RALEIGH, N.C. — The irony was not lost on Virginia forward Akil Mitchell.
On Dec. 30 his team was demolished by Tennessee on the road, a 35-point loss that left the Cavaliers searching for answers.
They quickly found them. Virginia (28-6) has been beaten just twice since.
So Mitchell could only smile and laugh when he walked toward the Virginia locker room at PNC Arena on Thursday, looked one door down and saw his direct neighbors were the Tennessee Volunteers, who had beaten Iowa the night before in Dayton in a first-round game and just arrived in Raleigh.
“I wanted to stop and say ‘Thank you,’” Mitchell said.
Indeed, Virginia has come a long way since that humbling night in Knoxville. Tony Bennett’s team was 9-4 after that loss. Now, it is a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament and poised for a deep run. That’s rarified air for a program that has made the tournament just four times since reaching the Elite Eight in 1995.
But Bennett, when he was hired in 2009, saw a program with potential. And he had been part of three teams already that rose from relatively humble origins — Wisconsin-Green Bay as a player, Wisconsin as an assistant coach under Bo Ryan and Washington State as an assistant coach for his father, Dick, and later head coach at that same school.
“What I gained from that more than anything is when you’re going through hard times — which are inevitable — that’s usually when you’re not as willing to stick to your guns,” Bennett said.
And that was a challenge early in his tenure at Virginia. Bennett’s first team in 2009-10 went 15-16 and the next season was 16-15. Neither sniffed postseason play. Things began to turn in his third year, a 22-10 campaign that included an NCAA tournament appearance.
But then the program took one more step back last season, missing the tournament, but reaching the NIT quarterfinals with 23 wins — the most since that 1995 team won 25 games en route to the Elite Eight.
The Cavaliers have already won one championship under Bennett. This year’s squad went 16-2 in ACC play for the regular-season title and then topped itself by winning the ACC tournament last weekend, the school’s first league title since 1976. That is the only other time in program history Virginia had done so.
Now comes an even bigger challenge. Can the Cavaliers deal with high expectations as a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament? They open play Friday with a game against No. 16 seed Coastal Carolina. No top seed has ever lost in the first round. Either No. 8 Memphis or No. 9 George Washington would play Virginia on Sunday in the third round. The Cavaliers would be a heavy favorite in that game, too.
“No sense of accomplishment. We’re still hungry,” sophomore forward Justin Anderson said. “We understand that the season’s not over. Our backs are against the wall because we don’t want it to be over until the last basketball game is done. … Even though we won an ACC championship, that doesn’t define our season.”
Bennett has created a tenacious defensive team that ranks among the nation’s best and relies on a balanced scoring attack. Sophomore guard Malcolm Brogdon leads the way with just 12.6 points per game. The only other player in double figures is senior guard Joe Harris (11.7).
Otherwise, the Cavaliers just look for the hot hand on a given day, including Mitchell, Anderson and sophomore forward Anthony Gill. That lack of star power has led some to conclude Virginia isn’t a true No. 1 seed, that it can be beaten by better, deeper teams.