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Virginia’s Shining Moment Is on the Horizon

Tony Bennett has lifted the Cavaliers program to heights it hasn’t experienced in more than three decades. He’s also fallen victim to repeated March heartbreak. This year he has his best team ever, as well as the NCAA tournament’s no. 1 overall seed. Is the elusive breakthrough finally imminent?

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The University of Virginia hired Tony Bennett to be its head basketball coach on March 30, 2009. Bennett was 39 years old at the time and had been a Division I head coach for only three seasons, compiling a nice but unspectacular 69-33 record at Washington State. It makes sense, then, why his hiring left many Virginia fans underwhelmed. Just read the Richmond Times-Dispatch article announcing Bennett’s move to UVA and see how far you can get before laughing. I didn’t make it past the first sentence:

CHARLOTTESVILLE — The University of Virginia has its next men’s basketball coach, and he’s not Minnesota’s Tubby Smith or Oklahoma’s Jeff Capel or Texas’ Rick Barnes or LSU’s Trent Johnson.

Not long after that, the first quote in the Times-Dispatch article comes from an unnamed Virginia fan, who said that Bennett “might turn out to be a great coach, but he is hardly the home run that we were looking for. Where is the ‘wow’ factor?”

Nine years later, I’m pretty sure Virginia fans wouldn’t hesitate to sign a petition calling for the removal of the Thomas Jefferson statue on campus so that a Bennett statue 10 times its size could be erected in its place. The coach has lifted a formerly dormant Virginia program to heights it hasn’t experienced in more than three decades. He’s won three of the past five ACC regular-season titles and two of the past five conference tournaments. He’s been named ACC coach of the year three times and captured two USBWA national coach of the year awards. (He also took home a USBWA award at Washington State in 2007.) He’s even built a program deemed worthy of a Jordan Conn feature. Plenty of idiot sportswriters will argue that Bennett still lacks the “wow” factor, but his results speak for themselves. And on Sunday, he earned the crown jewel on his coaching résumé, as the 2018 NCAA tournament bracket was revealed and Virginia (31-2) was named the no. 1 overall seed for the first time in school history. The AP poll, the RPI, KenPom, and now the NCAA tournament selection committee have all reached the same conclusion: The best team in college basketball during the 2017-18 season was Bennett’s. No matter what else happens from here, the vision Bennett shared at his introductory press conference in 2009—when he said, “It’s not about building a great team, but about building a program that lasts”—has been realized.

So why does it feel like he still has so much left to prove? The answer to that question is simultaneously obvious and derived from the widespread belief that college basketball success can be achieved during only one month of the calendar year. For all the regular-season accolades that the Cavaliers have racked up under Bennett, his team has a history of bowing out early in the NCAA tournament. Virginia has been upset by opponents seeded at least three spots lower than it in three of its past five appearances, and in both exceptions Virginia was blown out by Florida in the first weekend of the tourney: in the 2012 first round, when the Gators won 71-45, and again in the 2017 second round, when Florida picked Virginia apart in a 65-39 rout. The harsh reality is that few people outside of Charlottesville give a damn about anything Bennett has done to this point in his career, and that will remain the case until he reaches his first Final Four.

With Virginia set to enter its fourth NCAA tournament in the past five seasons as either a no. 1 or no. 2 seed, these reminders of recent tourney futility have left neutral observers asking the same unavoidable questions: Why should anyone trust Virginia now? And what’s so special about this Cavaliers team that suggests it’ll be the one to finally break through and earn the program’s first Final Four berth since 1984?

Devon Hall and Nigel Johnson
Devon Hall and Nigel Johnson
Eric Espada/Getty Images

The power that the NCAA tournament has in shaping coaches’ legacies is wild. College basketball isn’t unique in placing a strong emphasis on its postseason, but it’s nonetheless interesting to consider just how much rides on what is essentially a crapshoot. By its very design—a single-elimination format featuring a field of teams so large that unfamiliarity with opponents is inevitable—the tournament exists to produce the maximum amount of unpredictability. It’s not so much a competition to crown the best college basketball team as it is a cultural event made for television. Teams spend four months trying to achieve perfection under a certain framework, only to be thrust into the madness of March and hope that a poor shooting night, a bad matchup, foul trouble, health issues, an opponent getting hot, or a host of other problems don’t sabotage an otherwise great season. Most people seem to grasp that the NCAA tournament is the most ridiculous sporting event in America, and yet the majority of us can’t resist treating tournament results as the sole barometer for a coach or program’s success.

This is especially true when patterns begin to emerge. Anything that causes an early NCAA tournament exit can happen once or twice, but narratives are born when history repeats itself. For example, when no. 1 seed Virginia lost to no. 4 seed Michigan State 61-59 in the 2014 Sweet 16, it wasn’t seen as a particularly big deal. Versatile big men have long been the kryptonite to Virginia’s packline defense, so it didn’t come as much of a surprise when the Cavaliers had no answer for the skill and athleticism of the Spartans’ duo of Branden Dawson and Adreian Payne.

When Virginia lost to Michigan State again in the next tournament, this time as a no. 2 seed falling 60-54 to a no. 7 seed, it still wasn’t enough to prompt most onlookers to press the panic button. Justin Anderson, Virginia’s second-leading scorer on that team and a future first-round NBA draft pick, had undergone an appendectomy just 17 days earlier and played with a broken finger on his shooting hand. The Cavaliers went ice cold from the 3-point line, finishing an awful 2-for-17 from deep. Michigan State had Virginia’s number, a result that owed largely to the Wahoos playing a Big Ten–like brand of basketball to which the Spartans were accustomed, and also to a variety of other factors: Michigan State being underseeded for the second consecutive year; the Spartans’ Dawson and Travis Trice combining for 38 points; Tom Izzo being a wizard in March. Michigan State went on to make the 2015 Final Four, and while critics of Bennett were building their case, they weren’t yet ready to present their findings to the world.

And then the 2016 Elite Eight happened. The only thing standing between no. 1 seed Virginia and Bennett’s first career Final Four was a matchup with no. 10 seed Syracuse, a group that’d lost five of its final six games heading into the tournament. Thanks to typically great team defense and London Perrantes’s hot shooting, the Cavaliers built a huge lead that stood at 15 points with 9:30 remaining in the second half. When Syracuse started pressing, though, all hell broke loose. Virginia was forced to play at a faster pace than it wanted, and the same Orange team that had scored 21 points in the first half put up 20 in a span of about three and a half minutes. The 15-point Virginia lead turned into a one-point Syracuse advantage, and the Cavaliers were stunned in a 68-62 loss. They had completely dominated three-fourths of that game, yet were once again sent packing prematurely.

This time, there was nothing Bennett apologists could say. The Syracuse loss was a complete choke job and there was no arguing otherwise. What’s worse, it cemented a narrative that has stuck with the team ever since: Virginia is a gimmick. The Cavaliers don’t have the talent to hang with the big boys so they just try to bore their opponents to death. They’re like a knuckleball pitcherwhen they’re on, they’re devastating. But when the NCAA tournament rolls around, that knuckleball stops moving and Virginia just throws one meatball after another across the plate.

After the 2016 Syracuse loss, Bennett was asked what he told his heartbroken team. His response: “I told them—I don’t know, it was ringing in my ears and it’s an old church hymn that says, ‘Weeping may endure for the night, but joy comes in the morning.’”

He was right about one thing: The weeping definitely endured. That Syracuse loss marked the end of the college career of Malcolm Brogdon, a fifth-year senior who was the most important Virginia basketball player since Ralph Sampson. The following season the Hoos went 23-11, tied for fifth in the ACC standings, and were a no. 5 seed in the NCAA tournament. Florida absolutely kicked their asses in the second round, with Virginia going 1-of-15 from beyond the arc and scoring 17 points in the first half.

But all of that is in the past. A new morning has arrived in the form of the 2017-18 team, which boasts one of the great defenses in college basketball history and enters the tournament having already broken the school record with 31 wins this season. Virginia fans have reason to be hopeful that the elusive breakthrough is imminent, and that the joy they’ve waited for is on the horizon.

Tony Bennett
Tony Bennett
Rob Carr/Getty Images

Reverse-engineering Virginia’s recent NCAA tournament losses reveals a couple of problems without clear solutions. For starters, as great as the program’s defense has been under Bennett, the Hoos have never had an answer for versatile big men who can pick-and-pop. Its packline defense is vulnerable against all 3-point shooters, since they require long closeouts from off-ball defenders who park themselves in the paint to close potential driving lanes. And because the Hoos’ ball-screen philosophy calls for hard hedging, a big man with a smooth outside stroke who can also make plays off the dribble can wreak havoc. The only responses that the Cavaliers can muster in these matchups is to change how they hedge ball screens (which would be a terrible idea given that they’ve long been trained to do that one specific way), offer more aggressive help from off-ball defenders (spreading out their defense and creating driving lanes in the process), or do nothing and pray that the shots eventually stop falling. In other words, when UVA plays against a skilled big man, its chances of failing greatly increase.

The nightmare scenario for the Wahoos is to face off with Kansas State and 6-foot-8 forward Dean Wade in the second round, as Wade (who averages 16.5 points and 2.8 assists per game while shooting 44 percent from the 3-point line) very much fits the mold of a guy who could crack Virginia’s impenetrable defense. But it’s also entirely possible that Virginia will never face a versatile, playmaking big in the entire 2018 tournament. That’s why the more pressing matter at hand may be that Virginia’s glacial pace of play places a massive emphasis on every possession.

This tendency is typically great for a team as disciplined as the Hoos. But it can backfire in a single-elimination setting, as inferior squads need to pull magic out of their asses on fewer possessions to complete a colossal upset. This explains the underwhelming tournament history of defensive-minded teams that prefer a slow pace. It’s no coincidence that Wisconsin’s Bo Ryan couldn’t get over the hump until he started putting teams on the floor that could score as well as they could guard. And while Butler’s run to the 2010 national title game and some of Ben Howland’s Final Four teams at UCLA should give Virginia fans hope, it’s important to remember that teams that fit this mold rarely blow anyone out, thereby leaving themselves susceptible to low-seeded opponents hanging around before making a few plays down the stretch to steal a win.

Here’s the difference with Virginia in 2017-18, though: It is unlike any team that’s come before it, and that includes other Virginia teams in recent years. It’s not that this group of Wahoos is demonstrably better than every other team. It’s just worth pointing out that not all teams that apply a methodical approach and thrive on defense are created equally. In fact, saying this Virginia team is merely good at defense is such a huge understatement that it feels insulting. This Virginia squad is not good at defense; it’s historically excellent at it. The Cavaliers, led by ACC Defensive Player of the Year Isaiah Wilkins, have the most efficient defense in the 17-year history of KenPom. They have given up 69 or more points zero times in 33 games this season. Regardless of whether you think that’s boring, gimmicky, the result of a bunch of scrubs getting away with fouling, or the defining statistic for a well-coached unit operating in harmony, the indisputable fact is Virginia chews up and spits out opposing offenses in a way that no team in the modern era outside of maybe 2014-15 Kentucky ever has.

What’s more, these Cavaliers have an offensive balance that previous Bennett-coached squads have lacked. In recent seasons, Virginia’s offenses have had a stereotypical basketball pecking order: There’s been an alpha dog, a sidekick, and a bunch of role players who take turns stepping up. This system worked well enough during the regular season, but relying so heavily on a few key players has come back to bite the Wahoos in the NCAA tournament. Brogdon and Joe Harris carried the offensive load for Virginia in 2013-14, then combined to shoot 10-for-28 from the field in the Sweet 16 loss to Michigan State. Brogdon and Anderson led the way in 2014-15, then went a combined 5-for-19 against the Spartans in the second round. And Brogdon (2-for-14 against Syracuse in the 2016 Elite Eight) and Perrantes (2-for-12 against Florida in the 2017 second round) were essentially one-man offensive shows over the past two seasons.

The current iteration of Virginia is better suited to handle an off night from its alpha dog, mostly because it doesn’t have an alpha dog in the first place. Kyle Guy leads the team in scoring at 14.1 points per game, but an argument could be made that he’s the fourth-best scorer on the roster behind Devon Hall, De’Andre Hunter, and Ty Jerome. Bennett has never coached a trio of knockdown shooters like Guy, Hall, and Jerome before, nor has he ever had someone as versatile as the 6-foot-7 Hunter, who might already have more raw talent than any player Bennett has coached. (Hunter might also be a better defender than Wilkins, which is absolutely absurd to think about.) Bennett has never been able to bring firepower off the bench like he can with Hunter, fifth-year senior point guard Nigel Johnson, and 6-foot-9 sophomore Mamadi Diakite, the last of whom can create his own offense on the low block and isn’t just out there to score garbage buckets as you might expect from a bench big who averages 15.4 minutes per game. And even though this may seem like a silly thing to make note of, Bennett has never had a screener like Jack Salt at his disposal, which matters a great deal in the Hoos’ mover-blocker offensive system.

Look, I get that most of the non-Virginia fans reading this are probably rolling their eyes by now. I know that it feels like every Virginia team gets the we swear we’re different this time treatment only to fall short during the NCAA tournament. I’m not dumb enough to tell you that the 2017-18 Cavaliers will definitely make a Final Four run. If I could accurately predict what will happen in the NCAA tournament, I’d be getting rich in Vegas instead of writing articles for people to read while they’re on the toilet. I just think it’s useful to step back and assess Virginia through the proper lens instead of assuming the Hoos are doomed simply because Branden Dawson once played a great game against them, Justin Anderson broke his finger at an inopportune time in 2015, and a Cavaliers team from two years ago shit its pants against the Syracuse press.

And that brings me to my ultimate point: The main reason that NCAA tournament narratives exist is so that one day they might be flipped on their heads. That payoff, after all, is precisely what makes this event so thrilling. We have to truly believe that George Mason is going to get crushed by North Carolina and UConn, and that Bo Ryan is a choker who has no shot at stunning an undefeated Kentucky team on the sport’s biggest stage. We have to think that a UConn team that finished ninth in the Big East can’t possibly win five games in five days to claim the Big East tournament title, and then six more to claim the national championship. We have to know that Villanova and Gonzaga will never break through, and that a team lacking NBA-caliber talent in its starting lineup that plays the slowest pace in all of college basketball isn’t a legitimate national title contender. Because one day, inevitably, we’re going to be proved wrong.

If Bennett stays at Virginia for the next two decades and continues to field teams that win 25-plus games a year, a Final Four berth will happen. It’s only a matter of time. The 2013-14 team gave him the best chance he’d ever had at that point. The same was true of the 2014-15 and 2015-16 teams, and now it’s true of the 2017-18 version. How much that matters over the course of these next few weeks remains to be seen. All I know for sure is that tears are most certainly going to flow. It’s just a question of whether they’ll come in the form of more heartbreak or whether they’ll be in celebration of Virginia making it through the night to its long-awaited morning.