Virginia Schools In March Madness: 1 Title, But Many Stunning Upsets

Written By JR Duren on March 2, 2022
March Madness tournament

Clark. Guy. Jerome. Diakite. Hunter.

Those names will live on in Virginia basketball fans’ memories for a very long time.

The University of Virginia Cavaliers’ 2019 March Madness tournament title may have been the high point in Virginia college basketball annals.

However, the commonwealth’s roster of men’s basketball programs has a knack for making news in the Big Dance.

UVA has commonwealth’s only March Madness tournament title

UVA is, by far and away, the state’s most successful NCAA Division I men’s basketball team. It has Virginia’s only men’s national title and the most appearances in the Big Dance.

The university’s tournament history can be split into two main periods:

  • The Terry Holland years
  • The Tony Bennett years

1975-1990: Holland Guides ’Hoos to First Tourney Appearance, First Final Four Appearance

Although the NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament launched in 1939, the Cavaliers didn’t get their first taste of the Big Dance until nearly 40 years later.

Coach Terry Holland arrived in 1974 from Davidson University to guide the team to a 12-13 record. The next year, Holland found his magic and led the team to an 18-12 record and its first tournament berth in 1975. Unfortunately, Holland couldn’t capture the program’s first tourney win; the Cavaliers lost to DePaul University 69-60 at the Charlotte Coliseum.

Virginia earned the East Region’s No. 1 seed in the 1981 tournament, which, back then, meant a first-round bye. The Cavaliers fell to the North Carolina Tarheels in the Final Four and went on to beat the LSU Tigers, 78-74, in the now-defunct third-place game.

Holland managed to guide the team to an unbelievable Final Four appearance in 1984, the year following star Ralph Sampson’s departure from the program. In true Cinderella fashion, the No. 7-seeded Cavaliers downed a No. 2 seed, No. 3 seed, and No. 4 seed on their way to a two-point overtime loss to the No. 2-seed Houston Cougars in the Final Four.

Holland went on to lead the ’Hoos to four more tourney appearances.

2009-Present: The Tony Bennett era brings Virginia its first title

The Cavaliers finished 10-18 in the 2008-2009 season, leaving Virginia fans wondering if the program could ever return to the success it experienced in the Terry Holland era. Virginia chose Washington State Cougars head coach Tony Bennett to turn the program around. And he did exactly that.

Bennett took just three seasons to get to the tournament. And by 2013, he had transformed the program into a college basketball powerhouse. The Cavaliers finished in the AP top 10 five times from 2013-2018, and finished in the top-five four times. The team made the tournament every season during that span, culminating with the incredible 2019 championship.

That year, the team:

  • Went to overtime in the Elite Eight
  • Won by a bucket over the Houston Cougars in the Final Four
  • Vanquished the Texas Tech Red Raiders in the championship game

All of this, of course, came just one year after the Cavs became the first No. 1 seed in tournament history to lose in the first round.

George Mason and VCU: Incredible Cinderella runs

George Mason University has six total NCAA tournament appearances, and none more memorable than the team’s 2006 run to the Final Four.

The Patriots became the first No. 11 seed to make it to the semifinals. They captured the nation’s attention as the team downed legendary programs such as Michigan State, North Carolina, and Connecticut.

The Patriots eventually fell to the University of Florida 73-58 in the Final Four. But not before they put together the most memorable run in tournament history at the time.

George Mason University in March Madness tournament
GMU’s Folarin Campbell cuts the net after beating Connecticut 86-84 in overtime in the 2006 March Madness tournament. (AP / Haraz N. Ghanbari)

Five years later, Virginia Commonwealth University matched GMU’s improbable run. The Commodores beat USC in a play-in game, kicking off an epic Final Four run that included wins over No. 6 seed Georgetown, No. 3 Purdue, and No. 1 Kansas. The team eventually fell to fellow underdog Butler University in the Final Four.

The program’s miracle run was the first of seven consecutive tourney appearances.

In total, George Mason has been to the Dance six times, and VCU has been 18 times.

Virginia Tech: 1 Elite Eight, 1 trip to Sweet Sixteen

After the Cavaliers and VCU, there is a steep dropoff in Virginia schools’ success in the NCAA tourney.

The Virginia Tech Hokies have made the tournament 12 times and have advanced past the second round only once in the modern era.

The team made the Elite Eight in 1967, when the first round featured only 32 teams. Overall, though, the team has a losing record in the tournament: 8-12.

Old Dominion: 12 appearances, no Sweet Sixteens

The Old Dominion Monarchs have made it to the Big Dance as many times as Virginia Tech ha. But unlike the Hokies, ODU has never won a second-round matchup.

The program’s last tournament win came in 2010, when it downed Notre Dame 51-50. The game went down to the final shot: a three-pointer by Notre Dame that rattled out, giving ODU the first upset of the tournament.

Best of Rest: Richmond, Hampton, VMI, Norfolk State, Liberty

The state’s heavyweights have put together impressive runs or made it to the tournament more than 10 times.

Here are a few of the remaining teams in Virginia that have made the tournament (and, in some cases, pulled off memorable wins):

  • Richmond Spiders: Nine appearances, Sweet Sixteen run in 2011
  • Hampton Pirates: Five appearances, epic upset over No. 2 seed Iowa State in 2001
  • Liberty Flames: Five appearances, pulled off an upset of No. 5 seed Mississippi State in 2019
  • VMI Keydets: Three appearances, Elite Eight run in 1976
  • Norfolk State Spartans: Two appearances, upset No. 2 seed Missouri in 2012
Photo by AP / David J. Phillip
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