Virginia’s Tony Bennett, who reached the pinnacle of his sport at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis last April, is in a rare spot for a college basketball coach coming off a season that ended with him cutting down the nets.

The Cavaliers (16-7) are in danger of being the first defending NCAA men’s basketball champion to miss the tournament since Connecticut in 2015. Virginia is squarely on the bubble, according to most NCAA tournament bracketologists.

In one of the most unpredictable seasons in recent memory — with more surprises sure to occur by Selection Sunday — the Cavaliers join two other programs from the 2019 Final Four that are distant long shots to get back there for this year’s gathering in Atlanta.

Last year’s national runner-up Texas Tech (16-8) and Michigan State (17-8) are in good position to reach the NCAA tournament, but they are far from being deemed national title contenders.

Auburn (22-2) is the lone team from last year’s Final Four that has built that same aura this season. And even that seems fleeting.

Even before his team’s fourth overtime victory in the past five games, Tigers coach Bruce Pearl admitted earlier this week to reporters: “If we don’t get better, we’re going to start losing.”

Pearl lost three starters from last year, but he still assembled a squad that opened the season 15-0, lost twice, then reeled off seven more consecutive wins. The second streak included victories over fellow SEC co-leaders Kentucky (75-66) and LSU (91-90 OT).

Michigan State recently became the first preseason No. 1 team to drop from the Top 25 since Kentucky in 2013-14, but those Wildcats ended up making the national title game that year.

Hall of Fame coach Tom Izzo hopes his Spartans respond the same way from a recent slump. They’ve struggled to find consistent support for reigning Big Ten Player of the Year Cassius Winston. The Spartans avoided the program’s first four-game losing streak since 2007 with a 70-69 win at Illinois on Tuesday, coming on big man Xavier Tillman’s last-second put-back slam.

Winston had one of his worst games of the season with only 12 points, four turnovers and four fouls in 25 minutes, but freshman guard Rocket Watts picked up the slack with a career-high 21 points.

Texas Tech is now third in the Big 12, despite losing four starters from last year, including Timberwolves rookie guard Jarret Culver. The Red Raiders went from the No. 12 team in the country to dropping out of the rankings during a three-game losing streak in late November/early December. But Chris Beard has relied on freshman Jahmi’us Ramsey to fill Culver’s role, leading the team with nearly 16 points per game.

At Virginia, Bennett doesn’t have a standout freshman to replace last year’s Final Four Most Outstanding Player, Kyle Guy.

A month ago, the Cavaliers lost their third consecutive game after falling 54-50 at then-No. 9 Florida State. If you had to predict before the season which of those two teams would be ranked in the Top 10 in February, it would have probably been Virginia, right?

Instead, Bennett seemed to be speaking to his players through the postgame comments after that game by saying, “It takes courage to not get discouraged.” It worked. The Cavaliers have won four of their past five — including beating the Seminoles 61-56 in a Jan. 28 rematch at home — looking to rekindle last season’s magic.


Marcus Fuller covers college basketball for the Star Tribune. Twitter: @Marcus_R_Fuller

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