You look forward to playing the Red Raiders about as much as you look forward to receiving an elbow to the kisser. It’s rare that the Cavaliers face an opponent that enjoys being similarly inconvenient. The final of the 2019 NCAA men’s basketball tournament will be many things: slow, physical, tight, tense, evenly matched and defensively brilliant. But fun won’t be high on that list, if at all. The line separating competition and entertainment will be clearly defined.
That’s okay, by the way. Many will complain about the game’s expected plodding style, low score and lack of star power. But both teams are likable, skilled and charming in the way that they’re built. Both have backstories that tug at your emotions. Both are vying to be champions for the first time. The skeleton descriptions of both are so alike, to a point, and then they veer far away from each other.
Texas Tech is like Virginia. But Texas Tech is definitely not Virginia. This road is ending, and you realize it has been a circular path. The Cavaliers had to prove they could be what they supposedly are not — adaptable, clutch, built for Madness — only to arrive at a championship game that celebrates methodical basketball, defense, imaginative recruiting and player development. It’s their kind of game, but the catch is there’s no schematic advantage to it this time because the Red Raiders are a different branch of the same tree.
To get this far, the Cavaliers first had to look in the mirror. On Monday night, they will look into a funhouse mirror and see Texas Tech looking back as a bizarro version of themselves — more physical, more athletic, more impulsive.
Strangely, it’s a perfect way to end this story. Through five NCAA tournament games, the fascinating Virginia experience can best be described as poetry amid defibrillation. You’d never want this many jolts to the heart, except it feels like Wordsworth is penning some kind of destiny ballad. In these games, the Cavaliers have had to face every facet of their disappointing tournament past under Coach Tony Bennett and show how the program has matured. For all the anxiety, it has been exhilarating.
In the past two games, Virginia has had to stretch the limits of what can be accomplished in a game’s closing seconds to get past Purdue and Auburn.
When asked to describe the journey, forward Mamadi Diakite said, “Cardiac arrest.”
He paused. A room of reporters laughed. He stayed quiet. He was serious.
“You’re in the game,” he continued. “You’re walking dead, pretty much, because you’re thinking: ‘Wow, we’re going home for real. I thought we had this. We were up by 10, and the last second, we’re down.’ If anyone can’t score, you’re going home. You don’t want to go home, because you weren’t expecting that.”
But he beat the buzzer to force overtime against Purdue in the Elite Eight. And Saturday in the national semifinal, Kyle Guy sank three free throws with 0.6 seconds remaining to give Virginia a 63-62 victory over Auburn.
“It’s just a special emotion,” Diakite said of those endings. “You just want to cry. But you’ve got so many people in front of you, so you’re just holding it.”
That’s why I call this a beautiful tale. That’s not an adjective I often use when writing about sports, but everything about this Virginia season has been beautiful. It’s not simply that it has won 34 of 37 games. It is the way the program has gone about it. The Cavaliers didn’t try to bury last March’s loss to No. 16 seed Maryland Baltimore County. They confronted it all season, and they used it. Guy acknowledged and learned to manage his problems with anxiety, and of course he was the one at the line with the game on the line, needing to verify his growth. Bennett has shown that a coach can lead without being obsessive and maniacal. As a team, Virginia has learned and taught valuable lessons about the proper way to pursue a challenging goal.
On Sunday afternoon, the players kept repeating one of Bennett’s pet phrases: “The joy is in the competition.”
The agony is in the competition, too. For as much as it seems like the basketball gods owe Virginia this championship, Texas Tech also fits the team-of-destiny profile. The Red Raiders won’t be stealing this championship if they prevail. But if they have to snatch it, they will.
There’s a play from Texas Tech’s 61-51 victory over Michigan State on Saturday that exemplifies how frightening the team can be. It came on the possession before Jarrett Culver made a three-pointer with 58 seconds remaining to give the Red Raiders a 58-51 lead and end doubt about the outcome. Down 55-51, Michigan State was threatening to come back, but statuesque Texas Tech forward Norense Odiase yanked the ball from Xavier Tillman, a noted tough guy. It was a give-me-that steal, a move that required muscle and anticipation. Odiase had been waiting to do it all night; assistant coach Mark Adams told him to be aggressive when the opportunity presented itself. So he ripped the basketball out of the hands of a team known for its toughness.
“Coach Adams says: ‘You’ve got to make a play, make a play, make a play,’ ” Odiase said. “ ‘Don’t wait until the play happens. Make the play.’ ”
Texas Tech plays a defensive style that could be more suffocating than Virginia’s pack-line scheme. At their best, the Red Raiders, who lead the NCAA in defensive efficiency, can extend their defense and apply extreme pressure everywhere in the half court. They confuse the opposing offense with their ability to switch and defy position conventions. In this era of positionless basketball, we’re used to offenses thriving by ignoring the norms. The Red Raiders exploit their advantage defensively in a novel way, at least in the college game. They take away the offense’s strength without leaving themselves open to countermoves.
“It was just tough because you’d think you’d have them, but then they would come back with a countermove,” Tillman said. “They’d get a block or a turnover or something like that off what you think should play into your favor. They just had great ball pressure.”
Virginia practices against its own elite defense daily. It won’t be shocked by what Texas Tech can do. But it knows nothing will be easy.
“We know what we’re in for,” Ty Jerome said.
The Cavaliers are in for an incredible fight. They’re in for a game in which it’s probable that neither team reaches 60 points. This game won’t remind you of why you love basketball, but it will be a riveting possession-by-possession showdown nonetheless. And it’s the ultimate final challenge for a team that has seen it all.
“I’ve never seen a more mentally tough team,” Texas Tech Coach Chris Beard said of Virginia.
One more time, the Cavaliers must prove it. They are 40 minutes from being erased from the list of the best programs to never win a title, 40 minutes from universal recognition as a standard-bearer for the sport. They’re so close that they can touch it. But they better make sure Texas Tech doesn’t rip the perfect ending to a beautiful story from their hands.