The Cavaliers are the event's top seed for the first time since 1981 and, especially after Villanova's Big East tournament demise Thursday, could earn a No. 1 NCAA tournament seed with three victories here this weekend.
Recent and ancient history say they should survive Friday's noon ACC quarterfinal against Florida State, which dramatically excused Maryland from the tournament, and from the conference itself, with a 67-65 win Thursday.
The recent: Virginia twice defeated FSU by 12 points during the regular season, both in January, baiting the Seminoles into 34 combined turnovers.
None of those teams reached the Final Four. The Terps advanced two rounds, which in the 32-team field of the time, propelled them to the Elite Eight. The Tar Heels exited in the first round, the Wolfpack reached the Sweet 16, and the Blue Devils lost in the second round.
Here's another way to judge the possible impact of an ACC tournament flame out on the NCAA tournament: Since 1985, when the NCAA bracket expanded to 64 schools, 39 ACC squads have advanced to the Elite Eight or beyond. Of those 39, only three lost their opening ACC tournament game – N.C. State in 1986, Florida State in '93 and North Carolina in 2000.
In short, Virginia's NCAA prospects would brighten considerably with a victory over Florida State.
Bizarre thing is, the Cavaliers have not reached the ACC semifinals since 1995, the longest such drought ever endured by an ACC program. Moreover, every other ACC program — newcomers Syracuse, Pittsburgh and Notre Dame excepted — has made the semis at least once 2006.
The Cavaliers (25-6) have lost early in the tournament as underdogs and favorites, but never during this stretch have they been the outright regular-season champion. In claiming that title, Virginia went 16-2 against the ACC, earning opponents' hosannas at every turn with their unselfish offense and commitment to defense.
Now the first-day lecture in Coaching 101 encourages praising opponents, but Miami's Jim Larranaga, Notre Dame's Mike Brey, Duke's Mike Krzyzewski and Syracuse's Jim Boeheim have gone above and beyond, filibustering about the Cavaliers and the likes of Malcolm Brogdon, Joe Harris, Akil Mitchell and Justin Anderson.
Florida State's Leonard Hamilton joined the chorus Thursday after Boris Bojanovsky's dunk with four-tenths of a second remaining advanced the Seminoles and sent Maryland off to its new conference home, the Big Ten, in memorable fashion.
Hamilton said the ACC regular season "just shows a little bit about the maturity of that team, how well they played together. I thought they might be the most unselfish team in America, where they always are playing to each other and creating easy, high-percentage shots for each other. It's like they play without an ego but with a tremendous amount of intensity and focus."
While the Cavaliers seek to improve their NCAA seed and to shed the ACC tournament primate off their backs, the Seminoles (19-12) need a signature victory to enhance their chances of making the NCAA field.
They almost squandered those NCAA hopes with 19 turnovers Thursday, but guards Ian Miller and Aaron Thomas combined for 31 points, while Bojanovsky, a 7-foot-3 reserve, contributed 12 points and 12 rebounds, his first career double-double. The victory was FSU's fifth in the last seven games, and its only setbacks in that time were to top-20 opponents North Carolina and Syracuse.
"At the beginning of the season, we were real young," Miller said. "We really didn't understand how to play against that defense. So it frustrated us a little bit. We forced a lot of things, had a lot of turnovers. They're going to run the clock, put you on defense for a long time, and then they're going to D up, also. We've matured. We're right where we want to be."
The Seminoles shot wildly disparate percentages against the Cavaliers, 30.8 and 45.7, but turnovers were the common denominator, 16 in the first game at FSU, 18 in the second at Virginia.
"They played great (against us)," Seminoles forward Okaro White said. "They played together. They played as a team. They're trusting in their coach. All these guys don't care who's the leading scorer, leading rebounder or who gets the shots. Whatever they're doing, they're brothers out there, and they're doing great."
Hamilton believes Virginia is on a plane few attain.
"We all want to try to get our team to that magic level," he said, "that mental, emotional level that allows everybody to be in sync, and that's the kind of team I think Virginia is."
We'll soon learn if Hamilton's right.