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Thursday, March 27, 2014
Virginia, the underdog favorite

By Dana O'Neil


NEW YORK -- They put Virginia in the New York Knicks' locker room. It’s the cushiest space, bigger than the visitors' rooms in Madison Square Garden, lined with plush carpeting and tricked out with wooden stalls.

It’s meant to be a reward, an honor reserved for the highest seed competing in the regional.

Of course, the joke is that they put Virginia in the Knicks’ locker room ... as in the home of the woebegone, train wreck of an NBA franchise, a backhanded compliment if ever there was one.

Because it is, after all, Virginia, the George Harrison of No. 1 seeds, the Rodney Dangerfield of hoops, the insert-your-cliched-or-hackneyed-name-about-some-chronically-disrespected-entity-here squad of this NCAA tournament.

The Cavaliers are a living, breathing, dribbling oxymoron -- an underdog favorite.

Or is it a favorite underdog?

Whatever the case, no one believes in the Cavaliers.

More than 11 million people entered ESPN’s Tourney Challenge. A grand total of 413,115 (or 3.75 percent) picked the Hoos to win the national championship. People had more faith in each of the other three No. 1 seeds, one 2-seed (Kansas), a No. 3 seed (Duke, which, by the way, lost by nine to Virginia in the ACC tournament just two weeks ago) and two 4-seeds (Michigan State and Louisville).

In fact, according to James Quintong, an editor at ESPN Fantasy, Virginia is officially the underdoggiest of the most recent favorites. Every other 1-seed in the past four years received at least a 5 percent good-faith vote to cut down the nets.

Tony Bennett
Despite celebrating ACC regular-season and tournament titles this year, Tony Bennett and the Cavaliers remain the Rodney Dangerfield of college hoops.
Heck the president of the United States, whose office sits 115 miles from UVa’s Charlottesville campus, went with Michigan State.

The Cavs won the ACC regular-season title. They won the ACC tournament.

They blew out Memphis in the round of 32.

What else do you need, people?

“I think maybe if we win the national championship people will believe in us," Malcolm Brogdon said.

“Yeah, except then they won’t pick us for the next year," Akil Mitchell added.

Truth is, the Cavaliers might be a little closer to earning respect than they think. Somewhere around the middle of the second half of the Big Ten tournament title game, about when Michigan State started its systematic drubbing of Michigan, the Spartans went from injury-beleaguered question mark to the smart choice to win it all.

And now the hot pick meets Dangerfield in the Sweet 16. If you polled 50 people outside of the Garden, odds are 48 (provided they weren’t wearing Virginia gear) would pick the Spartans. Vegas has set Michigan State as a two-point favorite, which isn’t much, but remember, the Spartans are the 4-seed.

It’s all something of a running joke in the Virginia locker room, this no-respect theme that has been dogging the team all season. The players don’t care.

Seriously, they don’t. They’ve won 30 games, lost just six and aren’t terribly worried about proving anything to anyone.

“It’s kind of funny," Anthony Gill said. “We know we’re overlooked, but that’s fine. We know what we’re capable of."

So why doesn’t anyone else?

For starters, this is Virginia, home to Thomas Jefferson, blue blazers, khaki pants and really good lacrosse.

The basketball history books exist, but they are in six inches of dust, dating back to the short-shorts era of Ralph Sampson in the 1980s. It’s been 19 years since the Cavaliers played in a regional semifinal, 30 since their last Final Four.

Now compare that to Michigan State, where the regional semifinal is like the warm-up act. If Adreian Payne and Keith Appling don’t make it to the Final Four this year, it will be the first senior class under Tom Izzo to not play in a national semifinal in his 19-year career.

“Earlier in the year, they got beat by Tennessee by 30, but look at what they’ve done and who they’ve beat since," Izzo said. “They shouldn’t be underdogs, but I think it’s more because they’re a program in the making. Ours is more established."

Tony Bennett is changing at least that part of the image. This is Virginia’s third consecutive postseason (two NCAA tourneys surrounding last year’s NIT) under him.

The man has now won at Washington State and at Virginia, which is perhaps slightly easier than balancing a teacup on the end of a pencil while riding on the back of a charging elephant.

But Bennett is also both the solution and part of the (perceived) problem for the Cavaliers. In a sport where he with the most points wins, the man does not care if his team scores.

“Well, that’s not said, but it’s sort of implied," Brogdon said.

And the general fan simply cannot get all in a lather about a good defensive crouch. We are a country that actually cares to keep up with the Kardashians.

We don’t want substance. We want flash.

The Cavaliers are about as flashy as Rand Paul.

Mitchell came into the Knicks’ locker room, searching out Carmelo Anthony's locker. The senior was hoping to get it for himself. Teven Jones beat him to it.

“I’ve always been a fan of Carmelo’s," he said. “I always pictured myself guarding him."

Guarding him, not being him. Who says that?

No one, at least no one in a Knicks locker room recently. Phil Jackson’s hot mess scores an un-Virginia 98.8 points per game; it gives up 100.3, or 19 fewer than the Cavaliers have allowed in two NCAA games.

Surrounded by media in a corner of the locker room entrance, Bennett joked that he might steal a peek at the Knicks’ whiteboard while he was in town, maybe garner a play or two.

Anywhere else (well, except maybe Philadelphia) that wouldn’t be such a bad idea.

Not here, of course. No, here that would be akin to risking a bad case of basketball cooties.

And that is just so Virginia, treated like favorites but living like underdogs.