WASHINGTON (CBSDC) – Freshman point guard London Perrantes wasn’t even walking when Virginia last reached the Sweet 16. That is until Friday’s game against fourth-seeded Michigan State in New York.
UVa. had recorded a lone NCAA Tournament victory since its last Sweet 16 appearance back in 1995 before it swamped Central Carolina and Memphis last weekend in Raleigh. But now the top-seeded Cavaliers are just two more victories from their first Final Four berth since 1984. That was so long ago that fifth-year coach Tony Bennett was just 14 and dreaming of playing for his father, Dick, then the coach at Wisconsin-Stevens Point.
“You get to the Sweet 16, that’s the rarefied air of college basketball,” Bennett said. “We know who’s waiting [the Big Ten champion Spartans have been to the Sweet 16 a dozen times since 1995, advancing to six Final Fours and winning the championship in 2000]. We know how good they are. It will be us trying to test our game against one of the teams that’s playing their best basketball right now.”
Of course, Virginia is also playing its best basketball in decades. Having won the ACC Tournament for the first time since 1983 and the regular season and postseason crowns for the first time in the same year, the Cavaliers are 18-1 dating back to Jan. 18 with the lone defeat coming in the meaningless regular season finale at Maryland.
UVa. (30-6) has tied the school record for victories and has held 23 straight foes to less than 50 percent shooting from the field. Memphis came in averaging 77.4 points but had just 48 with three minutes left of what would be a 78-60 defeat. The Tigers shot just 41 percent.
“They’ve got to be the best defensive team I’ve ever played against in college,” Tigers senior guard Joe Jackson explained. “They just wait until you make a mistake, and then they do what they do.”
At the other end of the court, what the Cavaliers did was tie a season-high with 30 baskets while improving to 10-0 when shooting better than 50 percent (they shot 56 percent against Memphis). Five Cavaliers reached double figures for just the second time this year.
“They’re just as good offensively as they are defensively,” raved Memphis coach Josh Pastner, whose team beat defending champion Louisville twice this season.
Not only did none of the teams who play within 45 miles of the Beltway win a game in the tournament this March, all five of Virginia’s fellow NCAA qualifiers from the fabled ACC – Duke, North Carolina, N.C. State, Pitt and Syracuse—are all done for the season, too.
“To be the last ones standing is huge,” said Virginia sophomore off-guard Malcolm Brogdon. “We’re going to try to represent well.”
The ACC usually does. Its members won 11 of the last 40 national championships, including three of the past nine. However, no ACC school has been to the Final Four since Duke won it all in 2010. If Virginia doesn’t survive this weekend – the winner of the game between Iowa State and Connecticut awaits on Sunday if Michigan State is conquered – this would be the ACC’s longest Final Four drought since 1958-61 when the conference was in its infancy and the tournament consisted of just 23-25 schools.
The Cavaliers have never won the title, losing to runner-ups North Carolina in the 1981 Final Four and to Houston in 1984, the year after three-time national Player of the Year Ralph Sampson graduated.
Coach Terry Holland’s 1984 Cavaliers were an unsung bunch whose top scorer, senior guard Othell Wilson, averaged just 13.8 points. Much the same could be said of the current squad whose top scorer is Brogdon with 12.6 points per game. Bennett’s teams are always about defense first. UVa. allows only 55.5 points per game, the fewest of the 351 Division I schools.
“It means the world to have another chance to play with these guys,” senior big man Akil Mitchell, who leads Virginia with an average of 7.0 rebounds, said after the victory over Memphis. “We’re on a roll right now, and I wouldn’t trade this for anything.”
Imagine how Mitchell and fellow senior starter Joe Harris will feel if the Cavs roll through the weekend at Madison Square Garden and into the Final Four next week in Arlington, Tex.
David Elfin began writing about sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last four Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since March 2011.
Follow him on Twitter: @DavidElfin.