MINNEAPOLIS — If it can defeat third-seeded Texas Tech on Monday night, Virginia would not become the first national champion that had lost in the first round of the N.C.A.A. tournament the previous year. Duke did it in 2015, and Indiana in 1987. Connecticut won the 2014 title a year after it was barred from postseason play for poor academic progress.
But nonetheless a win by top-seeded Virginia (34-3) would be different. Of course it would be different. Not all losses are created equal, and Virginia’s tournament experience last year is quite a moment to overcome.
So many factors compounded last March to make the result of Virginia’s game versus the University of Maryland, Baltimore County so awful for the Cavaliers. There was the sheer history of being the first No. 1 seed ever to lose to a No. 16 seed in the men’s tournament. There was the fact that the game itself was not close: the Cavaliers lost by 20 points. There was the size of the fall, as Virginia was not only a top seed last year but the overall top seed, deemed the very best team in the country only days before its stunning exit. And U.M.B.C., with its inspiring academic story and clever Twitter feed, was an underdog — a Cheseapake Retriever, to be precise — straight from central casting, so magnetic that there was barely time to feel bad for a Virginia team that had just had the equivalent of a 20-ton weight dropped on it.
That day last March in Charlotte, N.C., when it was time for the postgame news conference, Coach Tony Bennett elected not to have his outgoing senior stars, Isaiah Wilkins and Devon Hall, join him at the dais, he recalled Saturday night, after his team (barely) defeated fifth-seeded Auburn, 63-62, to reach this year’s final. Instead, he tapped Kyle Guy and Ty Jerome, two sophomores who he knew would be back.
In the end of that season, Bennett was implicitly declaring, lay the beginning of the next.
“You guys need to be up there with me,” was his message to Guy and Jerome then, he said, “and we need to go through this, and we need to go through next year together.”
The Cavaliers and their coach have since not cared to speak about that loss, especially once this season began. But over the course of this year’s tournament, as they have dealt with slightly modified versions of the exact same question every step of the way — “Every round I say the same thing almost,” Jerome said Saturday, “and it feels a little bit sweeter” — it has become clear that last year still looms large for the team.
The bad mojo seemed to have broken in Virginia’s regional final win over Purdue, which was bound for a Virginia defeat until a missed free throw and a ball bounding into the backcourt led the freshman point guard Kihei Clark to make the play of the tournament, sending a half-court pass to Mamadi Diakite, who caught and released and swished the ball in at the buzzer to force an overtime period that Virginia won by five points.
But then the Auburn game happened: again Virginia trailed by two points with only seconds left. Only this time Guy was fouled on a 3-pointer he missed, and he made all three shots.
Team of destiny? Or lucky?
Is there a difference?
Texas Tech (31-6) has its own inspirational story. A popular fact making the rounds is that if the Red Raiders — who looked dominant defeating second-seeded Michigan State, 61-51, on Saturday night — win it all, theirs would be only the second Division I men’s championship awarded to a team from the Lone Star State, after the 1966 title that Texas Western so famously won.
But Texas Tech’s historic underachievement in men’s basketball is the more relevant narrative thread. Virginia is considered insufficiently blue-blooded because this is only its third Final Four. By contrast, this year was only Texas Tech’s second round of 8. The first was last year. That is pretty neat.
And even that trajectory lacks the drama of Virginia’s, as no less than Texas Tech Coach Chris Beard pointed out Saturday night. “Like all other college basketball fans, from the heartbreak of last year to be playing in the national championship on Monday night,” he said, “it’s a story that you pull for.”
The teams do not present an especially compelling contrast on the court. Texas Tech does not play as slow as Virginia — nobody does — but it plays pretty slow. Virginia relies on 3-pointers more than Texas Tech does. Texas Tech forces more turnovers than Virginia, but Virginia gives up far fewer turnovers than Texas Tech.
Virginia was the better team before the N.C.A.A. tournament, when it only lost to Duke — not only a super-talented team, but a nightmare matchup — and to Florida State in the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament, while Texas Tech bowed out of the Big 12 tournament in its opening game to a West Virginia team that had a losing record.
In the N.C.A.A. tournament, though, Texas Tech has been far better. The Red Raiders have won their five games, including versus two No. 2 seeds and top-seeded Gonzaga, by an average of 14 points, while the Cavaliers, against worse competition, have an average victory margin of nearly half that (and under half that if one counts the Purdue game as a regulation tie).
But college basketball does not decide its champion by deciding who its best team is. If it did, Virginia would have been last year’s national champion. And because it does not, Virginia has a chance to be this year’s.
Bennett, Virginia’s coach, is an openly spiritual man, so it is not that surprising that before Saturday night’s stunningly close victory over Auburn that he offered his team a prescient little sermon on the loaves and the fishes.
This is the biblical story of what happened when Jesus suggested to his disciples that they feed some 5,000 men and women. The disciples said they had neither enough food to feed so many people nor the money to buy more. All they had, in fact, was five loaves of bread and two fish.
In the story, Jesus took the food, gave thanks, broke the loaves and handed them to the disciples, who handed it to the people. Somehow, it multiplied. “They all ate and were satisfied,” the Book of Matthew says. (According to the Book of John, the feat took place near the Jewish holiday of Passover — just like the Final Four.)
“That was enough to feed everyone,” the Virginia junior Braxton Key said after Saturday’s game, recounting the story.
In other words: The overtime win over Purdue was enough, as the one-point win over Auburn turned out to be enough, and as a victory over Texas Tech after a standout season and a haphazard tournament would be enough.
“Coach was saying, what we have right now is enough,” Key said. “And it definitely will multiply.”