- The Washington Times - Monday, March 14, 2016

Word that the NCAA tournament bracket had leaked began to circulate at Virginia’s selection show viewing party on Sunday. As the television broadcast droned along, some players headed to the buffet at the Sedona Taphouse.

Virginia coach Tony Bennett was trying to wait out the results. If he had looked at proposed brackets by so-called “bracketologists,” he would have seen what came to be, that Virginia was a No. 1 seed playing in Raleigh against No. 16 Hampton on Thursday. If he had looked at the bracket which leaked online during the selection show’s unmercifully long presentation, he would have seen the same information. But, he wanted to avoid those things.

He couldn’t. Longtime friend and Virginia sports information director Erich Bacher popped his cellphone in front of Bennett, and there it was.

“That’s what you get when you’ve been best friends since fifth grade, right?” Bennett said.

It wasn’t just Bennett who tried to stick with tradition. Virginia senior Anthony Gill was among those who preferred to wait it out.

“A lot of us didn’t want to see it,” Gill said. “Just kind of enjoying the moment together, watching it on TV. Some of the guys on the team [were] comparing the leaked bracket to what was going on to see if it was real.”

A day earlier, Hampton coach Ed Joyner Jr. was unconcerned about the Pirates’ NCAA tournament opponent. All he knew was that Hampton was in for the second consecutive year and third time since 2011.

Following an 81-69 win over South Carolina State for the MEAC title, Joyner jumped onto partitions and pumped his fist at the crowd. His team finished the regular season by being blown out at Norfolk State before winning three games in four days in the conference tournament.

The image that climbs into the tournament with Hampton is of former coach Steve Merfeld being hoisted into the air by David Johnson. The Pirates were a No. 15 seed in 2001 and beat No. 2 seed Iowa State, 58-57, in one of the biggest upsets in tournament history.

But, there is also more recent Hampton history to acknowledge. The Pirates were part of the First Four last season and won their opening game against Manhattan, 74-64. They drew what was then an undefeated Kentucky team in the next game. A 79-56 loss ended the postseason for them.

Becoming the first No. 16 seed to topple a No. 1 seed will be difficult for Hampton. Virginia’s defense is predisposed to packing the paint, which is where the Pirates do most of their work. Hampton shot just 30.8 percent this season from behind the 3-point line this season.

“They’re a veteran team,” Bennett said. “Six seniors play a bulk of the minutes. Darius Thompson played with [Quinton] Chievous, who is a heck of a player, a transfer from Tennessee.”

When Bennett was shown the bracket, there was a noticeable No. 2 seed in the Midwest region, where Virginia is on the top line. Michigan State was placed in the same quarter of the bracket as Virginia. The Spartans have defeated Virginia in back-to-back NCAA tournaments. If the teams were to play this season, it would be in Chicago with a Final Four berth on the line.

“I saw that, yeah, of course,” Bennett said. “You just hope you’re fortunate enough, you’re playing well enough to get to that game and both teams have a chance.

“You’d be, I think, so foolish to look too far ahead. You’ve got show up and play.”

Those Michigan State losses hang over Virginia as it enters the tournament. In back-to-back seasons, they have been upset by a much lower seed. To grapple with Michigan State again, the Cavaliers will need three wins: First, Hampton, then against either Texas Tech or Butler. If the seeds hold, it will have to stop No. 4 Iowa State before finally dealing with the Spartans.

The expectation is that a more difficult nonconference schedule will help push Virginia beyond the first weekend and onto an incremental path toward Michigan State. First up is Hampton, already with tournament lore in its pocket.

• Todd Dybas can be reached at tdybas@washingtontimes.com.

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