2018-03-17 11:04:04
On College Basketball: Virginia Loses in a Way No One Will Ever Forget

11:04, March 17 113 0

Virginia’s 74-54 defeat at the hands of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County was a long time coming.

It was the first time a No. 16 seed had beaten a No. 1 seed since the Division I men’s tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985 — that is 33 years and 136 matchups of 16 vs. 1. The loss on Friday was also embedded in the very way that Virginia has played basketball under Coach Tony Bennett for the better part of the past decade.

There may not have been a better regular-season college basketball team over the past five years than Virginia. Its 129 wins before the Atlantic Coast Conference and N.C.A.A. tournaments are among the best in Division I. That figure is the highest in the brutal A.C.C., and Virginia has won three of the last five regular-season conference titles.

But in the N.C.A.A. tournament, the Cavaliers have underperformed. As a top seed in 2014, they lost to fourth-seeded Michigan State in the round of 16. The next year, as the highest-ranked No. 2 seed, they fell in the second round. As a No. 1 seed in 2016, they suffered a fall-from-ahead loss to 10th-seeded Syracuse in the round of eight. When they lost in last year’s second round as a No. 5 seed, it was the first time in this span that they had not actually been upset in the tournament.

This season was an extreme version of who the Cavaliers are. With a 28-2 record — and then a 3-0 stomp through the A.C.C. tournament — the Cavaliers were unequivocally the best team in Division I, and they duly received the top overall seed in the N.C.A.A. tournament.

And then it all went wrong. U.M.B.C., the champion of the America East Conference, shot 26-for-48 from the field, including 12-for-24 from beyond the three-point line. The underdogs were not intimidated. If anything, that problem belonged to Virginia, which through the season had made nearly 40 percent of its three-point attempts but made only 18.2 percent on Friday. The Retrievers played on the vulnerabilities Virginia had all along, and that had made many doubt whether the Cavaliers could truly make a deep tournament run.

Virginia does not play like other teams. On offense the Cavaliers milk the shot clock. Their defense is a specialized system. And they are s-l-o-w: this season, they ranked dead last in possessions per 40 minutes.

The combination left Virginia vulnerable when U.M.B.C. kept the score close — at one point making three unanswered 3-pointers so that the halftime score was tied. Then the Retrievers went on a 16-2 run at the start of the second half. Virginia found itself down 12 with four minutes left, needing to make up a lead in a hurry: the one thing the team was not designed to do.

Juxtapose Virginia’s postseason track record with Virginia’s stylistic quirks, and one is inescapably tempted to reach a particular conclusion. It is the same conclusion that the baseball general manager Billy Beane seemed to draw when explaining how his unusually assembled Oakland Athletics of the early 2000s had tremendous regular-season success but never got to the World Series. “My stuff,” he said (though he didn’t say “stuff”), “doesn’t work in the playoffs.”

Beane said last week that his notorious line was a reference to the flukiness of baseball’s playoffs, not to the way the A’s played. The dissonance between Virginia’s regular-season and postseason performances, he insisted, is most likely pure luck.

“It doesn’t mean there’s a systemic flaw in what they’re doing,” Beane added.

Virginia partisans might explain the Cavaliers’ postseason flailing as a fluke combined with injury trouble — the appendectomy that limited Justin Anderson’s minutes in 2015; the unknown illness that sidelined Isaiah Wilkins in last year’s elimination game. Last week, right on cue, De’Andre Hunter, who was named the A.C.C.’s sixth man of the year, broke his wrist.

But there are enough trademarks in Virginia’s way of playing to argue that, yes, there may well be something about Virginia’s stuff that works less well in the playoffs.

“Because of the way they play, as great as it is — I love the way they play — there is a chance for a smaller margin of error,” said Seth Greenberg, who went 3-3 against Bennett’s teams while coaching Virginia Tech and is now an ESPN analyst.

Because of the Cavaliers’ style, they may be slightly more likely, in Greenberg’s words, “to pick a bad day to have a bad day.”

And in March and early April’s single-elimination environment, your bad day is your last day. As the Cavaliers learned Friday night in Charlotte, N.C.

Virginia’s offense is freewheeling and improvisational. But it takes time to work, and typically does not feature players who can create their own shots and go get a basket by themselves in crunchtime. In the last five minutes of 2015’s loss to Michigan State, for instance, Virginia trailed by 6 points with five minutes left — and proceeded to take just 11 shots, making only 5, including a pair of missed layups.

“When we needed a key stop or a bucket to be made, it wasn’t there,” Bennett said after that game. “If you look at it, we took 17 more shots than they did. We had trouble finishing and trouble making shots.”

Virginia plays the so-called Pack Line Defense. It was innovated by Bennett’s father, the former Wisconsin coach Dick Bennett. It is a man-to-man scheme, except defenders retreat to an invisible arc several feet shorter than the three-point line (the “pack line”). When the ball goes to their man, they rush out; otherwise, they bunch together along the line, discouraging entry passes. It is effective at denying post-ups and avoiding open shots, but is susceptible to teams whose contested shots tend to find their way into the basket.

Most of all, on offense and defense Virginia plays slow. Generally, this simply means that Virginia’s leads are larger than they appear. They are like dog years: You have to adjust them. Scoring eight unanswered points versus Virginia — which is going to make you work for it on offense and, when you’re on defense, take a bunch of time off the game clock — is not like scoring eight unanswered points against an average team.

“They get up on you,” said the North Carolina senior Joel Berry III, who has played Virginia eight times in his college career. “And then they put pressure on you, thinking, you have to come down, and you’re thinking you have to get a quick shot to try to get that lead back. And then next thing you know, you take a bad shot, and then you’ve got to go back down and play defense for 30 seconds again.”

However, as with cigars, sometimes eight points are just eight points. If your shots go in, your shots go in. That is how Syracuse was able to erase a 15-point deficit in a game’s final 10 minutes two Marches ago: “We just got hot,” Syracuse assistant coach Adrian Autry said recently. And it is how U.M.B.C. built a moat of a lead.

Playing slowly leaves better teams more vulnerable to upsets, said John Harris, a mathematics professor at Furman University who, with two other faculty members, has studied N.C.A.A. tournament upsets. He groups teams into “Giants” and “Killers.” The Giants are always the better team. The variable is what improves the underdogs’ chances. The answer, it turns out, is when the Giants’ giant-like qualities are minimized, because a slow pace means there is literally less basketball being played.

“Picture it in terms of an extreme case,” Harris said. “If each team had one possession, a Killer is more likely to upset a Giant. The more possessions you give a Giant, the more likely it is they’re able to separate.

“It’s the reason,” he added, “why you don’t play the World Series in one game.”

The N.C.A.A. tournament is essentially six straight single-game World Series. And now Virginia is going home.