March Madness Highs And Lows Of Virginia Cavaliers Basketball

Written By Adam Hensley on March 16, 2023
virginia cavaliers ncaa tournament 2023 march madness

March Madness is back. And once against the Virginia Cavaliers hope for a deep run in the tournament.

With a 25-7 overall record, the Cavaliers earned the No. 4 seed in the NCAA Tournament’s South region. Virginia faces No. 13 seed Furman (27-7) on Thursday at 12:40 p.m. ET.

Thursday marks the ninth NCAA Tournament berth for the Cavaliers under head coach Tony Bennett, who has elevated the program to unprecedented success. Virginia has enjoyed many highs recently, including a championship victory in 2019. But that rush didn’t come without reaching some lows, too.

Here’s a look at Virginia basketball during March Madness.

Virginia earns first tourney berth 37 years after first NCAA Tournament in 1939

Virginia basketball wasn’t always the blueblood it is today.

Henry Lannigan’s tenure brought great success to the program, winning 72.8% of his games from 1906 until 1929. But after his departure, the school struggled to find a hire to push the program to the next level.

Red Randall lasted one season. Gus Tebell lasted 20 years, but nine of those seasons included losing records.

Following Tebell’s 8-14 record in 1951, the school brought in Evan “Bus” Male, who won just 43.2% of his games. Billy McCann was the next man up in 1958, but his 40-106 record wasn’t ideal. Billy Gibson took over next but exited with a 43.2 winning percentage over his 11 years.

Then came Terry Holland.

Terry Holland revived Virginia basketball

Virginia never earned a trip to the NCAA Tournament before the school hired Holland in 1974. Once he took over, the team went dancing nine times.

Holland led the team to its first tournament berth in 1976. From there, the team missed the next four NCAA tournaments. But that all changed in 1981, when Virginia enjoyed some of its best basketball success over a four-year stretch.

From 1981 to 1984, the Cavaliers made four consecutive NCAA tournaments. Of those four, two included trips to the Final Four. Those teams included stars like Ralph Sampson, Othell Wilson and Rick Carlisle.

The Tony Bennett takeover

Tony Bennett boasts a 341-124 all-time record as the head coach of the Cavaliers. He’s one of just two Virginia basketball coaches with at least 250 wins. Bennett’s win percentage (73.3%) is a school record, too.

Bennett’s head coaching career started in 2006 with Washington State. In 2009, Virginia named him as its head coach.

Since Holland’s departure, the Cavaliers went through three different head coaches. Jeff Jones led the team to five tournament appearances in eight seasons. But after he left in 1998, the team made just two NCAA tournaments in the next 10 years.

Shortly after taking over, Bennett secured the school’s first ACC Tournament Championship in 38 years in 2014. That same season, Virginia advanced to the Sweet Sixteen for the first time in 19 seasons.

So far, Bennett won 16 NCAA Tournament games and lost nine. His Cavaliers program reached the Final Four once and boasts an NCAA championship. But Bennett’s team was the first No. 1 seed to make history for the wrong reason…

2018: The year of the 16-seed curse reverse

It was bound to happen eventually.

Prior to 2018, No. 16-seeded teams had never pulled a first-round upset over a 1-seed.  As it stood, top-seeded teams held a 135-0 in the first round, historically. But in 2018, 16-seed UMBC made history with a win over No. 1 Virginia.

Virginia entered the 2018 tournament with major expectations. The Cavaliers owned a 31-2 record and were the top team heading into March. With a stifling defense allowing just 53 points a game, many experts penciled this team in to win the championship.

Meanwhile, UMBC earned an automatic bid with its America East Tournament victory. The Retrievers came into the tournament with a 24-10 record — nothing to scoff at, but not as dominate as the Cavaliers’ mark.

History made at the Cavaliers’ expense

On paper, Virginia should have dominated UMBC. But the game turned out to be a runaway in the opposite direction.

UMBC’s offense was no match for Virginia’s vaunted defense, as the Retrievers won 74-54. Jairus Lyles hit 9 of his 11 shots, including 3 of 4 3-pointers, en route to a 28-point performance. Four of the seven Retrievers who played at least 10 minutes hit at least 50% of their shots. As a whole, UMBC knocked down 12 of 24 attempts from 3-point range.

Virginia, on the other hand, made just 4 of 22 triples. Kyle Guy and Ty Jerome both scored 15 points, but the Cavaliers struggled to find any offensive consistency.

“There’s not really a whole lot that can prepare you for this kind of feeling,” Kyle Guy said after the game.

The sportsbooks didn’t give UMBC that much of a chance to begin with, entering as a 20.5-point underdog for that game. According to BetMGM, there was only one bigger upset: Norfolk State (+21) over Missouri in 2012.

One bettor enjoyed the win of a lifetime winning $16,000 on an $800 bet for the UMBC moneyline. The Retreivers had 20-1 odds to win outright.

Virginia bounced back, winning 2019 NCAA championship

One year removed from a historic meltdown, the Cavaliers weren’t playing around in the next NCAA Tournament.

Playing with a vengeance after its collapse in 2018, Virginia’s offense was one of the best in adjusted offense efficiency, according to The team ranked fifth in adjusted defensive efficiency, too.

Virginia snagged the South Region’s No. 1 seed with a 31-3 record. After a first-round win against Gardner-Webb, the Cavaliers defeated Oklahoma, Oregon, Purdue and Auburn to reach the title game.

There, Virginia defeated Texas Tech 85-77 in overtime to win the program’s first national championship.

The Cavalier offense clicked for most of the game; four of its five starters shot 50% or better from the field. De’Andre Hunter led the way with 27 points and nine rebounds, while Guy scored 24. Both players hit four 3-pointers to ignite Virginia’s scoring attack.

Things haven’t gone as great since then, unfortunately. In 2021, Virginia, seeded No. 4, fell to No. 13 Ohio in the first round. The Cavaliers missed out on March Madness entirely a year ago, instead losing to St. Bonaventure in the NIT quarterfinals.

Now as the No. 4 seed in the South, Virginia has a chance to bounce back once again. But the question remains: Will 2023 be a March Madness high or low for the Virginia Cavaliers?

Photo by David J. Phillip / AP Photo
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Adam Hensley

Adam Hensley is a journalist from Des Moines, Iowa. His byline has appeared in the Associated Press, Sports Illustrated and sites within the USA Today Network. Hensley graduated from the University of Iowa in 2019 and spent his college career working for the Daily Iowan’s sports department, both as an editor and reporter.

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