VILLANOVA, Pa. — Virginia waited nearly 40 years to win another Atlantic Coast Conference tournament title.
The Cavaliers needed only a few more hours to find out it was No. 1 again, this time earning the top seed in the NCAA tournament’s East Region.
The Cavaliers (28-6) will face No. 16 seed Coastal Carolina (21-12) on Friday in Raleigh, N.C. in the second round, and a win would pit them against either Memphis or George Washington.
They won their first outright ACC regular season title since 1981, and their first tournament title since 1976, and had more reason to celebrate Sunday night when they joined Florida, Arizona and Wichita State as the tournament’s No. 1 seeds.
“I think you have to be faithful to what brought you to this point, which is you play the kind of basketball we’ve been playing and continue to have that drive and have that hunger to play well because of the way the tournament is,” coach Tony Bennett said. “Every team you play is so solid. This will be another challenge that way to be ready to go.”
The Cavaliers face a rugged path if they want to reach the Final Four for the first time since 1984: Big East regular-season champion Villanova is the No. 2 seed, Big 12 tournament champion Iowa State is No. 3, Big 10 tournament champ Michigan State is No. 4.
The Wildcats (28-4) will play Milwaukee (21-13) Thursday in Buffalo, N.Y. With a win, the Wildcats would face a familiar team in the next round: Ex-Big East beast Connecticut or Philadelphia’s Saint Joseph’s.
Other match-ups in the region include: Cincinnati-Harvard and Michigan State-Delaware on Thursday in Spokane, Wash., and Iowa State-North Carolina Central and North Carolina-Providence on Friday in Raleigh.
The regional title game will be March 28-30 at Madison Square Garden in New York.
Coach Jay Wright’s Wildcats seemed poised to earn a No. 1 seed until they were knocked out by Seton Hall in their first game of the conference tournament at MSG.
“I never worry about that,” Wright said. “I’m happy to have a high seed and then you’ve got to play good basketball.”
Wright has led the Wildcats to nine NCAA tournaments, including the 2009 Final Four. He believes his balanced team is good enough to play deep into March.
“I think we’ve got the depth, we can score, we can defend,” Wright said.
But the Wildcats just weren’t good enough to beat out Virginia for a 1 seed.
Wake Forest athletic director Ron Wellman, the chairman of the selection committee, said Virginia’s two championships trumped an RPI rating of 11 to earn a 1 seed over Michigan and Villanova.
The Cavaliers, who have won 16 of last 17, had not gotten as far as the tournament semifinals since 1995 before winning three games this weekend.
UConn is returning to the tournament after being forced to sit out last year because of NCAA academic sanctions. The program won the 2011 national championship, but lost in the first round in 2012.
“There were some dark days there,” UConn coach Kevin Ollie said. “But everybody in life is going to have dark days. I’m just so proud of the guys, how they stayed together, planting seeds.”
Guard Shabazz Napier said he believes the Huskies have the talent to go deep into the tournament.
“It’s definitely a special feeling to get another chance,” he said. “But you’ve got to take the opportunity in your hand and take advantage of it. Hopefully, we do that.”
North Carolina Central is riding a 20-game winning streak into its NCAA tournament debut. Earlier this season, long before the streak, N.C. Central beat NC State 82-72 in overtime. Its MEAC tournament title was its first conference tournament championship since 1950.
North Carolina heads into the tournament with two straight losses for the first time since Roy Williams’ first season as coach, in 2003-04.
And Milwaukee won the Horizon League tournament title after posting a 7-9 league record during the regular season.
Cheese steaks could be on the menu instead of chicken wings for hoops fans in Buffalo.
The Wildcats would likely love another matchup with Saint Joseph’s after thumping the Hawks 98-68 on Dec. 7. Long billed as Philadelphia’s “Holy War,” the rivalry game is part of Philadelphia’s famed Big 5, round-robin play among five Philadelphia Division-I basketball teams that dates to 1955 and has been defined by hostile, split crowds and last-shot theatrics.
Saint Joseph’s coach Phil Martelli joked that he hoped the Hawks could share a ride with Villanova, since the Wildcats would be “flying whatever the biggest plane is.”
Wright responded, welcome aboard.
“He’s a trip. We’ll take him,” Wright said. “It’s all good. It’s all about Philly basketball.”