SAN ANTONIO — In an eccentric sport whose teams spend four quiet months straining and grinding to construct merit, whereupon everyone agrees to spend three loud weeks in a 68-team semi-crapshoot to mint legacies, to determine which coaches get plummer jobs and to ascertain who gets the joy, the Associated Press coach of the year award went to Tony Bennett of Virginia here Thursday.
When Barry Bedlan of the Associated Press clarified that the voting had taken place before the NCAA tournament began, and that the voting had used that timetable for all its 57 years, Bennett located the kind of apt wit that might help one through his recent plight and said, “I thought it was for NCAA tournament coach of the year. I didn’t get that? I wasn’t sure.”
It was one of the odd sights and sounds as a coach who usually abstains from coming to the Final Four has arrived at the Final Four through his own fault of being outstanding, 13 days after becoming the first of the 136 coaches ever seeded No. 1 to lose to a team seeded No. 16, when UMBC demolished Virginia, 74-54, in the round of 64. Listing some of the slew of coaches who had contacted him to offer consolation, Bennett mentioned Mike Krzyzewski of Duke, Jim Boeheim of Syracuse, Brad Brownell of Clemson and the former Louisville coach Rick Pitino, then scooped again from the wit reservoir to say, “This isn’t an awards [show]. ‘Thank you!’ It’s kind of a weird [thing], you know? ‘So I don’t want to leave anybody out!’
“And I joked, I said, I think all of them, they reached out and they’re so happy because I’m the guy who took the first loss, the 1-16!” he said. “‘Thank you, it’s not gonna have to be us!’ That being said, I was actually so appreciative and surprised at” the outpouring.
Soon after he said that, a door popped open into the hallway where Bennett spoke, and out stepped Bill Self, the Kansas coach safely entered in this Final Four.
“I warmed ’em up,” Bennett said to a news-conference-bound Self.
“I hope you’re here for the AP,” said Self, who has had his own early-round topples from high places. “Congratulations, man. It’s awesome.”
He gave Bennett what seemed an understanding pat on the back.
In the interview room, Bedlan had read off Virginia’s steep list of feats in 2017-18: a school-record 31 wins, a first No. 1 ranking since 1982, an ACC-record 17 conference wins, 20 wins against ACC opponents, a third regular season title and second tournament title under Bennett. Then Bedlan had said, “And yes, Virginia suffered an unprecedented upset . . .,” before extolling Bennett’s post-loss conduct. Bennett’s program has just gone from 31-2, stout and occasionally criticized for tedium, to 31-3, unwittingly historic and suddenly fascinating. He agreed that its mission going forward will include the artful avoidance of the lasting damage that can stem from a haunting loss, as was widely assumed of the Atlanta Falcons last NFL season after their implausible loss from a 28-3 lead in Super Bowl LI.
(The Falcons still made the NFL final eight.)
“I got a great text from one of my players, Ty Jerome, and he said, ‘Coach, this is now part of our story, and we get to respond to it the way we want,’ ” Bennett said. “And it will be day-by-day where we can make the right steps. And we shared that with our team the other day. Everybody says, you know, ‘You’ll be better because of this loss.’ And the fact of the matter is, is the only way you’re better after a tough loss is if you respond to it the right way. If you do nothing with it and just say, ‘Ah, this was tough,’ then nothing’s going to happen.”
He said he waited an uncommon two or three days before watching the game tape. He said he talked to his players about whether they could bear to watch the tournament that raged on without them, and he said: “But I watched the games. I said to someone, ‘I love the NCAA tournament. And I hate the NCAA tournament.’”
He said the game had been one of those rare cases where the heaviness of offensive impotence had forced cracks into Virginia’s peerless defense. He said it reached a point where “you feel the game pressure, and then you see, that’s where some of the uncharacteristic things happen.” He did bring up the lineup puzzle wrought by the injury that cost his team sixth man De’Andre Hunter, and said Hunter’s wrist surgery had gone well.
He spoke the words coaches often seek in hard scoreboard times, and said he had instructed his players in recent days that life inevitably would bring bigger matters and even harder days.
Apparently, Virginia won’t shy away from bringing it up.
“In a way, I told our guys, you have an advantage or a head start in terms of your preparation,” Bennett said. “Once we start preparing, there should be some really good motivation. And there’s a point where you have to move on and let it go, of course you do. But you always use what you learn from the past . . . . You know, people will always make it probably part of the story, but it always comes to, all right, It’ll be a different team. It’ll be a new year.”
He said, “We don’t try to cover [up] things. We say, ‘This is who we are.’ And all right, people have been critical before of us, our style of play. I think our guys are unique. So there’s absolutely value [in open discussion]. I think that’s even part of the offseason for our staff, and for me: ‘Okay, the adjustments we need to make. How can we become the best team? And here, we’re dealing with a loss like that. Okay, where does that fall into it? Where does the success of the year? How much of that is part of it?’”
In the hallway as he left, he reminded that people older than his players have lived long enough to know the value of difficulty, which prompted a question, possibly misguided, about whether he might come to “value” 74-54.
“The wisdom that will come from that adversity is strong,” he said. “Absolutely, there will be tremendous growth, and kind of that growth mind-set, for sure. ‘Value?’ I don’t know what the right word is. But you’re gonna learn, you’re gonna grow, ‘value?’ Sure, that could be part of it.”
“Don’t know if I’ll celebrate it,” he said, “but it’s part of the story.”
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