Saturday, March 10, 2012

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Cavaliers count themselves in

ATLANTA - It's an annual rite of March in Virginia. The exercise serves no real purpose, sheds no real light on anything, but somehow we find it an appropriate - necessary, even - way to say goodbye to the ACC Tournament.

Us: "Do you think you're in?"

Them: "We think we're in."

Us: "You sure about that?"

Them: "Well, I guess you're never totally sure. ... "

Don't we know it. But this time, we're pretty darn sure: The Virginia Cavaliers will make the NCAA tournament, even after their 67-64 loss to N.C. State in Friday's ACC quarterfinals.

The experts who earn their salaries predicting brackets have had UVa off their bubble watch for some time now. Most have the Cavaliers (22-9) somewhere about a No. 9 or 10 seed, safely out of the danger zone.

If they're wrong on this one, I swear I will never listen to them again.

But they're not wrong. They're right ... right?

"I hope so," UVa coach Tony Bennett said. "The selection committee will decide. ... We'll see."

Ah, the sweet, sweet hint of insecurity. What would Selection Sunday around here be without it?

The doubt was much more legitimate, though, before UVa won at Maryland last weekend to improve to 7-4 on the road and 9-5 away from John Paul Jones Arena. A soft bubble this year makes it easier for the committee to overlook a nonconference schedule strength ranked 238th by and UVa's 0-5 record against the top three teams in the ACC.

"We talked about it at Maryland: We were feeling pretty confident that we had earned the right to get in," UVa guard Joe Harris said. "I still think we have. But obviously, people are going to be questioning it just because we lost to a potential bubble team early in the ACC Tournament. But I think N.C. State is NCAA tournament-worthy also."

The Wolfpack (20-11) probably is. But as coach Mark Gottfried correctly noted, the only way to enjoy a stress-free Sunday is to win the conference tournament. His team is still in the running for that after gutsy performances by C.J. Leslie, Lorenzo Brown and company.

The Cavaliers, meanwhile, head home having dropped five of their past seven games - and desperate to catch their breath. All five UVa starters played at least 34 minutes Friday. Guards Jontel Evans and Sammy Zeglinski each played 39.

That's by necessity. Freshmen Paul Jesperson and Darion Atkins are the only two scholarship reserves who dressed, and this time of year, you have to ride your best players to whatever end. (The Wolfpack played just seven guys, too, but only two starters played 34-plus minutes.)

The lack of depth makes it difficult to envision the Cavaliers lasting more than one round in the NCAA tournament. But that matters less than the fact that they should be in it - a terrific accomplishment for a program that hasn't been there since 2007.

"Overall, throughout the course of this season, I think we have some really quality wins," said Harris, whose team's signature victory was against Michigan, which is ranked 10th this week. "And even some of our losses, I think people have recognized the quality of basketball that we play. I think it's NCAA tournament-worthy."

They'll find out for sure on Sunday, even if they might be a tad nervous.

"Nervous, anxious and excited - all three," Evans said. "This is my first time being in this situation. I'm just looking forward to this experience."

And the clarity.

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