RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — The celebration is over for Virginia after winning the program’s first Atlantic Coast Conference tournament title in nearly four decades. Now the Cavaliers are playing with higher expectations as a Final Four favorite.
Virginia opens play Friday against 16th-seeded Coastal Carolina as the top seed in the NCAA tournament’s East Region, the program’s first No. 1 seed since the days of Ralph Sampson.
For now, sophomore guard Justin Anderson said, the approach hasn’t changed.
”We have a bunch of humble guys, a humble coach that keeps us level-headed,” he said. ”We don’t have guys trying to get away with certain things just because we’re ranked a certain number.”
The Cavaliers (28-6) followed the program’s first outright ACC regular-season title since 1981 with their first tournament crown since winning their only other one in 1976. That secured the program’s first No. 1 seed since earning three straight from 1981-83 with Sampson in the middle and Terry Holland on the sideline.
”I feel like once we stepped off the court and the celebration of the ACC tournament, that’s when we really got refocused,” reserve forward Anthony Gill said. ”Because we know there’s more games to be played. We still have a lot to do. We have a lot of goals – we have higher goals – and we want to accomplish them.”
Virginia missed the NCAA tournament last year and lost by 26 points to Florida in its one-and-done appearance in 2012. It hasn’t won an NCAA tournament game since 2007.
It’s the first trip for the Chanticleers (21-12) to the tournament since 1993 and only the third ever. The Big South Conference champions are 0-2 in the tournament.
”I want them to enjoy the moment,” Coastal Carolina coach Cliff Ellis said. ”First of all, what they’ve done for Coastal Carolina University, I mean, you’re seeing it. This is huge. This is something that they will never, ever, ever forget. They’ll look back on it and as they watch this tournament 20 years from now, they’ll be talking about it.”
Here are five things to watch in Friday’s Coastal Carolina-Virginia game:
CHASING HISTORY: No 16th-seeded team has ever upset a No. 1 seed, a fact that Ellis and his players were asked about during Thursday’s pregame news conferences. Ellis said he’s told his team to focus on every possession and not to get caught looking back at what went wrong if Virginia pushes to a lead or looking ahead if it’s a tight game. ”Somebody’s going to do it,” Ellis said. ”So let’s make a point of doing everything we can to be the ones that do it.”
SPURTPROOF CAVS: Everything has started with defense for the Cavaliers, who ranked ninth nationally in field-goal percentage defense. Throw in a patient offense that can force opponents until deep into the shot clock, and it’s difficult to speed up Virginia or put together spurts to control the game’s flow. Overall, Virginia is giving up a national-best 55.3 points per game.
REBOUNDING: Virginia is 22-3 this year when outrebounding its opponent and rank among the national leaders in rebounding margin, so the Chanticleers will have to figure out a way to battle on the glass. Coastal Carolina outrebounded its opponents by a combined 36 in its three-game run to the Big South Conference tournament championship, though keeping Virginia off the boards will be a completely different task.
GILL’S EMERGENCE: Gill, a 6-foot-8 transfer from South Carolina, can play a big role in determining how far Virginia goes – if he can keep up his strong play from the ACC tournament. He’s averaging 8.4 points and 3.9 rebounds this year, but provided extra bench production by averaging 12.7 points and 5.7 rebounds during the three ACC tournament games. ”He brings another dimension to our team that we didn’t have,” coach Tony Bennett said.
PERIMETER PUNCH: Coastal Carolina needs a huge game from its three-guard lineup of Elijah Wilson, Warren Gillis and Josh Cameron. Wilson averages a team-high 16.1 points, Gillis averages 14.8 and Cameron 14.1, while Gillis and Cameron each shoot about 38 percent from 3-point range. ”We feel confident as a team that we’re better than a 16 seed,” Cameron said.