Virginia’s three-game NIT run should pay several dividends: renewed confidence for freshmen Justin Anderson, Mike Tobey, Taylor Barnette and Teven Jones; additional frustration over the March decline that cost the Cavaliers an NCAA tournament appearance; a tighter bond between players and fans, who supported the team in admirable volume and numbers during the NIT.
But let’s rewind to Selection Sunday and pose a deal for Virginia: Take the known of an NIT quarterfinal loss, such as Wednesday’s to Iowa, or the unknown of an NCAA bid.
Understand that had the Cavaliers been selected, they would have been among the last teams in and shipped to Dayton, Ohio for the First Four. There they would have faced an opponent with equally suspect credentials, a Middle Tennessee State, Boise State, LaSalle or Saint Mary’s.
This was the third year of the First Four, and on each occasion, a survivor has moved into the main, 64-team bracket and advanced.
Most famously, VCU defeated Southern California in 2011 before dismissing Georgetown, Purdue, Florida State and Kansas to reach the Final Four. Last year, South Florida bested Cal in Dayton and then upset Temple.
This season, LaSalle topped Boise State before surprising Kansas State and Ole Miss to reach the Sweet 16 and the West Regional semifinals against Wichita State.
With a 3-10 record away from John Paul Jones Arena this season, Virginia would have been an unlikely candidate to win three consecutive neutral-site games, as LaSalle has done. The Explorers, conversely, were 8-7 away from home prior to the NCAA tournament, including a win at VCU.
Win or lose out of the gate, a second consecutive NCAA bid would have been notable for the Cavaliers. First, they would exceeded expectations for a team with only one significant senior: point guard Jontel Evans. Second, they would been in the tournament back-to-back years for the first time since 1994 and ’95 under Jeff Jones.
Those are recruiting pitches and evidence of progress for coach Tony Bennett’s program that no NIT success could have matched.
That said, Florida hammered Virginia in last season’s opening NCAA game by 26 points, and there’s no telling what, if any, effect another immediate exit would have had on players’ individual and collective psyches.
In defeating Norfolk State and St. John’s at home in the NIT, the Cavaliers proved little. Neither team approaches the Duke, North Carolina, North Carolina State, and even Maryland, outfits that Virginia beat at JPJ this season.
In losing to rugged Iowa 75-64 Wednesday, the Cavaliers (23-12) confirmed that another injury-marred season wore them down, particularly All-ACC wing Joe Harris.
An exception was Anderson, who scored in double-figures in all three NIT outings and had season-highs of 24 points, five 3-pointers and five blocked shots Wednesday. A product of Boo Williams’ Hampton Roads-based AAU program, Anderson is the most gifted player Bennett has recruited to Virginia, and it showed in the NIT.
Still, given that Selection Sunday choice, were I Virginia, I’d have taken the unknown of the NCAA over the known of an NIT quarterfinal.
Regardless, with a core of Harris, Anderson, Tobey, Akil Mitchell and Darion Atkins blending with redshirt Malcolm Brogdon, South Carolina transfer Anthony Gill and a quality recruiting class, the NIT should be well below the Cavaliers next season.
“Playing teams that are real tough is kind of a gut check,” Bennett said in his post-game presser, “and you realize this is what tournament basketball, desperately trying to advance to something significant, what you need to bring, and how it has to be done. There’s some wisdom in that to motivate us to work really hard in the offseason.”
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