Was Virginia’s Collapse The Worst In Elite Eight History?

As I noted in yesterday’s post, Virginia’s loss to Syracuse was about as crushing a defeat as I could recall in a regional final. I spent the rest of the day turning games over in my mind to see if I was prisoner of the moment or if this was really a heartbreaker of epic proportions. I don’t mean to pile on Virginia fans—I was rooting for the Cavs, and not because I picked them, because I like them—but upon further review, this loss really was about as bad as it gets.

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The topic of crushing defeats in an NCAA Tournament could barely be covered by a book, much less a blog post, so I’ve narrowed the scope to the main reason I considered this defeat so tough to swallow—Virginia had the game in hand, up 16 in the second half against an opponent they were clearly better then, there was a Final Four trip on the line and this is a program that doesn’t routinely play for such spots.

So I went back in history, starting in 1976 when the post-UCLA Dynasty era began and reviewed all regional final games. The focus was blown leads. Meaning no disrespect to the heartbreak Kentucky fans felt after Christian Laettner’s shot in 1992 for Duke, we could go all day with great Elite Eight games that went to the final play.

For games where one team seemed to have it completely in hand, I count nine that really stand out. In chronological order they are…

*In 1983, Kentucky was up eleven on Louisville with 16:38 left and ultimately lost in overtime. This one normally wouldn’t make the list, but for anyone who remembers 1983, this was one of the most hyped games of all-time. Not only was it a rivalry, but it was happening at a time when the Wildcats refused to play the Cards in the regular season. But on balance, this was nowhere near the collapse Virginia had against Syracuse—Louisville was the region’s top seed the more talented team.

*One Sunday in 1987 provided amazing thrills. LSU started by blowing a nine-point lead to Indiana in the final 4:38. In the second game, Iowa was up 18 in the second half on UNLV and lost 84-81. But both of these were cases of the #1 seed rallying from behind, not blowing it. Indiana in particular, would have been incredibly embarrassed to lose to 10-seed LSU—the exact reverse happened to Virginia, who coughed up the lead to a 10-seed.

*In 1998, Duke led Kentucky by 17 in the second half. The Wildcats got their revenge for Laettner with a rally to win it on a dagger three-pointer by Scott Padgett. This was a tough loss, but as I mentioned in yesterday’s post, Duke had reached seven Final Fours under Mike Krzyzewski by this point and won two national championships. When you get this far routinely, you’re going to get your heart ripped out eventually. 1998 was Duke’s turn.

*2005 provided another day of dramatic comebacks. It started with Louisville coming from twenty points down against West Virginia. Then Illinois pulled off perhaps the greatest comeback in NCAA Tournament history when they rallied from 15 down in the last four minutes to beat Arizona. Both games went overtime.

The West Virginia loss can rival Virginia’s in the sense that it’s a program that doesn’t get this opportunity every day—in fact, the Mountaineers haven’t climbed those heights since. But here again, WVA was the underdog and eventually talent just caught up with them. On a side note, John Beilein was the West Virginia coach. He lost this game to Rick Pitino, and then with Michigan, he lost the 2013 NCAA final. Rick Pitino is to John Beilein what John Elway was to Marty Schottenheimer.

The Illinois-Arizona game is a little different. If you lose the biggest comeback in NCAA history, you have a pretty good case for suffering the most devastating loss in the modern era of the Elite Eight. But I still think Virginia’s was a hair worse. Arizona had won a national title by this point (1997), Illinois was the tournament’s #1 overall seed and the game was in Chicago. If you think Arizona’s loss was the worst, I see the argument. But I’m still sticking with Virginia-Syracuse as the worst regional final collapse.

*In 2007, North Carolina was plus-ten against Georgetown with six minutes to go, went ice cold and lost in overtime. It’s a crusher, no doubt about it. But first of all, this is freakin’ North Carolina—two years removed from a national title and two years away from another. Like Duke in 1998, you have to take your turn. And this was also a 1-2 game in seeding, not 1-10 like Virginia-Syracuse.

*The most recent edition was 2012, with Florida coughing up an eleven-point lead to Louisville in the final ten minutes. As we go through these, it’s hard to notice that Louisville has ripped people’s hearts out three different times (1983, 2005, 2012). Beware if you get a big lead on the Cards in an Elite Eight game.

Of course that’s no coincidence—they’re usually exceptionally talented and well-coached, which is this again is not as bad as the Virginia collapse. Watching that Louisville-Florida game, I thought the Gators were in good shape, but the phrase “it’s over” did not cross my mind the way it did on Sunday night. Furthermore, Florida has won two recent national titles.

A common thread wending through these games is that it’s not just Virginia losing a big lead. It’s that they lost it to a team that, based on seeding, they should have been expected to beat anyway. Losing this game under any circumstances would constitute a big missed opportunity. The lost 16-point lead in the second half only accentuates that.

Playing a team seeded nine lines below you is exceedingly rare in the regional finals, as you can imagine. It’s not the worst loss in Elite Eight history from that standpoint. Three top seeds have lost to 11-seeds (Kentucky to LSU in 1986, UConn to George Mason in 2006, Kansas to Virginia Commonwealth in 2011).

Other blown opportunities by high seeds that stand out to me include 2-seed Florida losing to 8-seed Butler in 2011 (what are the odds a school like Butler pulls this off two years in a row?) and 2-seed Ohio State falling to Wichita in 2013.

I also tend to include 1983 and #1 seed Virginia (there’s those poor Cavs again) losing to N.C. State. Falling to a 6-seed is no big deal, but given that the Cavs had just lost to the Wolfpack in the ACC Tournament two weeks earlier, it seems worse. And the hype surrounding the college legend Ralph Sampson’s last pursuit of a national title drew us all to our TV sets for that one.

When you combine three factors—the blown lead, the disparity in seeding and the relatively rare opportunity for the program, to me it seems clear—Virginia’s loss to Syracuse on Sunday was the most gut-wrenching in the modern history of the regional finals. Yes Virginia, you have a right to sob. And I’ll be pulling for you to get redemption.