GREENSBORO, N.C. — Tony Bennett is about as unfailingly polite as any human being can possibly be. But there wasn’t any doubt that the question someone asked late Friday afternoon truly baffled him.
“Coach, what are the positives you can take out of this game?”
Bennett paused, forced a smile, said something about his team having played hard and then finally shook his head and said, “How about if I get back to you on that one?”
A few minutes later, in a quiet room a few yards away from his team’s very quiet locker room, Bennett laughed when the question came up.
“I mean what was I supposed to say?” he asked. He looked down at his crisp orange tie. “I guess my tie looked pretty good.”
That was pretty much the list of the positives for Virginia on a lost afternoon at Greensboro Coliseum. The Cavaliers were blown out of the ACC tournament quarterfinals — and, in all likelihood, the NCAA tournament — 75-56 by suddenly impressive North Carolina State. The final margin was an accurate reflection of the game. Bennett looked like a genius for 30 seconds when center Mike Tobey, starting for the first time since the season opener, began the game with a short hook shot to give his team a 2-0 lead.
That was Virginia’s last lead. It also was the last time anyone in white and orange had much to feel good about.
Joe Harris, who was being mentioned as an ACC player of the year candidate two weeks ago after scoring 36 points against Duke, shot 4 of 13 from the field, meaning he is 17 of 57 since that euphoric night.
The Cavaliers didn’t make a three-point shot for the first 16 minutes and had no answers for Scott Wood outside or C.J. Leslie and T.J. Warren inside.
They were crushed on the boards (39-28) and shot 39 percent as a team — 5 of 20 from beyond the arc.
Then again, Bennett’s tie did look good.
“There were a few areas where we needed to be A or A-minus to have a chance to win the game and we didn’t do it,” Bennett said. “We needed to be good in transition and good on the boards. And we needed to make shots. We just didn’t play very well and that was the result.”
Virginia has lost three of four since the storm-the-court win over Duke on the last day of February. The Cavaliers could have won at Boston College and Florida State — but didn’t.
They could have lost to Maryland at home — and didn’t. That’s why they so badly needed a win Friday to add a quality win to their unique résumé: three losses to Colonial Athletic Association teams balanced by road wins over Wisconsin and Maryland and home wins over Tennessee, Duke, N.C. State and North Carolina.
“Someone called us the Dos Equis bubble team,” Bennett said. “We’re the most interesting bubble team in the world. We certainly have some quality wins and we have some bad losses, too.”
He shrugged. “What will be will be.”
What will probably be is a bid to the National Invitation Tournament.
Virginia has one chance to sneak onto the NCAA board on Sunday, and that’s only because the ACC has, for all intents and purposes, two members on the selection committee: outgoing chairman Mike Bobinski, who is about to leave Xavier to become athletic director at Georgia Tech, and Wake Forest Athletic Director Ron Wellman, who is the incoming chairman. If the two of them use their influence to make a blatantly political pick, then Virginia has a chance.
“If the committee picks Virginia, [former Virginia Tech Coach] Seth Greenberg will attempt to burn down the homes of every one of them,” said CBS and ACC TV commentator Dan Bonner — a Virginia graduate. “And he would probably have a case.”
Greenberg was the bubble boy of college basketball coaches for four years and only got off the bubble when Athletic Director Jim Weaver decided to help him launch his television career by firing him last spring. Bennett did not go the road of pleading for a bid the way many coaches do after a bad March loss.
And yet, even though Bennett insisted his team wasn’t tight, his players appeared to be tighter than 15 circus clowns in a volkswagen.
“We were just trying to focus on what we had to do to win this game,” said Harris, who finished with 13 points. “Coach always tells us if we go out and play well, the rest will take care of itself.”
At this time of year, that’s a little bit like saying don’t worry about the weather when there’s a hurricane in the forecast. Players think about it, they talk about it and they worry about it. They wouldn’t be human if they didn’t.
Virginia is the only ACC team that hasn’t played on semifinal Saturday in this tournament since 2006. In fact, Virginia hasn’t seen an ACC tournament Saturday since 1995, when a Jeff Jones-coached team went on to the Elite Eight of the NCAA tournament. Since that season, Virginia has won one NCAA tournament game (2007 under Dave Leitao) and is looking squarely down the barrel of another NIT bid.
For Bennett, now in his fourth season in Charlottesville, to come up short by losing three of four at the finish would be very disappointing — even though the case can be made that the Dos Equis Cavaliers improved as much as any team in the country from November to February.
“We started the season with some guys hurt and with some young guys trying to learn how to play college basketball,” he said. “We struggled with that at times. Then we started to find ourselves, we got better and we put ourselves into the [NCAA] conversation. I have to feel good about that — I do feel good about that.”
He stopped and shook his head. “But when you get this close and then you don’t get over that fence . . .”
He glanced back down at his tie. Someone was tapping on the door to let him know he had to go and do a TV interview. Bennett nodded that he was coming. The part of his day — and his winter — that truly mattered was over.
“At least we get to play again next week,” he said. “With a young team that’s a good thing.”
And his tie will almost certainly look good.
For more by John Feinstein, go to www.washingtonpost.com/feinstein.