Arizona, Virginia confront past misery after fresh March upsets

Mar 18, 2023, 9:58 AM
Arizona players sit on the bench in the final seconds of a first-round college basketball game agai...
Arizona players sit on the bench in the final seconds of a first-round college basketball game against Princeton in the men's NCAA Tournament in Sacramento, Calif., Thursday, March 16, 2023. Princeton won 59-55. (AP Photo/Randall Benton)
(AP Photo/Randall Benton)

Arizona and Virginia rightfully lay claim to proud college basketball traditions, whether you’re talking about the Wildcats winning the national championship in 1997, the Cavaliers doing it 22 years later or the many stars the programs have sent to the NBA and overseas.

They also have developing reputations for NCAA Tournament disappointments.

The stunning loss by second-seeded Arizona to No. 15 seed Princeton on Thursday, and fourth-seeded Virginia’s collapse in the closing seconds against Furman, were merely the latest examples of their humiliating March heartbreaks.

The Wildcats have been bounced by teams seeded worse than them in five consecutive NCAA tourney trips, while the Cavaliers were bumped by a No. 13 seed for the second straight year and five years to the day since becoming the only No. 1 seed to lose to a 16-seed.

“It doesn’t take away from what these guys have done and what we’ve experienced over the years, but you wanted it when you felt like you had it, and that was a tough one,” Cavs coach Tony Bennett acknowledged after the 68-67 loss to the Paladins, who essentially won by cashing in a turnover with a deep 3-pointer with 2.2 seconds left on the clock.

Bennett knows as well as anyone that agonizing notoriety is easy to earn and brutally difficult to overcome.

Doesn’t matter that the names and faces change from year to year.

The Cavaliers were Final Four favorites when they arrived in Charlotte, North Carolina, for their first-round game against UMBC in 2018. Forty painful minutes later, they were saddled with a lopsided 74-54 loss and the ignominy of becoming the first men’s team — after 135 wins by a No. 1 seed — to lose to one of the four lowest-seeded teams in the tournament.

Most hoops fans remember the upset vividly, perhaps more than the national title the Cavs won a year later.

“I would just say everybody at this level is good,” Virginia guard Isaac McKneely offered by way of explanation. “I know there’s the seeding and all that, but everybody can beat everybody, as obviously you’ve seen.”

If misery loves company, the Wildcats can relate.

Since losing in the regional final to Wisconsin in 2015, Arizona has been knocked out of the opening round three times despite being seeded sixth or better each time — the first two with Sean Miller on the sideline and the most recent, a 59-55 defeat on Thursday in which No. 15 seed Princeton scored the final nine points, with Tommy Lloyd running the show.

The run of disappointments began with a loss to No. 11 seed Wichita State in 2016. It continued against No. 11 seed Xavier in a regional semifinal the next year. The fourth-seeded Wildcats lost to No. 13 seed Buffalo in 2018 and, as a trendy title pick as a No. 1 seed last year, fell to fifth-seeded Houston in another regional semifinal.

Just how easy can the stink of an upset loss settle on even the bluest of bluebloods? Just ask Kansas.

Two years after playing for the 2003 national championship, the Jayhawks were dumped by No. 14 seed Bucknell and No. 13 seed Bradley in consecutive years. Their still-new coach, Bill Self, came to rue the “Killer B’s,” and not even a run to the Elite Eight could shake the questions about whether he could get it done in Lawrence.

He could, of course. The Jayhawks won the 2008 title and are the defending national champions.

Winning a national title is about the only thing missing from the resume of Gonzaga coach Mark Few, but it might take one for the Bulldogs to shake an uneasy March reputation for underachievement. They have been a No. 1 seed on five occasions, and twice reached the title game, but have become known as much for their losses as their wins.

“We’ve been in enough of those 1-16 games and you’re like, ‘Holy smokes,’” said Few, whose team plays Grand Canyon on Friday night. “Last year, I walked out for the tip and Georgia State, I think they were bigger than us at dang-near every position. And I’m like, ‘This is a 16-seed?’ I think that’s kind of where we are right now.”

Plenty of schools have positive reputations come March.

Princeton has been known as a giant killer ever since its backdoor-cutting, first-round upset of UCLA under Pete Carril in 1996, when current coach Mitch Henderson was playing for the Tigers. And while they beat UNLV as a No. 5 seed two years later, the Tigers had failed to reach the second round for another 25 years — until Thursday’s win over Arizona.

“There’s going to be some comparisons from some of you, I’m sure, to Coach Carril. I want to be really clear that this group did this,” Henderson said. “That was a really long time ago. This group did something special for its university, for the fans, for the former players and for one another. Very similar way that you see in the tournament, they just came together and did it.”

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Arizona, Virginia confront past misery after fresh March upsets