Every March, like clockwork, productivity in offices and workplaces across America takes a plunge when the NCAA announces its 64-team bracket (72, if you count the play-in games) for the Division I Men’s Basketball Championship.
You can pretty much count on the Division I royalty — Duke, the University of North Carolina, Kentucky — making their annual appearances in the tournament. Every now and then, a “Cinderella” team pops up — the 2011 Rams of Virginia Commonwealth University are the quintessential Cinderella, from the moment they won a spot in the 64-team field by winning their First Four play-in game to their appearance in the Final Four before losing to Butler in the semifinal round.
Then there are the heartbreakers, and for Virginians there is no greater heartbreaker than the Cavaliers of the University of Virginia. Since 1976 when they improbably won the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament, the Cavs have made 23 appearances in the tournament. The glory days were the Ralph Sampson years from 1979 to 1983: the NIT title in 1980, the Final Four in 1981 with a third-place finish, the Sweet Sixteen in 1982 and the Elite Eight in 1983. The team’s final Final Four appearance came in 1984, a year after Sampson graduated, and ended with a 49-47 overtime loss to Houston in the first round.
In the 35 years since, UVa has broken more hearts and blown up more brackets than we care to count. Playing their way to one of the four top seeds in 2014, 2016 and 2018, the Cavs made history — and not in a good way — when, as the overall No. 1 seed in 2018, they were thrashed in the first round by the unknown No. 16 seed, University of Maryland Baltimore County.
Tony Bennett, UVa’s head coach, took what could have been a team-destroying moment and used it to teach his players one of life’s most important lessons: You take what life throws at you, you learn from it and you grow in character. And just a year after that historic loss, UVa came back in equally historic fashion, winning a trip to the 2019 Final Four. They didn’t make it easy, though, with last-second victories that put grays on the heads of many a fan. In true UVa fashion, the Cavs lost a sizable lead in the championship game against Texas Tech on Monday night, winning the national title 85-77 in overtime.
As much as the commonwealth has to celebrate with UVa’s first-ever national title, we also can give a yell for the other four state teams that made the tourney: Liberty University, Virginia Tech, VCU and Old Dominion University. One day, we hope to be cheering another NCAA champion from our fair state.