Virginia’s Tony Bennett talks about the play of NC State’s Wyatt Walker
When we last saw Virginia in Charlotte, the dazed and confused Cavaliers were trudging off the court at Spectrum Center. They had just become the first No. 1 NCAA tournament seed ever to lose to a No. 16 seed.
Now the Cavaliers have returned to the scene of the UMBC crime. They are the top seed in the 2019 ACC tournament that revs up in earnest Thursday in Charlotte when the top four teams debut in the quarterfinals.
No. 1 seed Virginia goes first, playing No. 8 seed N.C. State at 12:30 p.m. while trying to erase the memory of what happened a year ago.
Virginia coach Tony Bennett told reporters Tuesday: “Everybody says, ‘Going back to Charlotte, that’s where you played and you lost to UMBC.’ We’ve tried to grow as much as we can and learn from it. It’s all been talked about enough. It’s time, really, to press on.”
The way for Virginia to press on and dismiss that memory — the No. 1 seeds had previously been 135-0 in those opening-round matchups — is to win the ACC tournament on the same floor Saturday night. It’s quite possible, even if Zion Williamson returns at full strength for Duke. Virginia (28-2) appears to have an even better team than last season, with more scoring punch and the ACC’s Defensive Player of the Year in De’Andre Hunter.
“Offensively,” said Virginia’s Kyle Guy, “we’re as good as we’ve ever been. It’s a lot easier for us to hang with anybody. The defense will always keep us within striking range.”
No Final Fours under Bennett
Virginia’s hallmark is D, of course, and once again the Cavaliers lead the NCAA in scoring defense, allowing 54.6 points per game. Virginia’s only two losses all season have been to Duke, with “pre-injury” Zion playing in both of them. Other than that, this has been a remarkably consistent team.
But we’ve seen this sort of thing from Bennett’s teams before.
As great as Virginia has been in the regular season – this is the fourth time in the past six years the Cavaliers earned the ACC tourney’s No. 1 seed – a Bennett-coached team has never made it to the Final Four. The standard gripe is that once Virginia inevitably faces a team in the NCAA tournament that catches fire offensively, the Cavaliers have a devil of a time coming back because of their grind-it-out system.
This Virginia team may be different, though. Point guard Ty Jerome is fearless and, along with Guy and Hunter, gives the Cavaliers three of the league’s top 10 players according to the All-ACC voters. Hunter is a likely NBA lottery pick and can find his shot without help. It’s worth noting he didn’t play in the shocking 20-point loss to UMBC due to a broken wrist he sustained in the 2018 ACC tournament.
A mixed history
Bennett’s history in Charlotte isn’t all bad. He met his wife in the Queen City. He played three years as a reserve point guard for the Hornets and loved it. Although he mostly backed up Muggsy Bogues, Bennett was on the court when Alonzo Mourning hit the last-second, 19-foot jumper that beat the Boston Celtics in the 1993 NBA playoffs.
“The excitement and passion for the Hornets was really unique,” Bennett said once when I asked him about his experiences in Charlotte. “It was almost a college-type atmosphere, which you don’t often find at an NBA level. Alonzo, Larry, Muggsy, Dell — what a terrific time. It was fun to be part of that momentum, that excitement.”
Virginia’s first of a possible three challenges in the ACC tournament will be N.C State, which overcame a 16-point halftime deficit against Clemson on Wednesday to win by a point. It won’t be an easy task for Virginia – the Cavaliers edged N.C. State 66-65 in the teams’ one meeting this season, and it took an overtime period to do it.
But if the Cavaliers really want to put some distance between themselves and what happened last year, winning the tournament is really the only way to do it. Anything less, for the tournament’s No. 1 seed, is a disappointment.