NCAA Tournament 2018: ACC Tournament title proves Virginia is nation's best
Regardless of what happens during March Madness, Virginia's already proven its greatness
Is this the year college basketball fans finally allow yourself to trust this program in March Madness, though? The Cavaliers have given you almost no reason not to. Pick against the Cavaliers at your own risk -- and potentially at the threat of losing your office pool.
For starters, Tony Bennett has a case for best coach in college basketball. I'm not only talking about this season. That's already been settled.
Virginia capped off a dominating run to Selection Sunday with a 71-63 victory against North Carolina in the ACC Tournament title game Saturday night. The conquering of Carolina set a UVA record for most victories in a season: 31. The Wahoos have only two losses, which is half as many as the next closest teams (Villanova, Michigan State, Cincinnati and Gonzaga).
The ACC title also birthed an ACC record: 2017-18 Virginia is the first team to win 20 games in a season against league competition. And the Cavs are going to their fifth consecutive NCAA Tournament -- the first time the program's done that.
"I think that we know who we are," senior Isaiah Wilkins said.
What they are is a team built for a championship. It's magnificent to watch Virginia force teams to bend to their will every time, every game, and win almost every time.
For Bennett, a second conference tournament title comes as backdrop to the 2018 NCAA Tournament that will bring a lot of pressure to win at least four games. Virginia doesn't need to get to at least 35 wins this season, but 34 or fewer will almost certainly bring about an army of critics over UVA's style. Yet, at 48, Bennett has achieved everything at the college level short of making a Final Four.
It feels inevitable that this will be the year.
The Cavaliers are a problem that seem only solvable with a lucky, blind guess. West Virginia and Virginia Tech, congrats on somehow beating this team. I'm sure Bob Huggins and Buzz Williams have been bothered plenty in search of state secrets.
So, again, will you allow yourself to trust this team that's put a chokehold on college basketball? If you don't think Virginia looks special, your biases are blinding your judgment. It's by far the best defensive team in the sport -- statistically one of the best of the past 20 years -- and damn good on offense, too. This Cavs squad rates as the second most efficient offensive team Bennett's had, only behind that No. 1-seeded Cavaliers of 2015-16 that had a freakish collapse in the Elite Eight against Syracuse.
Without that devastating loss, Virginia's reputation is different. What you think of it, and how it's perceived nationally, is different. Final Four runs will do that for coaches. Ask Frank Martin and Shaka Smart. Gregg Marshall, Jim Larranaga and John Beilein too. All with a Final Four to their name, all held in higher esteem because of it.
"Those are the tangible things everybody judges you on," Bennett said Saturday night.
He's now become, right there with Arizona's Sean Miller, the carrier of the Best Coach Never to Make a Final Four moniker. Two years after the Syracuse catastrophe in Chicago, he's never looked better. He's operating on a level with few peers in college basketball right now. And he's done it with humility that, honestly, is appalling sincere.
I mean, the guy apologized for his players at the postgame press conference on Saturday night after they opted to bring the trophy to the dais.
Virginia was (ridiculously, in retrospect) unranked in the preseason. It went from that to capping off the best regular season in school history. Yes, even better than when Ralph Sampson was on campus and considered the top player in college basketball.
There's no singular superstar on this team like Sampson was. The Cavs boast a coach, a culture and a system that's managed to make its mark in an era where small-ball and space-and-pace philosophy has overtaken basketball at all levels. Yet Bennett has found a cheat code with season-long benefits.
Virginia took hold of the No. 1 spot in KenPom in early February and hasn't slipped since. It's the slowest and most suffocating team in the sport. And you think this club has no stars? Check back in a few years when freshman De'Andre Hunter is contributing on an NBA roster like Mike Scott, Joe Harris, Justin Anderson and Malcolm Brogdon are now.
Harris and Anderson were at Barclays Center on Saturday, right behind the UVA bench, smiling like giddy school kids after their program completed the crown-jewel accomplishment: winning the league's regular season and tournament title. The double-dip champ run is a special thing. This is not a school that has ever, or probably will ever, win with one-and-done types. In fact, Bennett had a nice line on Saturday night. A bit cheesy, but accurate nonetheless. He said a one-and-done at Virginia is defined by an opponent shooting, missing, and not getting a second chance with an offensive rebound. One shot, then you're done. Make it or else.
It's at the core of how he's won 288 of his 406 games at Virginia and Washington State. If you combine the five years prior at each of those schools before Bennett got there, the aggregate record of those programs was 126-165.
Now comes the do-or-die litmus test of the NCAA Tournament. Bennett's and Virginia's regular season rule over the ACC and much of college basketball has created a -- pardon the boilerplate buzz word, but it does apply -- narrative about Virginia basketball.
"Don't over-complicate it," Bennett said. "Improve, prepare well, play to win. That's what we have to do when we step up. And whoever it is or wherever it is, I don't know if we have a choice on that or not."
Thing is, it's the other team that usually doesn't carry a choice when it plays Virginia.
This Cavaliers team will face a skeptical public, but they should be the favorite heading into the NCAA Tournament. From a common sense and statistical perspective, there's no argument against the Hoos right now. On Saturday night, they sealed that. No ACC Tournament fold job, no weak showing against a dangerous Carolina team pushing for a possible 1 seed.
The NCAA Tournament will decide a national champion, but unless Virginia cuts down the nets, it won't prove who the best team was in college basketball this season. Through 33 games, we have our answer. The results from here on out can't take away the best coaching job of Bennett's career. This is college basketball's best team.
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