Within every NCAA tournament field, you'll find a handful of teams that are just happy to be there and another set of teams on a mission to change the narrative that followed them into March. It may feel like ancient history now, but the first of Villanova's two national championships this decade came one year after a second-round loss to NC State that continued a frustrating trend of first-weekend exits for Jay Wright's best teams. The next year, the Wildcats entered the field as a No. 2 seed, beat North Carolina on a legendary shot and announced themselves as national contenders for the foreseeable future.
Not all redemption stories get an ending quite that happy, but there will be no shortage of squads bringing a little something extra into tournament time. Here's who will be playing with the most to prove as we enter the heart of March, with championship week in full swing and Selection Sunday just days away.
As expected, the Cavaliers have been hounded by signs, chants and other not-so-subtle reminders of their historic first-round loss to No. 16 seed UMBC everywhere they've gone this year. They have responded with a dominant 28–2 season and a share of the ACC regular season title, a sweep at the hands of Duke being the only argument against their status as the nation's best team. UVA enters championship week with the second-highest adjusted efficiency margin in the 18 years kenpom.com has tracked its advanced metrics, trailing only the 2014–15 Kentucky team that didn't lose all season until the Final Four. But that will only make matters worse if the Cavaliers somehow don't make it to Minneapolis.
Virginia will hope to salvage its reputation by sticking to its usual formula and simply doing it better than it's ever been done. Tony Bennett's Pack-Line defense has continued to grind opposing offenses to a halt, and heavy lifting is expected of sophomore De'Andre Hunter, who broke his hand days before the loss to UMBC but should be the best player in the arena on both ends of the floor for most of the postseason. The offense, methodical as it may be, can go nuclear at any time, as Syracuse learned the hard way in a harrowing 79–53 loss at the Carrier Dome during which the Hoos hit a school-record 18 threes, shooting 72% from beyond the arc.
Bennett's formula of veteran leadership, defensive discipline, offensive efficiency and patience has propelled other teams to national titles, but he and his deep cast of returning players from last March's embarrassment need to blaze their own trail to a net-cutting ceremony before the national ridicule dies down.
The Volunteers spent all of the 2017–18 season turning the rest of the SEC into believers, as coach Rick Barnes molded an experienced group into bulldogs that never stopped getting up off the mat and were rewarded with a share of the conference title. Then they ran into a buzzsaw of March magic in the form of Loyola-Chicago, falling in the second round on a last-second Clayton Custer jumper that lifted the Ramblers to an even 50% shooting from the floor on the afternoon against one of the nation's top-10 most efficient defenses.
With every major contributor from that team back, including national player of the year candidate Grant Williams, the Volunteers spent most of 2018–19 as SEC frontrunners before a loss at LSU and Saturday's loss at Auburn left them one game shy of another SEC title share. That could leave the Vols off the top line of this year's bracket and aggravate the chip on their shoulder Barnes works so hard to instill. Tennessee isn't just playing to cash in on the contributions of a group full of juniors and seniors; if crashes out on the first weekend, it would be a damning reflection on the toughness the program has built its brand around.
Rob Gray and his man bun were 3.6 seconds away from being one of the marquee characters of the 2018 Sweet 16 ... and then this happened. The Cougars ended up on the business end of one of last March's biggest gut-punches, but they came back stronger this season, with an equally stingy defense (No. 15 in kenpom) and an improved offense that runs through senior Corey Davis Jr., the player who was right on time with the perfect closeout on that impossible Jordan Poole buzzer beater last year. As the class of the AAC, Houston won't be burdened with the expectations that the nation's other two two-loss teams (Virginia and Gonzaga) are, but Kelvin Sampson's charges will have their eyes on the program's first Final Four trip since the Phi Slama Jama years.
4. Michigan State
Tom Izzo took the Spartans to four straight Sweet Sixteens from 2012 to 2016 but hasn't been back since, and last year's 55–53 loss to Syracuse in the second round was equal parts confusing and infuriating to those in green and white. Michigan State is no longer the March constant it has been, but with a season sweep of Michigan it claimed the No. 1 seed for the Big Ten tournament and could play its way onto the top line of the field of 68 with a big week in Chicago.
Injuries to big contributors Joshua Langford and Nick Ward have only further spotlighted the work of point guard Cassius Winston, who cemented his place on the conference player of the year shortlist with 19.0 points and 7.6 assists per game. Casual college hoops fans may not have noticed the Spartans' second-weekend drought, perhaps because a deep March run always feels within reach in East Lansing, but this would be a good year to reestablish the expectation.
Have you heard that Pac-12 men's basketball is a joke? The league is at serious risk of sending only one team to the tournament, if regular season champ Washington holds serve at the conference tourney this week in Las Vegas. That's easier said than done for the Huskies, who clinched the league crown in February and proceeded to lose to Cal, one of the worst high-major teams in recent memory, and to Oregon in their final four games. Mike Hopkins's team may be carrying the mantle for the entire league when they arrive at their NCAA tournament site (second-place finisher Arizona State entered Monday in the First Four of SI.com's latest Bracket Watch). The loss to Cal aside, there are worse standard-bearers: Led by lanky senior small forward Matisse Thybulle, Washington's zone defense is engineered to pose big problems to teams unfamiliar with playing against it. But if the Huskies slip up, the Pac-12 could run the risk of being out of the national title chase by the first Saturday of the tournament for a second consecutive year.
UMBC's last victim before it stunned Virginia last year had big March plans of its own: America East Conference powerhouse Vermont went 15–1 in league play and seemed slotted for one of the 2018 bracket's prime Cinderella positions, until Jairus Lyles hit a deep three with less than a second left in the America East championship game to send the Retrievers dancing instead.
Vermont responded by winning the league with room to spare again, and led by junior Anthony Lamb, who scored 34 points in the conference tournament opener against Maine, the Catamounts are out for revenge. They will get their grudge match with UMBC if they can dispatch Binghamton on Tuesday and if UMBC gets past Hartford. The Retrievers are the only America East team to beat Vermont this season, and they did it twice; keeping last year's tournament darling out of the dance this time around would more than settle the score.