Last week, I wrote that this might finally, finally be the year that Duke and UNC met in the NCAA tournament, and, well...events have forced me to reconsider. Carolina ran into a three-point buzzsaw disguised as an unremarkable SEC basketball team, and Duke met its demise Sunday against Michigan State. But aside from the failures and near-failures of Tobacco Road, I should have seen what was in front of my face: The Virginia Cavaliers are on the world's most obvious redemption tour, and it won't stop until they're cutting down the nets in Minneapolis.
In some ways, I should have seen this coming a year ago, when I and so many others around the country gleefully mocked the Cavs for becoming the first one-seed in tournament history to lose to a 16-seed. At that exact moment, when Tony Bennett and his slow-down crew were at their lowest, we should have seen the obvious reversal that would happen in 2019.
We should have seen it when they went down 17 points to ANOTHER 16-seed last weekend, but recovered in style and won. We should have seen it when they did their boa constrictor slow death act on a talented Oklahoma team, and then survived a quintessential Virginia low-scoring coin flip against Oregon. But I was still blind, and remained blind until this happened:
Despite the call on TV, that was not for the win—it was only to get into OT—but the truth was clear to me regardless: The universe is doing that thing where the team that was humiliated and derided is turning the narrative on its face. Sure enough, they won in OT, and now they're in the Final Four. They're going to win the title, it's going to be so redemptive you puke, and the rest of us are going to have to suffer.
Here's why it took me so long to believe: I didn't want to. Virginia is an extremely boring basketball team that does a lot of things very, very well, but also exploits the long shot clock, the referees' weird inability to enforce basic foul rules, and the general way that the college game rewards teams that play with brutal efficiency rather than aesthetic appeal. This is exactly the kind of style the NBA successfully rooted out two decades ago, even though the Celtics are kinda-sorta trying to bring it back since they have a former college coach that comes from the same exact school of thought.
Don't get me wrong: I respect Virginia. I respect Tony Bennett. What they do is not easy, or everybody would do it. But it's also true that they've become the best at a style of play that is best described as "stalemate misery." Because they play the slowest pace of all 353 Division 1 teams, and because they emphasize "physical" defense (read: fouling a lot, but in a legal way), they often play games like Thursday's Sweet 16 match-up against Oregon, where the score is 10-7 after ten minutes. The Purdue Elite Eight game was crazy-fun, but that's almost all because of Carsen Edwards doing his best Steph Curry imitation, and in the Virginia Cavalier universe, it was a huge anomaly.
What I wanted to believe is that this style of play is doomed to fail in the NCAA tournament—that feels like justice. It also seemed to be supported by recent results, of which the UMBC loss was the cherry on top. But of course, that was wishful thinking. This is a team that routinely lays waste to the ACC, one of the best conferences in the country. There's no compelling reason why they can't make a deep tournament run, no matter how much we want to imagine that narrative into existence. They are really, really good.
And now, destiny is on the side of the bores. We need to resign ourselves, and we need to bend the knee—Tony Bennett and the Cavs are here to destroy us, and they're going to take their sweet time.
The "Yeah, He Lost, But Actually He Won" Performance of March: Carsen Edwards, Purdue
Watching Carsen Edwards try to singlehandedly beat Virginia was a modern version of John Henry against the Machine, and by God, he almost did it:
That is a downright heroic performance, and the more I watch it, the more I curse the fact that Virginia pulled off the miracle late comeback. We needed Carsen Edwards in the Final Four.
Instead, we're getting the automatons.
Best Tweet of March Madness: UMBC
Remember how hilarious their Twitter account was last year? This one, sent just after Virginia won on Saturday night, was subtle, slightly troll-y, but also sincere in a heartwarming kind of way:
We won't forget you, UMBC. The people drink secret toasts to your health, etc. etc.
The Tragic Team of Our Times: Gonzaga
One last thought about college hoops—many words are spent on deciding which team, or which city/state, is the most accursed in all of sports. And sure, there are long histories to bolster the arguments of a Minnesota, or Buffalo, or whoever, but if we're talking individual teams, I think Gonzaga deserves a place in the debate. They emerged from obscurity in 1998 with a team that took the 10-seed and made it all the way to the Elite Eight, nearly stunning UConn in the process. Mark Few took over the next year, and over the last 20 seasons, he's completely dominated the WCC and turned his program into one of the best in the entire country. And yet, despite all the success, things seem to end on a sour note for the Zags every single NCAA tournament. We'll remember Adam Morrison's tears, or the championship loss to Carolina two years ago (Few's only trip to the Final Four), but the truth is that every trip to the Big Dance produces the same reliable outcome. And sure, it's really really hard to win a title, and far be it from me to judge Mark Few based on this standard alone. But the consistent excellence of the Zags feels like it should have merited at least one title along the way, especially in the last seven years when they routinely put together superlative seasons and nabbed one-seeds.
But it's 2019, and here we are again with a good-but-not-great Texas Tech team sending the Zags home with an Elite Eight upset. Twenty years ago, nobody could have expected a small school from Spokane to break out as a perennial contender. Now that they have, and have long since left "fluke" status in the dust, the lack of a single title has started to feel less like the natural order and more like devastation.