Back in July, I crossed paths with Virginia men’s basketball coach Tony Bennett at the funeral of a friend we both cherished, former UW-Green Bay coach Mike Heideman.
At one point, Tony and I had time to visit, sharing memories of Heideman, talking about the University of Wisconsin where Bennett was once an assistant coach and discussing the merits of his former star at Virginia, Malcolm Brogdon of the Milwaukee Bucks.
Several times during the conversation, we were interrupted by people who wanted to chat with Bennett about one thing: Virginia becoming the first No. 1 seed in NCAA tournament history to lose to a No. 16 seed, which, as everyone who ever filled out a bracket knows, had happened in March. The people expressed how badly they felt for Bennett after his Virginia team suffered what might be the most embarrassing loss in tournament history and commended him for the classy manner with which he handled it.
Because we were in Bennett’s hometown of Green Bay, everyone who stopped to talk was polite and well-meaning. Bennett, as always, was respectful and friendly.
Nevertheless, it got me thinking about what a brutal offseason it must have been for Bennett. Rehashing such a painful memory was something he dealt with every day, something that wouldn’t go away until Virginia put it to rest by finding success in the NCAA tournament.
Consider it put to rest.
With an eventful run through the tournament, the Cavaliers, once again a No. 1 seed, reached tonight’s championship game in Minneapolis, where they will play No. 3 seed Texas Tech. In the process of finding redemption, the Cavaliers also zipped the lips of the critics who used last year’s 74-54 loss to UMBC as proof that a program like Bennett’s, while it may flourish during the regular season, can’t hold up against uber-talented teams in the NCAA tournament.
Consider that put to rest as well.
Indeed, Virginia and Texas Tech offer living proof that there is more than one way to reach the pinnacle of college basketball. In an era where the Dukes and Kentuckys hog the spotlight by recruiting a handful of five-star, one-and-done talents every year, tonight’s winner will be a team that relies on methodical offense and unyielding defense, that develops three- and four-star recruits into great players, that tries to beat overwhelming talent with hard-earned experience.
Sound familiar, UW fans? This has been the Badgers’ game plan since Tony’s father, Dick, was named coach at UW in 1995 and has continued on through the tenures of Bo Ryan and Greg Gard. The Badgers were almost always a good team during that time and morphed into a great team in years where they assembled the right combination of talent and experience, including Final Fours in 2000 under Dick Bennett and 2014 and 2015 under Ryan.
That hasn’t always been enough to satisfy some of its critics, but it is how a program like UW’s — and Virginia’s — operates best. One-and-done simply isn’t a realistic approach for most schools. The rest have to find other ways to win.
“The beauty of college basketball is there’s so many different ways to build the program and there’s so many different styles and systems of play, and I love that about the game,” Tony Bennett said at the Final Four. “It’s pure. You don’t have to say, “Well, this is a cookie-cutter way to do it.’ So our formula has always been, what I observe (at Virginia) and when my father coached at Wisconsin and when we went to Washington State, how can you build a program that can compete against the best in your conference? And it was, get guys experienced, get them to where they have two or three years where they learn and maybe learn the hard way, and then when they’re upperclassmen, they’re ready to play against the best. That’s kind of what we stuck to at Virginia. I think that fits Virginia. It’s getting harder and harder to do that in today’s atmosphere or today’s college basketball, but it has been effective for us.”
This year’s tournament has been a showcase for veteran teams that grind out wins with their defense. While Duke and Kentucky bowed out in regional finals, the four teams that showed up in Minneapolis didn’t have a single five-star prospect among them. Sophomore forwards De’Andre Hunter of Virginia and Jarrett Culver of Texas Tech are projected to be lottery picks in the NBA draft, but Hunter was a four-star recruit who ranked in the back half of the top 100 nationally and Culver was a little-known three-star recruit.
For all the talk about uptempo basketball and rule-changes that promote offense, the final will pit the two of the best defensive teams and slowest offensive teams in the nation. Virginia is first in fewest points allowed, Tech is third. Tech is first in KenPom’s defensive efficiency rankings, Virginia is fifth. Virginia is 353rd and last in KenPom’s tempo rankings, Tech is 237th.
But while tonight’s final will be low-scoring and relatively devoid of star power, keep in mind this is just one season and therefore a small sample size. The programs that recruit A-list talent every year aren’t going anywhere.
Virginia isn’t going anywhere, either. What Bennett’s season of redemption has shown us is there is more than one way to get it done in college basketball.