NCAA Division: Division I
Conference: Atlantic Coast
Past Conferences: Southern, Independent
City: Charlottesville, VA
Stadium: John Paul Jones Arena
NCAA Tournaments: 1976, 1981, 1982, 1983, 1984, 1986, 1987, 1989, 1990, 1991, 1993, 1994, 1995, 1997, 2001, 2007, 2012, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019, 2021
National Championships: 1
Conference Titles: 3
After an up-and-down tenure in the old Southern Conference and some mediocre years as an independent, Virginia was part of the ACC’s inaugural class in 1953-54. It was a perennial doormat in the league, finishing with a losing mark until finally breaking through in 1971-72 when the Cavaliers finished 8-4 in conference action.
That team tasted postseason action for the first time in 31 years when it went to the NIT, but the program’s first NCAA Tournament berth wouldn’t come until 1976 in Terry Holland’s second season as head coach.
Holland’s crew won 20 games in 1977-78 and 24 in 1979-80, a season that proved to be a turning point for the program. Ralph Sampson, all 7-foot-4 of him, was a standout freshman on that team. Although the Cavaliers faded down the stretch and were left out of the NCAA Tournament, they scored a nice consolation prize by storming to the NIT championship.
Sampson was the MVP of the tournament and used his first postseason experience to help guide the 1980-81 team to the Final Four. The Cavaliers opened that season ranked eighth in the country and won their first 22 games before a one-point loss at Notre Dame snapped the string.
Virginia won the ACC with a 13-1 mark, finishing three games ahead of North Carolina. However, the Tar Heels were the ones to end the Cavaliers’ season by securing a 78-65 victory in the national semifinals in Philadelphia.
1984 Final Four
Sampson’s teams went 59-9 the next two seasons but bowed out of the NCAA Tournament in the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight. Amazingly, after the three-time national player of the year graduated and left for the NBA, the 1983-84 team made it back to the Final Four behind a Cinderella run.
After finishing just 6-8 in the ACC and exiting the conference tourney in the first round, the Cavaliers entered the NCAA Tournament as a No. 7 seed. After knocking off Iona, they defied NCAAB odds by pulling off upsets of Arkansas, Syracuse, and Indiana before falling to high-powered Houston by two points in the national semifinals.
Holland and then Jeff Jones were able to get Virginia into the tournament nine times between 1986 and 1997, before some lean years set in. Between 1997-98 and 2010-11, the Cavaliers had five losing seasons and finished below .500 in the conference 11 times. The last two such seasons were under the guidance of Tony Bennett, but he would soon dramatically alter the program.
With Bennett establishing the top defensive team on an almost yearly basis, his team quickly became a powerhouse. Virginia Cavaliers team stats regularly showed a scoring defense well under 60 points, even as low as 51.5. There were 30 wins plus ACC regular-season and tournament titles in 2013-14. The next season saw another 30 wins, another ACC title, but a second-round exit in the NCAA Tournament.
Virginia’s suffocating defense led it to the Elite Eight in 2016, but a second-round exit in 2017 and a stunning first-round loss in 2018 made Bennett’s program look like it was not fit for postseason play. That upset, a 21-point loss to UMBC, was the first-ever win by a 16-seed over a 1-seed in the history of the NCAA Tournament, and it wasn’t even close; the final score was 74-54.
The Cavaliers were loaded again the following season and spent the entire campaign ranked in the top five, but there were doubts that they’d make it hold up once March rolled around. However, in a thrilling run that included four single-digit wins -two in overtime- Virginia won the program’s first national title. It was an 85-77 win over Texas Tech in overtime that allowed the Cavaliers to hoist the trophy.
The 2021-22 edition failed to secure any major wins aside from one against Duke, and it was left to play in the NIT, bowing out with a depressing loss to St. Bonaventure at home.
Bryant Stith: 2,516
Jeff Lamp: 2,317
Buzzy Wilkinson: 2,233
Ralph Sampson: 1,511
Travis Watson: 1,115
Mike Scott: 944
John Crotty: 683
Jeff Jones: 598
Sean Singletary: 587
Terry Holland: 326
Tony Bennett: 316
Henry Lannigan: 254
What Is the Highest Win Total in Program History?
The program’s lone national title team was in 2019, and that team won 35 games, easily the most in Virginia history.
What Was the Worst Season in Program History?
In 1960-61, the Cavaliers went 3-23. They defeated fellow ACC doormat South Carolina twice and went 0-12 against all other conference opponents.
Who Is the Greatest Player in Program History?
It’s pretty much impossible to go against a three-time national player of the year, and we won’t attempt to do so. Ralph Sampson is hands-down the best player Virginia has ever seen, a 7-foot-4 phenomenon who elevated the program to new heights in the early 1980s.
Sampson averaged over 11 rebounds and over three blocks per game in each of his four seasons. After winning the NIT MVP as a freshman in 1980, he led the Cavaliers to seven NCAA Tournament wins in his last three seasons, including a Final Four run in 1981.
The No. 1 overall pick in the 1983 NBA draft was a Rookie of the Year and a four-time All-Star. He entered the National Basketball Hall of Fame in 2012.