The greatest Cavalier ever, Ralph Sampson, was a three-time college player of the year and a No. 1 overall N.B.A. draft pick who took Virginia to a Final Four but never won a conference tournament. His teams were stymied by the great Tar Heels squads of Michael Jordan and James Worthy, and by North Carolina State’s miracle national champions of 1983.
As the Cavaliers have won or shared four regular-season A.C.C. titles during the last several years under Bennett, there has been a string of N.C.A.A. tournament disappointments. Last year’s loss was the third time Virginia had been defeated as a No. 1 seed.
“Part of their depression, for lack of a better word,” Jerry Ratcliffe, a longtime local sports journalist, said, referring to the fans, “went back to when they lost to a really good Michigan State team in Madison Square Garden a few years ago, and they felt like that team was Final Four material. And the collapse against Syracuse a couple years ago — that definitely was a Final Four team.”
Then, too, there was the style of last year’s defeat. Virginia found itself trailing early in the second half, and Bennett’s team, famous for a careful, slow style of play that critics say makes it susceptible to upsets, failed to erase the deficit.
“Now you have to hear it forever,” said Tyler Pearson, another patron at the restaurant to watch the regular season finale. “Everything they said is true: The system doesn’t work; if you fall behind, you can’t come back; Tony is stubborn.”
This year’s Cavaliers are almost certainly better than the team that lost to U.M.B.C. They had just two regular-season losses, both to Duke, the tournament’s top overall seed. They retained most of their leading players from last season while adding Braxton Key, a transfer from Alabama, and the freshman Kihei Clark. De’Andre Hunter, a sophomore who did not play in the U.M.B.C. game because of a broken wrist, might be this season’s national player of the year if Duke’s Zion Williamson did not exist. And he is healthy.