The bright lights of the Virginia Cavaliers Men’s Basketball Program suddenly went dark just over a year ago. Millions of viewers were glued to their TVs in stunned delight, watching a 1-seed fall to a 16-seed for the first time ever. As the Retrievers of UMBC were raucously celebrating their historic victory, the heavy heads of exasperated Virginia players hung low in disbelief—a sobering snapshot of the difference between being on the right and wrong side of history.
Following that gutting loss, the Cavaliers had an important choice to make: let it derail a decade of basketball excellence or dissolve the disappointment into fuel for a fiery comeback the next season. Now headed into a Final Four clash with Auburn, it’s obvious which route they chose.
There were several factors contributing to Virginia’s collapse in the 2018 tourey, the most prominent that they were without arguably their best NBA prospect, Deandre Hunter. Hunter was key contributor off the bench with suffocating defense and a sweet stroke. And considering Virginia’s abysmal 4-22 performance from deep, they really could have used him. Still, that doesn’t fully explain how the first overall seed loses to the 64th overall seed by 20, which is why it’s more prudent to point to a lack of focus and preparation as the smoking gun. The game wasn’t ever close. Not only did the Cavaliers look like the worse team, they looked panicked, as if the stage was a little too bright. Unusual from the top ranked team in the nation.
Even more unusual than that night was the way Virginia responded this season. Returning 3 starters and only adding a few recruits, the Cavaliers roster didn’t change much. In fact, other than the addition of Freshman lightning bolt, Kihei Clark, their rotation was basically the same. So while most of America expected an ugly hangover, Virginia put their head down and took care of business, winning their first 16 games, finishing 29-3. It was like March of 2018 never happened at all. Virginia was on a slow, deliberate path to redemption, and headed into the 2019 tournament as a 1-seed with unfinished business.
In the opening minutes of their first-round matchup against 16-seeded Gardner-Webb, though, the Cavaliers didn’t look so convincing. With Virginia down by 14 with 7 minutes to play in the first half, it looked like the unthinkable might happen two years in a row. Kyle Guy and Ty Jerome were having none of that. The two guards led their team back, silencing the whispers en route to a cathartic 15-point victory. The symmetry of the situation was downright poetic: trailing big to a ravenous, upset-minded team. Instead of forcing shots and playing hero ball like they did a year ago, Virginia learned from their mistakes and nestled deeper into their identity, using stifling defense and smart shot-selection to methodically crawl back into the game—a perfect microcosm of their season as a whole.
They’ve since won three more games, the most recent an overtime thriller against Purdue in the Elite Eight, but if they win it all it will be hard not to point to that first-round victory as the one that mattered most. Even if they come up short this weekend, this season will be viewed as an unquestioned success and an inspiring story. In a sporting climate marked by short leashes, quick-fixes, and a revolving door of personnel, Virginia doubled down on its players and its identity to bounce back. They decided to let their resolve define them—not their recent failure, all the while showing us that sometimes all it takes to fix a problem is just trying it one more time. The lights are bright again in Charlottesville, Virginia.