Tony Bennett will be back. Virginia will win again.
The obituaries being written about the Cavaliers and the team's style of play are overdone and premature.
Virginia came into the NCAA Tournament as the No. 1 team in the country and the No. 1 overall seed. The Cavaliers ended their season as victims of the biggest upset in tournament history.
UMBC, the University of Baltimore Maryland County, pulled off a stunning manhandling. This wasn't Cinderella with a buzzer-beater, securing a win before time ran out. After a 21-21 first half, the Retrievers from Charm City dismantled Virginia by hitting shot after shot, scoring as many points in the second half (53) as Virginia was used to allowing for entire games. The Retrievers spotted up with confidence and hit big-time three after big-time three, crushing the thought that eventually UMBC would fade and the No. 1 seed would do what No. 1 seeds do. When they weren't draining long-range jumpers, UMBC guard Jairus Lyles drove through the Atlantic Coast Conference champs during what looked like a jelly layup clinic.
It was as Bennett, the Virginia coach said, "a thorough butt whipping."
What UMBC did had never been done before. In 135 previous matchups, a No. 16 seed had never beaten a No. 1. As the collective elation grew for the underdog, the stockpiled cache of criticism was unloaded on Bennett and the Virginia program he built. Of course, the loss conjured up memories of Ralph Sampson's No. 1 -ranked Virginia squad losing to Chaminade. That game has its own Wikipedia page.
The searing stuff, though, would be reserved for Bennett and his approach to the game. As soon as the TV network went back to the studio, Charles Barkley said Virginia's style of play could not produce six wins in the tournament. "Virginia was built to fail in March" read one headline on Yahoo Sports. Other stories made claims about March ineptitude and mastering the "Dark Art of Choking."
After two meh-seasons, Bennett has won 22 games or more for the last seven seasons. He notched 30 wins twice, 29 once and 31 this year. The regular season hasn't translated to a banner-hanging postseason run. Bennett's teams have been bounced from the tournament before the Sweet 16 four times. The deepest run came in 2016 and ended in an Elite Eight loss to Syracuse. The reason for this losing? The experts surmise it is the defensive-oriented slowdown-style of play in a game that has sped up and been Steph Curry-ised.
Bennett brought Virginia's style from Wisconsin where his dad, Dick Bennett, made an improbable run to the Final Four in 2000. As Tony Bennett built Virginia in the conference of Duke and North Carolina, the Badgers continued with that slow style, going to back-to-back Final Fours under Bo Ryan in 2014 and 2015. Wisconsin received, and still receives, the same rote criticism from the flamethrowers being pointed at Virginia. The games are dull, slow, aesthetically unpleasing, followed with the current refrain that Virginia can't win in March.
The last part is true. They can't win in March. At least it'll be the storyline until they do. They will win though. It will happen. Bennett will likely make slight adjustments to his system. Winning coaches do that and they also know how to handle failure. Bennett showed that in the message he gave his team after the game. Standing outside the locker room, he relayed it to CBS Sports' Tracy Wolfson.
"I told our guys, we had a historic season. A historic season in terms of most wins in the ACC. A week ago we’re cutting down the nets and the confetti is falling. And then we make history by being the first one-seed to lose," he said. "And it stings. But, I'm trying to tell the guys in there, this is life. It can’t define you. You enjoyed the good times and you gotta be able to take the bad times. When you step into the arena, and a lot of people don't understand that, when you step into the arena and you're in the arena, the consequences can be historic losses, tough losses, great wins, and you have to deal with it. That’s the job."
That's why Bennett will be back and so too will Virginia. It's the job, to deal with all of it, not be defined by it, but to play another day, get back in action and deal with all of it again, no matter what the past or future outcomes bring.
Tony Bennett postgame pic.twitter.com/PEZ0lW4i6F
— Kevin Marchina (@kg_holler) March 17, 2018
Jerry Barca is the author of two books, Big Blue Wrecking Crew and Unbeatable. You can reach him @JBarca.