By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — For the second straight year, the UVa men’s basketball team gathered at John Paul Jones Arena to watch the NCAA tournament selection show on CBS.
In 2012, the Cavaliers were confident Selection Sunday would go well for them, and they did not leave JPJ’s Courtside Club disappointed. Virginia was awarded the No. 10 seed in the West Region last year.
The mood among UVa players and coaches was more subdued this time around.
“I told our guys at the outset of it, `I think we’re on the outside looking in,’ ” fourth-year head coach Tony Bennett said on a teleconference Sunday night.
“I think most of us were hoping to be pleasantly surprised,” All-ACC swingman Joe Harris said, “but we didn’t really expect too much.”
The Cavaliers’ pessimism proved well-founded. The NCAA selection committee chose such teams as Middle Tennessee State, LaSalle and Boise State instead of UVa and, in all, took only four representatives from the Atlantic Coast Conference. And so the Wahoos are headed to the National Invitation Tournament for the first time since 2006.
Virginia has won two NIT titles, in 1980 and 1992.
“I told our guys [early Sunday evening that] if we have a chance to play in the NCAA tournament, we’ll be thankful for that,” Bennett said. “If not, I said, then be very thankful to play in the NIT, and let’s be the best NIT team we can be.”
Virginia is one of the four No. 1 seeds in the NIT, which announced its 32-team field Sunday night. UVa (21-11) hosts Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference regular-season champion Norfolk State (21-11) in a first-round game Tuesday at 9 p.m. at John Paul Jones Arena.
The Cavaliers have won a school-record 17 straight games at JPJ.
“We’ve had success here all year, so that’s very good for us,” senior point guard Jontel Evans said Sunday night.
The winner will face Saint Joseph’s, a No. 4 seed, or St. John’s, a No. 5 seed, in the second round.
The NIT’s first-, second- and third-round games are played at campus sites. The semifinals are April 2 and the championship game April 4 at Madison Square Garden in New York City. The other No. 1 seeds are defending NCAA champion Kentucky, Southern Mississippi and Alabama.
“Obviously, to make the NCAA tournament, that was our goal at the beginning of the year,” Harris said, “but like Coach said, we’re fortunate enough to be able to go to the NIT, and we’re going to make the most out of it, be the best NIT team that we can.”
By beating then-No. 3 Duke 73-68 in Charlottesville on Feb. 28, Virginia put itself in position to earn another at-large invitation to the NCAAs. Since that victory, however, the `Hoos have dropped three of four games, including a 75-56 loss to NC State in the ACC tournament quarterfinals Friday afternoon at the Greensboro Coliseum.
“We had a chance to probably secure it, but we didn’t get it done down the stretch,” Bennett said. “We didn’t play our best basketball the last four games, and that’s what stung.”
Also damaging were Virginia’s losses to Colonial Athletic Association teams George Mason, Delaware and Old Dominion, as well as defeats to ACC rivals Georgia Tech, Wake Forest and Clemson. Those setbacks negated the impact of UVa’s victories over such teams as Duke, North Carolina, NC State, Maryland, Florida State, Wisconsin and Tennessee.
Virginia had “as unique a team sheet as I have ever seen,” Mike Bobinski, who chaired the NCAA selection committee, said Sunday night.
Harris said: “We had some bad losses throughout the regular season which didn’t bolster our résumé. So we kind of put ourselves in an unfortunate position, but for us to have the chance to even get a shot at postseason, I think it’s good, especially for a young team like us.”
Of the players who are averaging at least seven minutes a game for Virginia, only Evans is a senior.
“For us to just have more basketball games left in us, I think, is great, ” Harris said, “and to get more experience under our belt, regardless of what postseason [tournament] that we’re in. I think playing in the NIT will be good for us for next season. Hopefully we can build off of it and get some momentum going into next year.”
One of the reasons cited for UVa’s exclusion from the NCAAs was its poor non-conference schedule. Had the Cavaliers fared better in the NIT Season Tip-Off, that might not have been an issue. The Nov. 13 loss to Delaware, though, meant that instead of traveling to Madison Square Garden for games against Kansas State and then Pittsburgh or Michigan, Virginia stayed home to face Lamar and North Texas, teams that finished the season 3-28 and 12-20, respectively.
“I think it was a sound schedule, it really was, but you had to take care of business, and we didn’t,” Bennett said.
Harris said: “You can look back on tons of games and just say, `If we would have gotten one of those ones, this one here or that one there,’ all the coulda, shoulda, wouldas.’ But we did what we could all season.”
Before the season, the ACC’s head coaches picked UVa to finish seventh in the 12-team conference, and that poll was conducted when 6-5 guard Malcolm Brogdon was expected to play this season. Brogdon, Virginia’s sixth man as a freshman in 2011-12, ended up redshirting because of a foot injury.
Without Brogdon, and despite health issues that sidelined Evans, 6-8 sophomore Darion Atkins and 6-11 freshman Mike Tobey at various times, Virginia tied N.C. State for fourth and earned a first-round bye in the ACC tournament. Along the way, in addition to collecting wins over NCAA tournament teams Duke, UNC, NC State and Wisconsin, the `Hoos swept their regular-season series with Maryland and Virginia Tech.
“This has been a great season thus far, and we’re not ready to be done yet,” Harris said.
The Cavaliers were at two tournament sites with the Spartans in 2011-12 — the U.S. Virgin Islands, for the Paradise Jam, and an NCAA regional in Omaha, Neb. — but the teams have met only once. That was on Dec. 10, 2010, at JPJ, where Virginia won 50-49 on a tip-in by center Assane Sene.
Norfolk State finished the regular season with a 16-0 record in conference play but was upset in the MEAC tournament quarterfinals.