Virginia was a postseason fraud, or it wasn’t. Tony Bennett’s system had unavoidable flaws, or it didn’t. The national championship couldn’t be won at a plodding pace, or it could. The NCAA men’s basketball tournament is deemed the definitive assessment in the sport, and perhaps no team has been evaluated more harshly over the past two seasons than the Virginia Cavaliers. Bennett’s team entered this tournament with a regular-season record of 56-4 the past two seasons, but lost a game last tournament that will be remembered forever.
On Monday in Minneapolis, Virginia answered the lingering questions about its philosophy, its mettle and its legitimacy. The Cavaliers reached the national title game with their defense and won it with their offense. They wore the scars from being the only No. 1 seed to lose to a No. 16 seed, thanks to a loss last year against UMBC. They won four straight close games to counter the perception that they faltered in tournament situations. Their performance Monday was typically efficient: 11-for-24 on 3-pointers (45.8 percent), 16-for-35 on 2-pointers (45.7 percent), even against Texas Tech’s top-ranked defense.
Virginia won its six tournament games by an average of 7.5 points, the third-smallest margin for a national champion since the field expanded in 1985. In that category, the Cavaliers trail only Villanova in 1985 (a No. 8 seed) and Arizona in 1997 (a No. 4 seed).
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Three of Virginia’s six games came down to the final possession of regulation. Braxton Key blocked a Texas Tech jumper at the buzzer in the final; Kyle Guy hit three free throws in the final second of the team’s Final Four game; and in a tournament lacking game-winning buzzer-beaters, Mamadi Diakite delivered a game-tying jumper at the horn against Purdue in the Elite Eight.
The Cavaliers trailed in the second half of five tournament games, all except their second-round win against Oklahoma. In the first round Virginia encountered a most ominous test: Faced again with a No. 16 seed in Gardner-Webb, Bennett’s team trailed by as many as 14 in the first half and looked, despite their resilience, spooked. But even that situation set the stage for Monday’s victory. “Before, in the locker room, I said, ‘You guys faced pressure that no team in the history of the game has faced, well, really all year. But being down 14 against Gardner Webb, you did not panic in that moment,’” Bennett told reporters after Monday’s game.
The tournament woes predated UMBC. From 2009-18, in Bennett’s first nine seasons, Virginia was 7-6 in the NCAA tournament, ranking last in the country in how they performed vs. how college basketball guru Ken Pomeroy’s efficiency ratings would have expected them to perform. The Cavaliers lost in the Elite Eight as a No. 1 seed in 2016, in the second round as a No. 2 seed in 2015 and in the Sweet 16 as a No. 1 seed in 2014. They have discussed last season’s collapse so often that they refer to it not as “last season’s ending” or “the UMBC game” but just “UMBC.” (“I’m not even thinking about UMBC right now,” junior Ty Jerome told reporters Monday night.)
With this year’s tournament run, Virginia has an answer for the criticism that its slow tempo makes it vulnerable to tournament upsets. Bennett’s team has ranked 316th or lower in adjusted tempo1 since he took the head coaching job, according to Ken Pomeroy’s stat-keeping. The fewer possessions, the smaller the margin for error. Last season, Virginia’s deliberate approach put the Cavaliers in a precarious 21-21 tie at halftime against UMBC. In the second half, the Retrievers blitzed, and Virginia was not nearly fast — or efficient — enough to keep up. In the first round of this tournament, Bennett’s team was in danger again, down 36-30 to Gardner-Webb at halftime. But they changed their strategy this time around, speeding the game up and playing more possessions than in any of their other four regulation tournament games. They won the second half, 41-20.
Virginia was adaptable the rest of the way, too. Bennett’s stingy, pack-line defense crowds the paint and encourages opponents to stand around the perimeter and launch low-percentage, circus 3-pointers. When Purdue’s Carsen Edwards drilled 10 threes in 19 attempts against that defense, Virginia joined in the shootout, and Guy hit five triples after halftime. The Cavaliers also weathered second-half flurries by Auburn (which trailed by 10 with 5:24 left but took a lead inside the two-minute mark) and Texas Tech (which trailed by eight with 5:46 left but took the lead in the final minute).
As it turned out, nothing could shake this Virginia team, and the numbers will cement Virginia as one of the most efficient teams this century. According to Ken Pomeroy’s recordkeeping, of all teams since 2001-02, this season’s Cavaliers rank third in adjusted efficiency at +34.22, behind only Kentucky in 2014-15 (36.91) and Kansas in 2007-08 (35.21). It helps that Virginia is No. 2 in offensive efficiency — the first of Bennett’s Virginia teams to rank higher on offense than defense — and has De’Andre Hunter, who is projected to be the school’s first lottery pick since 2000. He scored 27 points and hit the game-tying 3-pointer with 12 seconds left Monday, and afterward everyone could celebrate and exhale. Asked if the pain of last season was gone, Bennett said, “You have a scar, and it reminds you of that, but it’s a memory. Does it go away completely? No, I wish it wouldn’t have happened in some ways. Now I say, well, it bought us a ticket here. So be it.”
From ABC News: