Cavs, Tony Bennett booted but it's only the beginning for Virginia
It was a tough loss, but let's not shrug off Virginia as a fluke. This program isn't going anywhere.
NEW YORK -- Michigan State just got another chance to make another Final Four and Tom Izzo remains an active coaching legend. We know. We get it, we appreciate the hell out of it and we'll read and talk a lot about that in the 40 hours between now and when the Spartans and UConn Huskies roll it out in the regional final Sunday afternoon.
But before we go there, let's not overlook or ignore Tony Bennett and his Virginia Cavaliers again. The beauty in college basketball's variety is that styles win fights, but there's never one technique that can get you a win in every game, every time. But there are methods that ensure success in the long term. Some coaches are able to discover threads that tie men together through different motivations, and for whatever reason, they simply work in the macro. Honesty and earnestness is a part of it with some people, and Bennett is one of those guys.
What he's got going with Virginia fits the description of "works for the long term." Sure, they lose to the Spartans, becoming the second No. 1 seed to fail to reach the Elite Eight in this tournament. But in the way -- a lesser way, but of a similar vein -- that Wichita State played up to its top seed with a terrific showing against Kentucky, Virginia did that against Michigan State on Friday night.
It was boxing on a basketball court. And neither coach would have wanted it any other way.
"We were beaten, absolutely," Bennett said.
It wasn't hard for him to say the words, either. The outcome was a pound to his stomach, but he couldn't fault the way his team played at all.
So it's time to give some respect to an incredible 30-win season for Virginia, because the Cavaliers never earned the amount of pub they so rightly deserved, dating all the way back to November. It's amazing what one 35-point loss to an eventual Sweet 16 team will do to your reputation.
Few certainties exist in college sports, but this I'm comfortable in saying: Bennett is building something to last in Charlottesville. He doesn't do swift and pretty. His program projects reflect the way his teams play: slow, methodical, with purpose -- and without arrogance or presumption.
There is expectation. This team doesn't accept praise. Call it corny, but somehow Bennett makes it work. Cavaliers basketball is now based on five pillars: unity, thankfulness, praise, humility and servanthood. Yes, servanthood. The Kentucky Wildcats, still alive on the other side of the bracket, are not referencing servanthood in regard to their success. Neither are top seeds Florida and Arizona. Bennett is just a different fellow.
You can motivate players and build programs in dozens of ways. His is abnormal compared to most. The results are still mostly worthy of envy, and his team's profile contradicts those credos. Because Virginia slugs you. It doesn't beat itself; you must impose your will. They give up "good shots for great shots," as Harris said.
And against Michigan State, for only the third or fourth time this season, Virginia was not able to do what it wanted to do for 40 minutes. Michigan State imposed itself upon the Wahoos.
Michigan State 61, Virginia 59 at the Garden was one of the best games this tournament's given us, and what a joy this field's unfolded through three (OK, technically four) rounds. The uber-talented Spartans were put into an arm bar more than a couple of times by Bennett's signature pack-line defense. At times it was rough -- but it was never rough to watch. It was never ugly. It was riveting.
The Cavaliers played this way all season en route to that No. 1 seed, reaching the program's first Sweet 16 in 19 years. Bennett has had to overcome players jumping ship when they weren't individually getting out of the program what they thought they'd be receiving when they first agreed to play there, before Bennett arrived.
"We never lost faith in what Coach Bennett was trying to do," Harris said. "I know they wish they could be a part of something like this right now, though."
Harris and Akil Mitchell -- and senior Tom Rogers -- were the ones who helped get the program to this spot and refused to ditch when they were all taking lumps in those first two years. The program was in need of something worth showing it wasn't a complete ACC afterthought. If you were in the building Friday night, you saw a Virginia fanbase that rivaled what the local UConn horde could bring into the building. It was surprising to plenty, but not Bennett and those players.
Virginia's players walked off the court following what they called the toughest clash they'd played all season. After the game ended, the Cavs had only a few quick moments to collect themselves before media duty called. The players huddled for a thank you in a tight circle in the middle of the locker room. Being the No. 1 seed, Virginia got to use the Knicks' digs, the best of the best inside MSG. Then they dropped into their oversized cubbies and Bennett said a prayer for the team.
One thing Bennett won't need going forward is any invocation in order to keep Virginia near the top of the ACC and getting back to myriad NCAA tournaments. This team will never win style points or be the sexy story. It will be about embracing emotion. About half the room was in tears by the time the reporters made their way in.
"You have to look at the bigger picture, and that's what's keeping me strong," Justin Anderson said. "There's more to life than losing a basketbal game. ... We wanted it for each other. We didn't want it for the fame that came with it, for the teachers to [give us a break] when we got back. That's why it hurts. We wanted it for each other."
Losses come hard and lessons are learned in this tournament. Bennett took his first Sweet 16 session with the Hoos and fell at the feet of one of the best on Friday night. He'll be back, and one day he'll probably the in the position Izzo was in: headed to yet another regional final. Few programs seem in safer hands.
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