By Jeff White (

DAYTON, Ohio — When the NCAA tournament selection show came on the air at 6 p.m. Sunday, the University of Virginia men’s basketball team had little reason to be optimistic. Most mock brackets had Cavaliers outside the field of 68.

“All day I was kind of nervous, trying to not think about it too much,” senior guard Reece Beekman recalled Monday night, “but that was really what was on my mind most of the day.”

Twenty-five minutes into the show, the mood changed. The Wahoos learned they were headed back to the NCAAs, and a frenzied and extended celebration broke out in the team lounge at John Paul Jones Arena, where players, coaches and staffers exchanged hugs and high-fives.

Some 21 hours later, the Hoos’ plane touched down at Dayton International Airport.

“It’s a quick turnaround,” sophomore guard Isaac McKneely said Monday night.  “We went from watching the show on Sunday, uncertain if we’d even be in the field, to seeing our name come up. And then we ended up practicing that night, because we like to get two practices in before a game … Then we were off to Dayton and here we are.”

McKneely was one of the three UVA players, along with Beekman and sophomore forward Ryan Dunn, who fielded questions at a press conference Monday night at University of Dayton Arena, the site of the NCAA Tournament’s First Four.

At 9:15 p.m. Tuesday, No. 10 seeds UVA (23-10) and Colorado State (24-10) meet at UD Arena, with the winner advancing to take on Texas, the Midwest Region’s No. 7 seed, in a first-round game Thursday night in Charlotte, N.C.

“I’m thankful to be here,” McKneely said. “I’m thankful that they gave us a chance.”

Dunn said the emotional swing was dramatic. “We were sitting on our couches just trying to see if we were playing. Next thing you know we’re here in front of you guys. But we’re all grateful to be here. We’re playing basketball. It’s what we do, what we love to do. I’m grateful to be in this position, just to be playing in March Madness again.”

Beekman said: “Getting our name called was a great experience, probably one of the best experiences at UVA so far. It was just a great honor to be here, and I hope we make the most of it.”

Had the Cavaliers defeated NC State in the ACC Tournament semifinals in Washington, D.C., they would not have had to sweat out Selection Sunday. But the Wolfpack, aided immensely by Virginia’s poor free-throw shooting late in the second half, rallied to force overtime and then pulled away in the extra period.

Without the contributions of Beekman and McKneely, UVA wouldn’t have been in position to win Friday night. But each went to the line in the final 70 seconds of the second half with an opportunity to help the Hoos seal the win, and neither came through.

NC State went on to win the ACC championship and claim the conference’s automatic bid to the NCAAs, leaving the Hoos in limbo.

“I thought we had chances to put that game away, especially when I stepped to the line,” McKneely said, “but it’s good to have another chance to play because I would have hung my head on that forever if we wouldn’t have got in.”

This is Tony Bennett’s 15th season as Virginia’s head coach, and his teams have experienced both heartbreak and jubilation in the NCAA tournament. In 2018, UVA became the first No. 1 seed to lose to a No. 16 seed. A year later, the Cavaliers won the program’s first NCAA championship.

“It keeps you humble, for sure,” Bennett said Monday night.

Tony Bennett

Virginia’s coaches have been scrambling to prepare their players for Colorado State. The Cavaliers practiced Sunday night at JPJ after the selection show and Monday afternoon at Wright State University. They’ll have a shootaround Tuesday afternoon.

“We don’t know a whole lot about Colorado State,” McKneely said. “We’ve been watching a lot of film, getting info on them, trying to do whatever we can, and the coaches put us in the best position to win … We know they’re a really good team. We have to come out and play. But I’m excited and I think we have a good chance.”

The Rams, who belong to the Mountain West Conference, have defeated such teams as Boston College, Creighton and Washington this season, and they’re extraordinarily experienced.

Colorado State’s rotation includes five fifth-year seniors, including point guard Isaiah Stevens, a five-time All-Mountain West selection. Stevens is averaging 16.5 points, 7.0 assists, 3.1 rebounds and 2.1 steals per game. He’s shooting 44.7 percent from 3-point range.

Beekman has twice been named ACC Defensive of the Player, and the Hoos will look to him to limit Stevens’ effectiveness.

“I think you’re going to see two of the best point guards go head to head,” Bennett said.

Bennett said his father, Dick, is close with Colorado State’s head coach, Niko Medved. As he’s scouted the Rams, Bennett said, it’s become clear “why they’ve been so successful for the past couple of years in a very difficult league.”

In six seasons under Medved, the Rams are 116-74. This is their second trip to the NCAAs in the past three seasons.

With so little time to prep, Bennett said, “you pick three or four things and say, ‘Fellas, this is who we are. Let’s be as good as we can and hopefully it’s our best against their stuff.’

“Again, you’re going to have to play a complete game. We understand that … You can’t overcomplicate it. You don’t have time to. You just have to be ready as you can. And when that ball’s tipped, try to enjoy it, but get after it.”

Ryan Dunn (left), Isaac McKneely (center) and Reece Beekman in Dayton

After reviewing videotape of UVA’s loss in the ACC tournament, Bennett said, he concluded he’d erred by not having his team foul the Wolfpack after McKneely missed a free throw in the final seconds of the second half. He’s thrilled that his decision didn’t keep his players out of the NCAA tournament.

“That was a powerful moment when our name came up [Sunday],” Bennett said. “It was real emotional, and it was exciting to celebrate with them, because a lot of the brackets [didn’t include UVA] …  So I’m thankful to be here.”

Beekman is 0-2 in the NCAA tournament. In 2020-21, his freshman season, Virginia fell to Ohio in the first round. In 2022-23, Furman ousted UVA in the first round. Beekman said Monday that he chose to return to Virginia for his senior season partly because he wanted to experience success in the NCAAs, and he’s excited to “have the opportunity just to lead this team and see how far we can go.”

The NCAA selection committee’s decisions invariably are second-guessed, and some members of the national media have questioned Virginia’s inclusion in the field. Bennett doesn’t want his team to waste time worrying about its critics.

“You always start by being thankful,” Bennett said, “and we always are so thankful and grateful for the opportunity. But then you just want to play well. If you’re trying to prove to everyone who says you’re not good or you don’t belong, that’s a tiresome battle. You’ve got to look at your group and say, ‘Let’s play to our fullest abilities, let’s go after this and get after it.’ ”

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