Top-seeded Virginia knows it has to play at a high level

Virginias Isaiah Wilkins (21), Malcolm Brogdon (15), and London Perrantes (32) react after a three point basket during the Cavaliers’ 81-45 win over Hampton in the first round of the NCAA Tournament Thursday in Raleigh.
Virginias Isaiah Wilkins (21), Malcolm Brogdon (15), and London Perrantes (32) react after a three point basket during the Cavaliers’ 81-45 win over Hampton in the first round of the NCAA Tournament Thursday in Raleigh.

Virginia rolled through a subregional at PNC Arena two years ago, securing a taste of significant postseason success for the first time in nearly two decades in the process.

Those Cavaliers were relative newcomers to the spotlight, even if they were a No. 1 seed. They’ve since entrenched themselves as one of the relative mainstays in the sport entering their third consecutive round of 32 game Saturday night against ninth-seeded Butler (22-10).

Virginia (27-7), the No. 1 seed in the Midwest regional, is one of only three teams to earn a No. 1 or No. 2 seed in three consecutive seasons; the others are Kansas and Villanova. The Cavaliers are also one of six teams to current boast three consecutive 27-win seasons, along with Gonzaga, Kentucky, Michigan State, Stephen F. Austin and Villanova (with San Diego State and Wichita State still capable of getting there).

There’s also the matter of advancing in the NCAA tournament for the third consecutive year, a short list that includes the likes of regular contenders Kansas, Kentucky, North Carolina and Villanova, among others.

Not bad company, but how much has really changed for coach Tony Bennett’s program since it was establishing itself as a capable postseason team two years ago with defeats of Coastal Carolina and Memphis?

“I think the experience is important, but I don’t know if you change how you go about it,” Bennett said. “I think you’re more aware that you have to play at a high level. There is nothing guaranteed, especially in college basketball this year. You’re going to have to show up and play well. I think our guys have a belief if we play we’ll have a chance to advance, but they truly understand if we don’t, we won’t.”

That was reinforced a year ago when the Cavaliers bowed out at this stage, falling 60-54 against Michigan State in Charlotte. Virginia had breezed into the tournament at 29-3, only to exit before the first weekend was complete.

That makes two considerably different postseason experiences for the Cavaliers’ core. One year brought a trip to the second weekend that offered an agonizing end but also promise for the future. Last season was just a sudden, unexpected end.

This time around, Virginia already has an 81-45 rout of Hampton to its credit and also a full understanding of the fragility of March.

“I think it’s different this year because we have a lot of guys who played in one or two tournaments and that aspect of it saying ‘Oh, wow, we’re here,’ we’re definitely very happy and thankful to be here, but it’s more focused on what we need to do this game and you learn not to look past any certain round,” senior forward Evan Nolte said.

This season also provides two differences from a year ago. Virginia’s path through the ACC proved rockier, from a slump in early January to tight losses against Duke and Miami in the regular season and North Carolina in the conference tournament. The Cavaliers did, however, avoid losing a player for an extended period like last year when Justin Anderson broke a finger on his shooting hand.

“Health and experience,” junior guard London Perrantes said. “We had some tough losses this season and a lot of experience from that. Most our guys are pretty healthy. I think those are the two things we took for granted last year, especially health-wise. Justin was just coming off the injury. I feel like we’re better prepared this year.”

And that could mean a different outcome for the Cavaliers, who are far more familiar with the stakes of the round of 32 than they were at this time two years ago.

“Our guys have done a lot over their four-year careers, especially this group of seniors,” Bennett said. “That won’t be taken away, but the piece of trying to advance as far as they can in the NCAA tournament would be a great way for them to finish their careers. That’s exciting, but there’s always a chance that doesn’t happen.”