To be certain, the Cavaliers aren’t going to be satisfied with anything short of the school’s first national championship in men’s basketball. But in many ways, whatever unfolds in the sport’s final weekend, which will tip off Saturday evening with the top-seeded Cavaliers’ showdown with No. 5 Auburn in the national semifinals, is simply a bonus.
“We try to do it with a smile on our face,” said Guy, who delights in quoting lines from the 1980s cult classic “Fletch.” “We’ve been through so much and have been doubted pretty much all of Coach [Tony] Bennett’s tenure here.”
That doubt, of course, only intensified following a 74-54 loss to Maryland Baltimore County in last season’s NCAA tournament, the first time a No. 1 seed lost to a No. 16.
But rather than hiding from that historic upset, the Cavaliers have owned the experience, heeding thoughtful instruction from Bennett that adversity, if used as motivation in the proper manner, can take a team places it never would have reached without it.
Bennett began instilling that message almost immediately after the loss to the Retrievers, informing Guy and Jerome they would be representing Virginia in the postgame news conference.
“I said, ‘You two are coming up to the podium,’” Bennett said. “I said two reasons why. We’re going to honor our two seniors in Devon Hall and Isaiah Wilkins. I don’t want them to be up there. We’re going to go up there, and it’s going to be one of the hardest things you ever have to do.
“But it’s going to mark your life, and this is going to be something we’re going to try to overcome.”
Have they ever.
The Cavaliers (33-3) are set to play in the national semifinals for the first time since 1984, and for the first time in 10 seasons under Bennett they have quieted critics who questioned whether Virginia’s deliberate, defensive-minded style is a viable model to reach the Final Four.
And throughout its past three games of this NCAA tournament, even during the most intense moments, Virginia’s players have exuded an almost carefree attitude that has allowed them to thrive despite chaos around them on the court.
“We’re not going to play a perfect game,” Jerome said. “Mistakes are going to happen. Basketball is a game of runs, but I’ve got to keep everyone poised and make sure everyone is focused on the next possession.”
Take, for instance, the shot at the end of regulation in the South Region final that sparked an 80-75 win in overtime against No. 3 seed Purdue.
Trailing by three points with 5.9 seconds to play, Jerome made the first of two free throws and missed the second off the front rim. Mamadi Diakite tipped the ball out past half court, and Kihei Clark, a freshman guard, ran to gain control.
Clark then delivered a pass to Diakite, who made an eight-footer as the horn sounded in one of the most iconic moments in Cavaliers history.
There were, of course, many smiles, most noticeably from senior Jack Salt, who bear-hugged Diakite and lifted him off the ground in celebration. Bennett’s wide grin was unmistakable as well as he clapped from the bench area when the shot fell through the net.
“It’s a blessing to be here, first,” Diakite said Friday before Virginia conducted an open practice. “Not many teams get to be here, so I feel really blessed to be in this spot, and hopefully we get to the final. It’s been a long journey going back to last year when we lost to UMBC.
“After that we sort of got back to what Virginia does. We didn’t worry about what was going on outside the perimeter.”
Diakite has flourished not only as one of the Cavaliers’ top interior players but also as a comedian during practice and in the locker room. Always quick to offer a one-liner or crack a joke, the 6-foot-9 forward embodies the relaxed mood of the only No. 1 seed still playing in the tournament.
His teammates, for example, couldn’t stop from laughing when Diakite first tried to describe the circumstances surrounding his buzzer-beating shot that saved the season, with the junior mustering a simple, “I don’t know.”
Then there’s the hair, dyed a golden hue similar to the color he proudly displayed during his youth soccer days in his native Guinea, long before Diakite picked up a basketball.
“You have to have that balance of being very purposeful for the preparation for the game and also enjoying it,” Bennett said. “It’s the balance. It can’t be all one or the other.”