With Michigan State out, the Cavs, a number one seed two of the past three years, sandwiching a number two seed last year, are actually a Final Four favorite now.
Which in a tournament known as March Madness is worth less than the proverbial warm pitcher of spit that you sometimes hear talked about.
Saturday’s game with Butler, a program with a helluva recent NCAA Tournament pedigree, resembled the past two season-ending losses to Sparty. The Bulldogs had a guy going bonkers, with Andrew Chrabascz scoring 24 points in the first 24 minutes on 9-of-10 shooting from the field.
Every time it seemed Virginia was ready to get some separation, Butler would respond, to the point that UVA hit 12 of its first 13 shots in the second half, and all that did was turn a two-point deficit to a two-point lead inside of nine minutes to go.
But these ‘Hoos, supposedly too soft to win tough ones in March, made the big plays down the stretch in posting a 77-69 win to advance to the program’s second Sweet 16 in three years.
Virginia (28-7) is playing its best basketball of the season right now, with eight wins in its last 10 games, the losses a three-point defeat at Miami, a #3 NCAA seed, three weeks ago, and a four-point setback in the ACC Tournament final to another NCAA top seed, North Carolina, last weekend.
In that stretch, Virginia also has a win over UNC, a tough road win at Clemson, a win in a rematch with Miami in the ACC Tournament, and a dismantling of a tough Louisville team.
And now UVA is back in the Sweet 16, with bigger goals in mind still.
It was a stark contrast to the way the 2015 season ended, in a second-round game in Charlotte that saw Virginia fall behind big early to Michigan State, fight back to even in the second half, then fade down the stretch in a demoralizing 60-54 loss
“We came in a little tougher in this game. We wanted it a little bit more,” Gill said. “Not saying we didn’t want it last year around this time. This year we knew what we were getting ourselves into. We knew we had to go out there and attack from the beginning and fight throughout the whole game, and that’s what we did.”
UVA coach Tony Bennett said he wanted to his team to play “free” despite the pressure of being a top seed.
“You watch the tournament and everybody says, well, if you’re a lower seed you can play with nothing to lose. The higher seeds — these guys, their legacy is intact. They just have to after this and play. We tried to free their mind to get after it and play the right way,” Bennett said.
Next up in Chicago on Friday night: Iowa State (23-11), a 78-61 winner over Arkansas-Little Rock earlier in the day on Saturday.
“We know how good they are,” Bennett said. “I watched them a little bit. So it’s just now about who’s playing the best basketball at the right time.”
Story by Chris Graham