Before Virginia’s season opener against South Carolina State in November, Coach Tony Bennett wrote three letters – T.A.Y. – on the dry-erase board in the team’s locker room and made his players guess what the acronym stood for.
After fielding more than a few strange responses – sophomore forward Akil Mitchell said one Virginia player thought it meant “touch a youth” – Bennett unveiled what would become the prevailing theme for the Cavaliers this season: “turn-around year.”
“We came up with the craziest stuff, but none of us could get it,” Mitchell said. Bennett “got up and said, ‘This is our turnaround year. This is the year we finally put it together.’ ”
And then Bennett’s team proceeded to prove him prophetic. After compiling a 31-31 record during Bennett’s first two years at the helm in Charlottesville, the Cavaliers went 22-9 this season and earned the program’s first NCAA tournament berth since 2007. On Friday, 10th-seeded Virginia will take on seventh-seeded Florida (23-10) in a round-of-64 matchup.
After the NCAA tournament selection show aired Sunday and the Cavaliers officially knew they’d made the tournament, T-shirts with “T.A.Y.” on the front were handed out to the team and its staff. A few players wore the shirts as they entered CenturyLink Center for practice Thursday.
While the message made its intended impact, players wondered Thursday whether their coach had used proper grammar in formulating the team’s unofficial catch phrase. Turnaround, after all, is one word.
“No, we said that,” Mitchell insisted.
Then he glanced at Mike Curtis, the team’s strength and conditioning coach. “Is turnaround one word? It’s one word, isn’t it? When I typed it in on spell check, it gave me two words.”
Curtis confirmed turnaround is one word.
“I thought so,” Mitchell said.
Regardless, the theme remains clear. It’s been the team’s focus since the season’s first day. Before each “big game,” players said, Bennett wrote those three letters – T.A.Y. – on the dry-erase board in Virginia’s locker room.
Virginia’s field goal percentage (plus-4.5 percent) and per-game scoring average (plus-1.2 ppg) have increased from a season ago, but that may well be solely a result of Mike Scott’s presence. The fifth-year senior forward earned first-team all-ACC honors after averaging 18.1 points per game and leading the conference in field goal percentage (56.2 percent). Scott missed the final two-thirds of last season due to an ankle injury.
What’s more impressive is that despite injuries to several key players*, the Cavaliers still managed to demonstrate improvement across the board defensively. Compared with last season, Virginia gave up fewer points per game (negative-8.7), allowed lower opposing field goal percentage (negative-4.1 percent) and opposing three-point field goal percentage (negative-6.8 percent) and improved its rebounding margin (plus-5.5).
* Senior center Assane Sene injured his right ankle Jan. 19 and has not played since. Freshman guard Malcolm Brogdon, the team’s sixth man for much of the season, injured his left foot Feb. 17 and has not played since. Sophomore guard Joe Harris broke his left hand Feb. 11 and suffered a mild concussion March 1. He did not miss any games, but his effectiveness has been limited the past month.
Scott certainly did his part and more, but a collective effort enabled Bennett’s acronym to come to fruition. Prior to this season, Virginia had not won as many as 22 games in a single campaign since 1994-95.
Shortly after the Cavaliers learned they’d made the Field of 68 on Sunday evening, freshman guard Paul Jesperson (@pjuva2) posted a picture of his “T.A.Y.” T-shirt on Twitter with the accompanying message: “This is what it’s about.”
“I know we’re an academic school and turnaround is one word,” Virginia assistant Ron Sanchez said with a smile Thursday. “But it just kind of fit.”