There are two kinds of NCAA Tournament stunners.
The first, most common one, isn’t actually all that shocking. We live for the upsets. The entire premise of March Madness built upon them. We all know they are coming, somewhere and sometime, but we let ourselves feel surprised because that’s the fun in it.
But in hindsight we can see why they happened. What mismatch was exploited. What weakness of the favorite we ignored.
That was Buffalo over Arizona. Deep down we knew effort was an issue for the Wildcats. That they hadn’t beaten too many really good teams.
That was Marshall over Wichita State. Look closely and you can see the Herd won a conference almost as good (C-USA) as the one the Shockers couldn’t (The American).
UMBC over Virginia was a different kind of upset. The rare kind. The kind that hours later, after sleeping on it, still can’t be explained.
It’s not just that a 16-seed beat a one, and that just doesn’t happen. It’s that this 16 beat this one. Virginia losing in the second round? Sure that was always a possibility.
But anybody who watched, really watched, Tony Bennett’s team play all season with minimal emotional attachment or bias had to think this was the last No. 1 that could ever lose in the round of 64.
Virginia didn’t just win the ACC, the Cavaliers dominated the league from start to finish. They finished four games ahead of Duke. They smothered every offense they faced. UVA held a very good Clemson team to 36 points.
UMBC didn’t just lose the America East regular season title, the Retrievers finished three games back of Vermont and got their butts kicked in their regular season meetings. Sometimes UMBC’s offense was terrible. It scored 39 points against a mediocre Albany team and lost by 44.
That the Retrievers became the first team to score more than 70 on Virginia makes no sense. That UMBC’s Ryan Odom solved a riddle that baffled Mike Krzyzewski, Roy Williams, Mike Brey and Jim Boeheim is unfathomable.
Critics of the Virginia system and style, people obsessed with high-scoring games, are going to simply pin this on the Cavs’ offense. They will ignore that at 1.08 points per possession this season, UVA was better offensively than Kentucky, Oklahoma, Florida and almost 300 other teams, including tournament darlings Marshall and Loyola Chicago.
No, this was all about the Cavaliers defense. Almost any other night, Virginia could have won with the 54 points it scored. Its defense was that good. Historically dominant against a tough schedule.
It’s an old cliche, but they say defense travels. Virginia’s went with it to Durham, Brooklyn and points in between, but didn’t make the trip to Charlotte.
Until Friday night, the Cavs never failed to play 40 minutes of lockdown defense. That’s not hyperbole. Each and every game, Virginia’s Pack Line defense never relented. The players never betrayed the principles. They forced penetrators where they wanted them to go. They helped and recovered on ball reversals with remarkable speed.
Every game. Every time.
Until they didn’t do it at all against UMBC, of all teams. Of all times.
Don’t try to say you saw that coming.