RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — Virginia spent an entire season exceeding all expectations and making a dominant run through the Atlantic Coast Conference. Now the Cavaliers face a new challenge: trying to earn a spot in their first Final Four in more than three decades as the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament.
The Cavaliers headline the South Region bracket, earning a No. 1 seed for the sixth time in program history. It’s the third 1-seed in the past five seasons under coach Tony Bennett, who guided his team to a regional final two years ago but has yet to take the next step: the Final Four.
The pressure will be higher than ever for the Cavaliers (31-2) to do it now.
“I wouldn’t say pressure is the word,” leading scorer Kyle Guy said after Saturday night’s win against North Carolina in the ACC Tournament title game. “But you know, that’s definitely in the back of our minds. . We’re just trying to do this for each other.”
Virginia opens play Friday against No. 16 seed UMBC (24-10) in Charlotte in a bracket that features Cincinnati, Tennessee, Arizona and Kentucky — with both sets of Wildcats in the Cavaliers’ top half of the draw.
“I told our players that everyone can play if they’re in there,” Bennett said in a teleconference Sunday after the pairings were released.
If Virginia can make it through the bracket to reach San Antonio, that would add to what has already been a milestone-filled season. The Cavaliers have a program-record win total and are a unanimous No. 1 in the AP Top 25 ; before this year, the last time they were No. 1 was December 1982 (the poll had just 20 teams then) during Ralph Sampson’s senior season.
Virginia went to a Final Four in 1981 with the 7-foot-4 Sampson, then made an unexpected trip there in 1984 as a 7-seed.
The Cavaliers have their traditional suffocating defense that ranks No. 1 in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency (84.4 points allowed per 100 possessions), while the methodical-tempo attack ranks 21st in offensive efficiency (116.5 points per 100 possessions). They were picked to finish sixth in the ACC, but they went on to become the first team since 2000 to win the ACC regular-season race outright by four games, then followed with the program’s third ACC Tournament title to complete a 20-1 slate against league opponents.
The top challenger is Cincinnati (30-4), which got less than an hour to celebrate Sunday’s win against Houston in the American Athletic Conference Tournament championship in Orlando before learning its NCAA path. The second-seeded Bearcats open with 15-seed Georgia State (24-10) on Friday in Nashville, Tennessee.
Here are things to know about the South Region:
Third-seeded Tennessee (25-8) fell to Kentucky in the Sunday’s Southeastern Conference Tournament final, but the Volunteers still earned their first NCAA bid since 2014 and open against 14th-seeded Wright State (25-9) in Dallas on Thursday. That’s quite a climb for a team that started the year picked to finish 13th in the SEC.
ARIZONA’S WILD RIDE
Things haven’t gone smoothly for the Wildcats.
The FBI corruption investigation into the sport led to an assistant coach being criminally charged and ultimately fired, and raised questions about coach Sean Miller’s job security . And on the court, Arizona went from No. 2 in the AP Top 25 to unranked in November after an ugly 0-3 showing in the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament in the Bahamas.
Yet the fourth-seeded Wildcats (27-7) went on to win the Pac-12 regular-season and tournament titles, and open NCAA play against 13-seed Buffalo (26-8) on Thursday in Boise, Idaho.
Coach John Calipari’s latest crop of Kentucky freshmen just needed a little longer to figure things out. Now the Wildcats (24-10) enter with a No. 5 seed after winning seven of eight to claim the SEC Tournament title.
The Wildcats — who lost to eventual champion North Carolina on a last-second shot in last year’s Elite Eight — face 12-seed Davidson (21-11) in Boise on Thursday.
Friday’s matchup between No. 8 seed Creighton (21-11) and No. 9 seed Kansas State (22-11) in Charlotte will offer a reunion for Bluejays senior Marcus Foster with his former school . The 6-foot-3 senior guard played his first two seasons at Kansas State but is averaging 20.3 points for Creighton.
THE REST OF THE BRACKET
Sixth-seeded Miami (22-9) meets 11-seed Loyola-Chicago (28-5) in Dallas on Thursday, while No. 7 seed Nevada (27-7) meets No. 10 seed Texas (19-14) on Friday in Nashville.
PATH TO SAN ANTONIO
The bracket goes through Atlanta’s Philips Arena for the regional rounds on March 22 and March 24.
The story summary has been corrected to show Virginia opens play Friday, not Saturday.
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