Just as Odysseus undertook his epic odyssey to return home after the Trojan War, the University of Virginia Cavaliers begin in earnest their journey toward the Final Four.
With the first and second rounds of the NCAA tournament behind them, the Cavaliers travel to Louisville for a South Region matchup against Oregon in the round of 16. After that, Virginia hopes for a matchup in the quarterfinals.
Always, they will hear the sirens’ song of the Final Four, luring their thoughts to turn to Minneapolis. But their coaches will do their best to tie them mentally to the challenge of No. 12 seed Oregon and perhaps the winner of the game between Purdue and Tennessee.
Virginia’s coaches and players hope the experience gained from past tournament disappointments, fraught with tribulations, will serve them well in the weeks to come.
The first weekend of the tournament was cathartic for UVA, a No. 1 seed.
The Cavaliers started slowly against Gardner-Webb, a No. 16 seed, but finished fast. Against Oklahoma, the Cavaliers had one of their better games of the season.
“We’re nowhere near relaxed, nowhere near satisfied,” junior point guard Ty Jerome said. “We’re not even close to our goal.
“Every time you step on the basketball court, you have to understand how blessed you are to play the game you love. It’s another week, more opportunities to play with the teammates you love, for the coaches you love and the fans you love.”
A year ago, the Cavaliers made an historic stumble in the first round, becoming the first No. 1 seed to lose to a No. 16 seed, University of Maryland Baltimore County, since the tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985.
In 2016, the Cavaliers were about eight minutes away from defeating Syracuse and advancing to the Final Four when things fell apart. The center would not hold, or shoot well. The ball would not go into the basket for any Cavaliers.
Instead, Syracuse sped back from a seemingly insurmountable deficit and advanced to the Final Four.
In 2014, Michigan State short-circuited the Cavaliers’ advance in the round of 16 played in Madison Square Garden.
That is a lot of baggage for one program to handle. And last year’s loss to the UMBC was the unkindest loss of all.
“Only the guys in the locker room and the coaching staff who were part of last year’s team and this year’s team can truly appreciate and understand ...” Virginia coach Tony Bennett said after defeating Oklahoma, without having to add, “The pressure the first weekend in this year’s tournament.”
“No college basketball team had to go through that. It’s our doing. We were the first one [No. 1] seed to lose last year,” Bennett said. “And then to fight back and become a one seed [this year] and to be in that situation again [falling behind Gardner-Webb in the first half here Friday] ... it was real. I think those guys will have that as something they can always draw upon, to say we faced a giant [obstacle] and battled through it.”
All season, Virginia has played with a purpose, a passion, a drive it did not have in previous years. The Cavaliers have used their loss to UMBC as a motivator instead of a reason to turn a thriving program into a moribund mess.
Oklahoma coach Lon Kruger said Virginia sets a standard for college basketball.
“They can score in a lot of different ways,” Kruger said. “A lot of different individuals can make plays. They’re so sound defensively. Communication-wise, they’re great. Coach Bennett does a fantastic job.”
Communication has been vital to the Cavaliers. First, Bennett had to communicate that last year’s disappointment should not, and could not, define them.
Then, the team leaders, Jerome, Kyle Guy, De’Andre Hunter and Jack Salt, had to show their teammates the UMBC game could be a cudgel to wield not so much against opponents but against settling for anything less than the maximum effort in each individual workout, practice and game.
The Cavaliers have held themselves to a high standard, which they needed to rid themselves of last year’s shock.
Next, they must move past the shocks from seasons past.
“We try to enjoy every step we have,” junior center Mamadi Diakite said. “But the job is not done. We’ve got more games, more preparations. We have to know what other teams have for us.
“In order to get to the next phase, we have to prepare ourselves.”
Odysseus needed 10 years to get home. The Cavaliers hope their odyssey is much shorter.