Tony Bennett and his staff crafted a devilish non-conference schedule for a team they thought elite. Sunday brought a deserved dividend: a No. 1 NCAA tournament seed.
Among the four top regional seeds — Kansas, North Carolina and Oregon are the others — the Cavaliers are the only squad that won neither its league regular-season nor tournament championship. But a schedule that included tests against California, West Virginia and Villanova — Virginia won each — propelled Tony Bennett's program to the top line of the Midwest Regional over, most notably, Big Ten tournament champion Michigan State.
And it wasn't close. The Cavaliers are the tournament's No. 3 overall seed, behind Kansas and North Carolina, with Oregon and Michigan State fourth and fifth, respectively.
Virginia's advantages over MSU -- Spartans athletic director Mark Hollis is a committee member -- were clear on the NCAA's Rating Percentage Index. The Cavaliers' overall schedule was ranked No. 2 nationally, the Spartans' 56th. Most important: Virginia's non-conference schedule was 37th, Michigan State's 158th.
Oklahoma athletic director Joe Castiglione, chairman of the 10-member tournament selection committee, cited the Cavaliers' schedule and overall RPI rank, third compared to the Spartans' 12th, in explaining Virginia's seed to a CBS television crew that presumed Tom Izzo's team a No. 1. He also mentioned U.Va's close loss, 61-57, to North Carolina in Saturday's ACC tournament final.
Adding a Cajun helping o' spice to the debate: Michigan State is the Midwest's No. 2 seed, and if the Cavaliers and Spartans each advance three rounds, they'll clash in the tournament for the third consecutive year — Michigan State eliminated Virginia in 2014 and '15.
This potential game, however, Easter Sunday in Chicago, would be for a berth in the Final Four. Suffice to say, the specter of Michigan State is not lost on anyone with an interest in Virginia basketball.
"If we get to that game," Cavaliers coach Tony Bennett said, "I'll answer all of your questions about all of that stuff."
The No. 1 seed is Virginia's second in three years and fifth overall, which ties for sixth all-time. North Carolina's 15th No. 1 is a record, and the Cavaliers and Tar Heels give the ACC a pair of top seeds for the fifth time, the first since 2005.
Revealed Sunday, unofficially by a leak that undoubtedly irritated NCAA brass, and officially during a tedious, two-hour ordeal on CBS, the 68-team bracket includes seven from the ACC, matching the conference's high from 2007 and '09. Virginia, North Carolina, Miami, Notre Dame and Duke were certain; Pittsburgh and Syracuse, both No. 10 seeds, were among the last six of 36 at-large teams the committee selected.
Had Louisville not self-imposed a postseason ban over tawdry recruiting violations, eight ACC teams would have made the field.
Virginia's first-round game Thursday afternoon against Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference regular-season and tournament champ Hampton, a No. 16 seed, is the first NCAA tournament clash between teams from the commonwealth. Number 16s are 0-124 all-time against No. 1s, but last season the Pirates played a spirited game against top-seeded and undefeated Kentucky before falling 79-56.
The Cavaliers' path to Chicago — Hampton, followed by Texas Tech or Butler — is manageable. Advance to the United Center, and Virginia could face either Iowa State or Purdue in the Sweet 16, and Michigan State or Utah in the Elite Eight.
VCU, which lost Sunday's Atlantic 10 tournament final to Saint Joseph's, made the field for a state-record sixth consecutive season. The Rams and first-year coach Will Wade are undervalued at 10th in the West and open Friday afternoon in Oklahoma City against Oregon State.
Saint Joseph's, VCU and Dayton are the Newport News-based A-10's three NCAA teams, and commissioner Bernadette McGlade is angry that St. Bonaventure, which shared the regular-season title with the VCU and Dayton, didn't make it four.
"St. Bonaventure belongs in the NCAA (tournament)," she said in a statement. "Their body of work, seven wins against top-70 teams, their first-place finish in the A-10, and a 29 RPI — every measuring point has been successfully met. In short they met the 'eye test' and the fact test. I am shocked that the committee did not select this team. It's a tremendous disservice and disappointment to these student-athletes, the SBU nation and the A-10."
My mock bracket had St. Bonaventure, St. Mary's and South Carolina instead of Michigan, Tulsa and Vanderbilt, and the Bonnies' exclusion — as one of the first four eliminated, they are a No. 1 seed in the National Invitation Tournament — surprised me the most, sans outrage. Consider the decision further evidence that the selection panel is using more metrics beyond the RPI — St. Bonaventure is a mere 79th in Ken Pomeroy's rankings.
"In the case of St. Bonaventure, their non-conference strength of schedule was outside the top 150," Castiglione said. "They didn't have a non-conference win against a team in the top 80. So that was a concern.
"They also had five losses to teams that aren't in the tournament. So that last group of teams, which St. Bonaventure was considered, they were being compared to teams like Syracuse and VCU. In those particular cases, they had head-to-head losses to each of those teams."
Last year Virginia was a No. 2 seed at 29-3. This season the Cavaliers are a No. 1 at 26-7.
Last year's four No. 1s — Duke, Wisconsin, Kentucky and Villanova — entered the tournament a combined 126-9, and all but Villanova reached the Final Four. This season's four No. 1s are a combined 114-23.
Indeed, Associated Press top-10 teams have lost a record 74 times this year, and six teams have been ranked No. 1. Hello, parity.
"It should," Bennett said, "make for quite the tournament."