because Virginia, which is headed to its second Sweet Sixteen in three years, knows it won’t have to face the pesky Spartans in March for the third season in a row.
On Friday, No. 2 Michigan State shockingly fell to No. 15 Middle Tennessee in the first round of the NCAA tournament, a setback that took place while the Cavaliers practiced at PNC Arena. Afterward, a few Virginia players might have noted a suddenly more favorable path to the Final Four as a result. But in a tightly packed locker room on Saturday night, the Cavaliers did their own bit of politicking during election season, offering canned answers and suppressed smiles at the thought of Sparty’s demise. No one admitted a Michigan State loss served as added motivation against Butler.
Still, at least one Cavalier couldn’t live with a politically correct answer. Junior guard London Perrantes said that, yes, he cared about Michigan State’s loss, but for a different reason. It meant the revenge-minded Perrantes wouldn’t get another shot at the Spartans in the Big Dance.
“I was a little upset they lost,” Perrantes said, “but things happen.”
Nice try, London. Of course Virginia is downright giddy to avoid Michigan State in its quest to reach the Final Four. Of course the Cavaliers are thankful not to have to play the team that beat them in the last two NCAA tournaments. That big green obstacle is no more, and no matter how you slice it, Virginia’s path to Houston became much more attractive after Michigan State tumbled out of the bracket.
But the Cavaliers aren’t too happy to ignore a salient truth: A loss by another Final Four contender hardly guarantees their own success. This Virginia team, with its bleak, downright embarrassing recent tournament history, still must prove its viability as a legitimate title contender. That much is clear to the Cavaliers, and another Sweet Sixteen berth is exactly the shot they need.
“It’s just now about who’s playing the best basketball at the right time,” Virginia coach Tony Bennett said, “and it’s possession-by-possession. And that was one of these possession games tonight.”
Indeed, Butler forced Virginia to slog out a win that tested the top seed’s mettle in Raleigh. The two squads used lock-down defense to stifle one another in the first 20 minutes at PNC Arena, with the Bulldogs carrying a 25–23 lead into halftime. Neither team led by more than three points in the first 20 minutes. Meanwhile, Virginia All-America Malcolm Brogdon ventured to the locker room shooting 4 for 10 from the field, including 0 for 3 on three-pointers.
“I said, ‘Butler will not lose,’” Bennett said. “‘You have to go get it. You will have to beat them.’”
Bennett was right. The Bulldogs, who willed their way to a first-round win over No. 8 Texas Tech on Thursday, pressed the fight well into the second half. They took a 39–34 lead over Virginia on a Kelan Martin jumper with 15:58 to play. But a key defensive switch turned the tide for the Cavaliers; the 6'5" Brogdon matched up with the 6'7" Andrew Chrabascz, who’d scored 24 points five minutes into the second half. With Bogdon shifting down low, Bennett slid reserve guard Marial Shayok into the lineup for Butler’s version of small ball.
Butler enjoyed a shift in momentum as a result. Chrabascz scored only a single point the rest of the way, and an and-one from Virginia forward Anthony Gill with 5:56 to play gave the Cavaliers a 64–66 lead, one which they wouldn’t give up.
“We wanted it a little bit more,” Gill said. “Not saying we didn’t want it last year around this time, [but] this year we knew what we were getting ourselves into.”
Virginia has to want it more because its recent trips to the Big Dance have been chock full of disappointment. In 2014, the Cavaliers carried a No. 1 seed to the Sweet 16 before losing by two points, 61–59, to No. 4 Michigan State. A year later that same Spartans’ squad kicked No. 2 Virginia, a 30-win squad, out of the tournament in the second round. Tremendous regular seasons under Bennett have done little to cultivate deep runs into March. That’s the history the Wahoos hope to change in the coming weeks, and for now at least, they won’t have to worry about Sparty darkening their door.
Still, the next step in that journey begins next week in Chicago, where Virginia will face No. 4 Iowa State, which got past No. 12 Little Rock, on Saturday. The Cavaliers say this tournament run won’t again end in painful fashion; Perrantes, who was a freshman on Virginia’s Sweet 16 squad two seasons ago, spoke at length about a renewed focus this time around.
“We’re a different team,” Perrantes said.
The numbers back that up as well. Virginia is one of only two tournament teams—fellow No. 1 seed Kansas is the other—to rank in the top 10 nationally in adjusted efficiency in offense and defense, according to kenpom.com. Brogdon and Gill, in particular, have helped the Cavaliers gel into a more effective offense than in years past, one factor that could help alter their tournament luck.
Perhaps Virginia is different. Perhaps Bennett’s crew has learned from its recent futility in March, and this particular group has figured out how to tap into its immense potential. But it’s also possible a greater opportunity has yet to present itself to the Cavaliers. With no Michigan State looming large, with no Sparty-feuled monkey on its back, Virginia enters this year’s Sweet 16 with a burden of realistic expectations.
“We all know last year what happened,” forward Evan Nolte said, “so it feels good to be back.”
There’s no doubt Virginia is back. Now, the talented Cavaliers get to see just how far they can go.