“It’s the greatest feeling I’ve ever felt in basketball,” Virginia guard Kyle Guy said after winning the national championship last season.
Every college basketball team dreams of winning a national championship. It’s the sport’s ultimate prize, and it’s not easy to reach the top of the college basketball world.
Virginia’s 2018-19 national championship season was historic. Tony Bennett and his team were overjoyed to bounce back from a disappointing end to the 2017-18 season by winning the program’s first national title.
“Forget last year, this is everything you dream of since you’re a little kid,” Virginia guard Ty Jerome said after the win.
There’s no denying that winning a national championships provides an incredible high for a program and its fan base. The season after, however, often proves to be much more of a struggle.
Florida, which won the national title in both 2006 and 2007 under Billy Donovan, is the last team to repeat as national champions. Since 2010, six teams have finished their season after a national championship with at least 10 losses, and Virginia is well on its way to joining them with six losses through 18 games.
Two of those six teams failed to earn a chance to defend their title, finishing the season in the NIT.
It’s a result that shocks the system, especially for Virginia fans coming to grips with why the Cavaliers are likely on the outside of the NCAA Tournament picture through eight conference games.
The explanation for the lack of success following a national championship usually boils down to a pair of simple reasons.
First, many of the key contributors from the championship team leave via the NBA Draft or graduation. Amazingly, Florida returned its entire starting lineup when it repeated as champions in 2007.
Virginia lost De’Andre Hunter, Kyle Guy, Ty Jerome and Jack Salt. The first three players left early to join the NBA, which wasn’t necessarily in Bennett’s plan heading into the season.
“I think we probably had our best team ever at UVa coming back,” Bennett said. “That was the plan. We build our team to have experience and because those guys played so great and were so remarkable, the opportunities presented itself to go.”
That’s not uncommon.
When players dominate in a national championship season, their draft stock often hits its peak. With the ability to turn pro and make money with the greatest collegiate basketball accomplishment already under their belt, it’s a decision that makes sense.
Villanova went through the same experience last season. Four Wildcats turned pro early after winning the 2017-18 national championship. Without a solid NCAA Tournament run and a special season, there’s a chance some of those players returned. The same can be said for Virginia. Villanova went 26-10 last season.
North Carolina underwent a similar experience, especially in regards to losing elite guards, in the 2009-10 season. After winning the title the year prior, both Wayne Ellington and Ty Lawson both turned pro. Roy Williams’ squad went 21-17 the following season and fell in the NIT championship.
“It’s hard,” Williams said. “If you win a national championship, it means you have very, very good players, and sometimes you lose those players.”
To make matters worse, Virginia’s 2017 recruits — Marco Anthony and Francesco Badocchi — both left the program. The early departures combined with a lost recruiting class left the 2019-20 Virginia Cavaliers with a talent deficit compared to last season.
“We had two guys that were upperclassmen that either transferred or ones not playing,” Bennett said. “Our whole upperclassmen, that’s how we’ve built our program, so with that part being gone, I knew from a team standpoint, our inexperience was going to be challenging.”
Arguably the second reason for increased losses comes from opponents embracing the chance to beat a defending champ. It’s a sports cliché, but teams do give reigning national champions — and teams at an elite level — their best shot.
“There’s more impact on a win if you beat an opponent at that level, especially in your quest to become a tournament team” Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “It’s at a different level. In our sport, only 68 teams make the tournament. It’s not 80 out of 120 like in football. You face really hungry opponents, especially during mid to late January and all of February and early March.”
An added target on the back combined with a sizable loss of talent leads to defending champions struggling. Sometimes teams rebuild rather than reload.
“There’s always a target on your back if you’re North Carolina or Duke or the way Tony’s got his club at Virginia right now,” Williams said. “There’s always the target there, and if you won the championship the year before, that does add a little bit to it, but again you don’t have the team that you had before, and that makes a great deal of difference, too.”
Williams knows the struggle of defending a championship about as well as anyone. He’s won three titles in his illustrious coaching career, with his three champions combining to go 100-15 across those three seasons. In the season after, Williams’ teams are 72-36.
That’s the same winning percentage of this year’s 12-6 Virginia team.
Every team dreams of winning a national title. Unfortunately for those squads, the dream usually fades the following season.
Fortunately, the dreams can resurface.
Nine of the past 10 national champions finished with a worst winning percentage the following season. However, Duke, UConn, North Carolina and Villanova have all gone on to win another championship in that span, though. Winning it all again the next season is a struggle, but making a run in subsequent years occurs frequently.
If there’s anything Virginia can take away from North Carolina and Roy Williams, it’s the possibility to return to the highest level of the sport. Despite having down years after championships, Williams and the Tar Heels bounced back for titles in 2009 and 2017.
“They’re not taking that banner down, but that’s last year’s team and that team is not here except for a couple guys so you just keep building it and now we gotta get some maturity in our program and build it up again,” Bennett said.