By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE – The first group of players entered the Courtside Club at John Paul Jones Arena around 5:30 p.m. Sunday, a half-hour before the NCAA tournament selection show would begin on CBS.
Those 30 minutes could have not passed much more slowly for members of the UVa men’s basketball team. It didn’t get any easier for the Cavaliers once the show began.
“It was nerve-wracking,” All-ACC forward Mike Scott said. “Jitters. It was all of the above. It was crazy.”
“Too much tension,” said assistant coach Jason Williford, who as a UVa player in the ’90s made three trips to the NCAAs.
A large screen had been set up along one wall of the room, and on a couch in front of it sat head coach Tony Bennett, with Scott to his left and Sammy Zeglinski to his right.
“I could feel the electricity,” Bennett said. “You could feel the nervousness and the excitement and the anticipation [of Scott and Zeglinski] before our name was called, because they’ve been through a lot.”
When the show began, Bennett said later, he was “cool, calm and collected.” That changed as the first bracket, for the South Region, was revealed, with no mention of UVa.
“I could feel Mike and Sammy, and I was listening to them sighing and going, ‘Oh, come on,’ ” Bennett said with a smile. “And that started getting me a little anxious.”
The Wahoos didn’t have to wait much longer. About 20 minutes into the show, the bracket for the West Region was revealed, and the ‘Hoos could finally exhale. For the first time since 2007, they’re headed to the NCAA tournament.
In its opening game, No. 10 seed Virginia (22-9) will meet No. 7 seed Florida (23-10) in Omaha, Neb., at 2:10 p.m. (Eastern) Friday. TNT will televise the game. The winner will meet No. 2 seed Missouri or No. 15 seed Norfolk State on Sunday.
When the pairing was announced, the room erupted in cheers, and hugs and handshakes were exchanged. For a team that has faced more than its share of adversity this season — UVa heads into the NCAAs with only seven healthy scholarship players — this was no small feat.
“It was amazing, man,” junior point guard Jontel Evans said of seeing UVa in the bracket. “This team worked so hard in the offseason. We’ve been through a lot of ups and downs. We have a new season now, and we’re just trying to make the best of it.”
Zeglinski said: “It means everything. We’ve come a long way from my first year. It’s been a long time coming.”
UVa dismissed Dave Leitao after the 2008-09 season and hired Bennett away from Washington State. The son of the legendary coach Dick Bennett took over a Virginia program with problems for which there was no quick fix. The ‘Hoos went 15-16 in 2009-10. They were only slightly more successful last season, finishing 16-15.
“The first two years were rough,” Evans said, “but now the hard work is finally paying off.”
Especially for the team’s fifth-year seniors, Zeglinski and Scott, each of whom has had a season cut short by injury at UVa.
“What a sweet reward for them to finish out their career and to play in — obviously, I’m biased — but what I think is the greatest sporting event on the face of the earth,” said Bennett, who has been to the NCAAs as a player, as an assistant and as a head coach.
Omaha, of course, is a place with which UVa is familiar. In 2009 and again last year, Brian O’Connor guided Virginia’s baseball team to the College World Series, held annually in Omaha, the city where he was born. He grew up across the Missouri River from Omaha in Council Bluffs, Iowa.
“Obviously, I’m very happy for Tony and the team,” O’Connor said Sunday night. “Hopefully there are a lot more Wahoo fans there now than Gator fans.”
Outside TD Ameritrade Park, where the College World Series is played, is a “Road to Omaha” statue on which one of the players was based on O’Connor.
“We’ll have to rub the helmet of him on the statue,” Bennett said with a laugh.
The NCAA field includes five teams from the ACC: North Carolina, Duke, Florida State, NC State and UVa. NC State edged Virginia in an ACC tournament quarterfinal Friday afternoon in Atlanta, and Bennett’s team flew back to Charlottesville that night.
The ‘Hoos had a film session Saturday and then returned to the court Sunday afternoon for a 90-minute practice, after which Dick Bennett spoke to the team. The practice helped take the players’ minds, if only temporarily, off the selection show that loomed.
When sophomore swingman Joe Harris woke up Sunday, he said that afternoon, he had been optimistic about the Cavaliers’ chances of making the 68-team tournament. But his roommates include Zeglinski, whose anxiety proved contagious.
“Sam got me nervous,” Harris said, smiling.
Bennett, for his part, took comfort in the fact that ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi’s projections had consistently included UVa. Morever, Virginia had finished tied for fourth in the ACC and posted a 9-6 regular-season record in games away from JPJ.
“You’re never sure until you see your name,” Bennett said, “but we felt good, because Lunardi, he’s correct most of the time, and our name was never even mentioned as a bubble team or one of the last four in. So unless something unusual happened, we felt at least OK about it, but not where you could just say, ‘Done deal.’ I didn’t feel that.”
Neither did his players.
“It’s been nerve-wracking,” Evans said. “Especially the show. Everybody was anxious. They wanted to see where we were going, if we made it or not. And the last couple games, the last two weeks of the season, it was hard, losing those heartbreakers to Florida State and North Carolina. But this team is resilient. We bounce back. It’s a new season now, and we’re just trying to make a run.”
Zeglinski said: “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that we just got. We’re just going to try to take advantage of it. Now our journey starts, and we just gotta get ready for Florida.”
The Gators, who went 10-6 in the SEC during the regular season, have won two NCAA titles under coach Billy Donovan. Florida’s standouts include two guards who made the All-SEC first team (junior Kenny Boynton and guard Bradley Beal) and another guard, senior Erving Walker, who was named to the second team.
Florida averages more than 25 3-point attempts per game. Five Gators have made at least 31 treys this season, led by Boynton with 105.
“They’re a big-time program and they got big-time players,” Evans said. “We’re ready. To be the best you gotta beat the best.”
Absent from the celebration Sunday night at JPJ was freshman guard Malcolm Brogdon, who was back home in the Atlanta area, recovering from the foot surgery that ended his season prematurely. But he wasn’t forgotten. A call was placed to Brogdon after the Cavaliers’ invitation was official, and his teammates shouted greetings into the phone.
When the show ended, Bennett held a short team meeting, after which the players were reminded that they have academic obligations to fulfill in the coming week. And then it was time for Evans and Scott to pay a long-awaited visit to the barber, better known as Jontel’s mother, Trina.
Before the season, Evans and Scott had made a pact: Neither would cut his hair until the Cavaliers received an invitation to the NCAA tournament. After letting their hair grow for nearly a year, both sported impressive afros, but each was eager for a sleeker look.
Trina Evans was happy to oblige Sunday night, wielding the clippers like a pro.
“I hope you enjoyed it the whole season,” Jontel said, “but now it’s time for a new look … Next stop: Omaha.”