Upsets rattled the Midwest Region during the NCAA tournament’s opening weekend. Meanwhile, top-seeded Virginia advanced to the Sweet 16 for the second time in three years behind the workmanlike efforts we’ve come to expect from coach Tony Bennett’s team.
Here are three reasons the third Final Four appearance in program history could be on the horizon:
1. Experience and Trust: Early in the second half of Saturday’s second-round matchup, Butler’s Andrew Chrabascz was torching the Cavaliers typically sound defense (fourth in the nation in adjusted efficiency). Virginia senior Malcolm Brogdon, the ACC Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year, had seen enough. He told Bennett he wanted to guard Chrabascz, who scored 24 points in the first 24 minutes as Butler took a five-point lead. Brogdon, a strong 6-5, 215-pound guard, stifled the 6-8 Chrabascz the rest of the game, holding him to one point. Virginia outscored Butler by 14 points over the final 15 minutes and Chrabascz attempted two shots in that time.
Bennett was asked if Brogdon’s defense was the turning point.
“Malcolm is that type of player,” Bennett said. "He sees -- you look at him all year, he's guarded point guards, wings, different guys at the 4 spot. We just said this is the time. He said ‘absolutely, I think this is right.’ We talked about that before whether it was him or Marial (Shayok). When a guy got cooking like that, you had to respect that, he was doing a lot of things.”
2. Don’t forget Anthony Gill: Brogdon deserves every accolade he receives. Earlier Sunday, he was named one of four finalists for the Naismith Trophy and he’s a consensus All-American for the second year in a row. His versatility drives the nation’s fourth most efficient offense (the Cavs also play at the slowest pace in Division I, which is why they average only 70.9 points per game, 235th in nation). Gill, a 6-8, 230-pound senior, is the frontcourt anchor. He has terrific footwork, a soft touch in the lane and would be the centerpiece on any other team with a 122.2 offensive rating, fueled by 57 percent shooting and a knack for drawing fouls.
Departing the tournament prematurely the last two years made Gill and his teammates stronger.
“We came in a little tougher in this game. We wanted it a little bit more. Not saying we didn't want it last year around this time. This year we knew what we were getting ourselves into,” Gill said. “We knew we had to go out there and attack from the beginning and fight throughout the whole game, and that's what we did.”
3. Michigan State has gone home: Virginia won 60 games the last two seasons, two ACC regular season championships and a tournament championship. It was the best two-season run in school history, surpassing what coach Terry Holland and three-time Naismith Trophy winner Ralph Sampson enjoyed from 1980-83. The Cavaliers earned a No. 1 NCAA tournament seed in 2014 and a No. 2 seed in 2015. And both years, Michigan State sent the Cavaliers packing before the regional final.
So, it seemed cruel and unusual punishment when Virginia and Michigan State were tabbed as the top two seeds in the Midwest. A regional final meeting in Chicago appeared imminent. So, it's fair to say the Wahoo Nation exhaled in unison Friday afternoon when No. 15 Middle Tennessee State shocked the Spartans. If the Cavaliers can slip past No. 4 Iowa St. on Friday night, they will face either No. 10 Syracuse, No. 11 Gonzaga or No. 15 MTSU in the Elite 8, with a trip to Houston at stake.