HARRISONBURG, Va. (CBS19 SPORTS) -- The spectacle of the NCAA Tournament has grown a bit since Ralph Sampson led Virginia to the program's first Final Four.
“In the Spectrum, can you imagine playing against Indiana or North Carolina with only 18,000 people, compared to Virginia now going to Minneapolis, playing in front of 75,000 people," Sampson said this week during a one-on-one conversation with WHSV in Harrisonburg. "From small arena to the large football stadium, the game has evolved.”
The 7-4 Sampson was a three-time national player of the year and four-time All-American during his time at UVA. As a sophomore in 1981, Sampson led the Cavaliers to the first Final Four appearance in program history - a 78-65 loss to North Carolina in the national semifinals. Virginia reached the Final Four again in 1984, the season following Sampson's departure for the NBA.
On Saturday, the program will return to the national semifinals for the first time in 35 years when UVA faces Auburn in Minneapolis. The program's latest Final Four run has included four wins in two cities over the past two weeks -- with Sampson at every stop.
“The first round and the second round, [Kyle] Guy didn’t play well at all. He couldn’t hit the back side of the barn," Sampson said. "And in this game, to go to the national title, he found a way for it to click in. And he’ll shoot the ball no matter what, which is great."
"[Ty] Jerome found a way to get it done as well. And [De'Andre] Hunter didn’t play well. The bench didn’t play well," Sampson added. "But we played well enough to win. So if we can get everybody clicking on the same cylinder come this weekend, it could be a national title waiting to happen.”
Sampson has watched his alma mater grow into a national title contender under head coach Tony Bennett's leadership the past decade.
“Most people don’t like his system, guys that play. But guess what: It wins," Sampson said. "And you have the results that take guys to the next level as well. Malcolm Brogdon is a case in point, went to the NBA and was the rookie of the year. We like the guy a lot, and want to keep him around for a long time.”
Sampson plans to be in Minneapolis this weekend. He knows the Final Four will be a great experience for the Cavaliers -- but that there is still work to be done as well.
“The guys are preparing themselves for the excitement of the Final Four. Tony now has never been, so it’s excitement for him," Sampson said. "They’ll go early and enjoy the festivities. But there will come a point in time like Thursday night, Friday morning, they’ll lock in and it’ll be all basketball after that. So it should be fun. Should be fun to watch.”