Everybody and their president had Michigan State as national champs when the brackets were announced two weeks ago. The fourth-seeded Spartans wouldn’t even consider the top-seed UVa. a road bump along the way. The entirety of the NCAA Tournament was a coronation of the preseason favorite who spent three weeks at the top of the national polls before a slew of injuries knocked Sparty down a few pegs.
One or two plays down the stretch go the other way, and supposedly overmatched Virginia is in the Elite Eight. Michigan State knows, the Spartan Nation knows it, the national prognosticators, none of whom gave Virginia a sliver of a hope at a prayer, they know it.
Moral victories suck, because moral victories only come in scoreboard defeats. Too bad; Virginia’s 61-59 loss to Michigan State in the Sweet 16 Friday night was a moral victory.
“I told them what was remarkable about their season was sometimes you can get hot and have a five‑ or six‑game stretch, but these guys did it from the Florida State game to win a regular season conference championship, and then they carried it through to the conference championship. Got here and they don’t have to hang their heads for how they played,” UVa. coach Tony Bennett said.
Virginia, famously, started the season 9-4, the losses at home against VCU and Wisconsin, and on the road at Green Bay and Tennessee, that last one an 87-52 pasting on Dec. 30 that made the preseason Top 25 ranking look ridiculous. Five days later, at Florida State, UVa. took control early and won by double figures, launching a 19-2 run through the ACC that included the regular-season title and the first ACC Tournament title for Virginia since 1976.
Virginia went 21-3 following that loss at Tennessee to finish 30-7, the second 30-win season in school history, the first without a megastar named Ralph Sampson as the anchor.
What makes this 30-win season more remarkable is that there was nothing resembling a Sampson leading the way. Leading scorer Malcolm Brogdon averaged 12.6 points per game, and only Brogdon, a sophomore, and senior Joe Harris averaged in double figures.
Virginia basketball is arguably in better shape than it has been at any point in time, including the Sampson era, if you consider that the Sampson era was built around, well, Sampson, while this year’s remarkable run was accomplished by the embodiment of the cliché about a group with value more than the sum of its constituent parts.
“Akil and I have been through a lot in our four years here, and this is how we wanted to leave the program. We wanted to leave it in a better spot than when we came in, and I think we definitely did that,” said Harris, who was having obvious trouble with the creeping realization that the uniform he was wearing to the press conference was about to come off for good in a few minutes.
“And for to us make it to a Sweet 16 was awesome … but what made it more special was the team that we have is a special team,” Harris said. “The bond that we have with one another, with our coaches, with our trainer, everyone, it goes down the line, with our managers, everybody is close with one another. And for all of us to experience it together made it such an unbelievable experience, and something that we’ll never forget for the rest of our lives.”
That’s the hard part. It’s over, just like that. First ACC regular-season title in 33 years, first ACC Tournament championship in 38 years, a #1 seed, a tie game late against everybody’s tournament favorite, a play or two away from living to see another day, and … it’s over.
It’s just as hard to have to accept that you can grow in stature in defeat, but Virginia did that tonight. The nation expected a Michigan State cakewalk. Virginia was going to be exposed as a team that did it with smoke and mirrors in a weak ACC. The Cavs didn’t have enough offense to hang with Tom Izzo’s Spartans, and when push came to shove, Michigan State was going to push, shove and do whatever else necessary to not just defeat UVa., but reveal the ‘Hoos as a myth.
A two-point loss to a talented State team that was a preseason favorite to win the national title, started the season 18-1 and spent time at the top of the national polls, then found itself again at the start of the Big 10 Tournament when it got its starting five back, raised Virginia from myth to mythical.
The 2014-2015 Cavs have all the expectations in the world on their shoulders. Losing Harris and Mitchell will be an issue, but this will be Malcolm Brogdon’s and Anthony Gill’s team now, with Justin Anderson getting the chance to step up, with Mike Tobey getting another year to get stronger to complement his elite post moves and offensive rebounding, London Perrantes getting his first college offseason to build upon his game, and redshirt Devon Hall and incoming freshman B.J. Stith expected to press for playing time early.
The future is bright, and it may have gotten a little brighter not in spite of, but because of, one of the more disappointing defeats Virginia fans have ever had to endure.
That’s something that Harris remembers Bennett telling him when he was recruiting him four years ago. That Virginia was in a rebuilding program, and that Harris and his classmates would have to learn how to lose before they could learn how to win.
Only one team wins the final game in April; everybody else loses on their way out. Virginia lost Friday night, but the Cavs aren’t losers. In fact, they’ve never looked better.
– Column by Chris Graham