Cavaliers’ NCAA Journey Begins Thursday Afternoon in Raleigh

About 15 minutes into the CBS selection show Sunday night, the University of Virginia men’s basketball team learned it had been awarded one of the four No. 1 seeds in the NCAA tournament, an announcement that drew cheers from the gathering at a restaurant near John Paul Jones Arena.

A longer wait followed. Another hour passed before the Cavaliers, seeded No. 1 in the Midwest Region, received official confirmation about when and where, and against which team, they would open the tournament.

There were no surprises when CBS finally revealed the Midwest bracket. As expected, the Wahoos are headed back to Raleigh, North Carolina, where in 2014 they won two games to advance to the NCAA tourney’s Sweet Sixteen for the first time since 1995.

“I’m sure there will be some good Virginia fans [in Raleigh],” head coach Tony Bennett said Sunday night at Sedona Taphouse, where the team gathered to watch the selection show.

At approximately 3 p.m. Thursday, in a first-round game that truTV will broadcast, Virginia (26-7) meets No. 16 seed Hampton University (21-10) at PNC Arena. The winner will play No. 8 seed Texas Tech (19-12) or No. 9 seed Butler (21-10) on Saturday.

The NCAA tournament field includes nine teams Virginia played during the regular season: ACC rivals North Carolina, Miami, Duke, Notre Dame, Pittsburgh and Syracuse, plus Villanova, West Virginia and California. UNC is the No. 1 seed in the East Region.

“It’s a fun time of year, and we have to be prepared for it from the beginning,” UVA big man Anthony Gill said Sunday night. “We can’t take any team lightly. We have to attack it.”

Hampton’s roster includes graduate student Quinton Chievous, who played with Thompson at Tennessee in 2013-14, and freshman guard Akim Mitchell, whose brother, Akil, starred on the UVA team that swept the ACC’s regular-season and tournament titles in 2014.

“I have not yet heard from Akil,” Gill said, smiling. “I’m pretty sure he’s going to text me tonight, though.”

The Cavaliers lead their series with the Pirates 7-0. In the teams’ most recent meeting, Virginia defeated Hampton 69-40 at JPJ on Nov. 26, 2014.

The senior-dominated Pirates, who defeated Manhattan in a First Four game last season, will be making their second straight appearance in the NCAAs after repeating as Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference champions.

“That tells you that they’re playing good ball and they’re not going to be in awe of being in an NCAA tournament or anything like that,” Bennett said. “They have that experience.”

So, of course, do the ’Hoos, who lost 61-57 to North Carolina in the ACC tournament’s championship game Saturday night in Washington, D.C.

Virginia’s rotation includes two fifth-year seniors (Gill and All-America guard Malcolm Brogdon), two seniors (Mike Tobey and Evan Nolte) and one junior (London Perrantes), as well as four other seasoned players: redshirt sophomores (Devon Hall and Darius Thompson) and two sophomores (Isaiah Wilkins and Marial Shayok).

This is the Cavaliers’ third straight trip to the NCAA tournament.

“I think experience is really important,” Bennett said. “I think it always has been. This isn’t new for our guys, and I think they understand how prepared and how ready you gotta be, but also how you just have to play when you step into these settings. And I think that only comes from having been in that spot.”

In 2013-14, as a No. 1 seed, Virginia lost to Michigan State in the Sweet Sixteen at Madison Square Garden. The Spartans ousted the ’Hoos again last season, in a round-of-32 game in Charlotte, N.C.

“I think we have a different mentality going into this year,” Gill said. “Nothing’s going to be handed to us this year. We understand that. We’ve got some teams in our bracket that we’re really going to go after. Each game we’re going to attack.”

That the NCAA selection committee once again placed Michigan State in Virginia’s bracket generated much discussion Sunday. But a rematch would not come until the Elite Eight, and Bennett has more immediate concerns.

“You’d be, I think, so foolish to try to look too far in advance,” Bennett said. “That’s a mistake, to look down the road. This is just about getting ready for a veteran Hampton team and trying to advance.”

In today’s college game, Bennett said, “No one is untouchable, and I don’t think we believe that about ourselves. It should make for quite a tournament this year with the balance that you’ve seen throughout the regular season.”

Knowing Virginia would have a deep, experienced team this season, Bennett lined up a challenging non-conference schedule. (In the NCAA tourney, Villanova, West Virginia and Cal were awarded Nos. 2, 3 and 4 seeds, respectively.) Not only did that score points for the Cavaliers with the NCAA selection committee, the schedule figures to pay dividends for them this month.

“It’s always part of trying to get yourself as ready as you can, so that you’ll have a chance to play in March and then advance,” Bennett said.