NEW YORK — Is a chain-link fence ugly? Sure it is. But it’s also got a certain manufactured elegance. Even if you find the galvanized steel a bit of an eyesore, you have to admire how it’s made. This Virginia basketball team is like that: ugly only to those who don’t appreciate really good tension wire.
If you like elbowy guys with high and tight haircuts whose scalp shows through their sidewalls, then Virginia is the team for you. If you like players who close out relentlessly with their socks pushed down low around their ankles and their cheekbones flushed livid with effort, if you like chaps with wolfish chins who take visceral pleasure in slowly bleeding the opponent from the neck until they almost seem to faint from loss of essential nutrients, then the Cavaliers are your team.
“Not gonna be too many home run plays” is how Devon Hall describes their style.
No. Just a team that never, ever cheats the grind. Or plays beneath its abilities, or takes a mental day off. Surely Louisville was the most dangerous opponent the Cavs could have faced in the ACC tournament quarterfinals, after what happened last week. The way the Cardinals had blown a five-point lead in the last minute, through an incomprehensibly freakish sequence of events, finished by that banked-in shot by De’Andre Hunter at the horn, to give the Cavs a one-point victory. The huge flesh pile the Cavs made, right in front of the Cardinals’ bench. All of it made a perfect trap.
The Cardinals entered Thursday afternoon’s quarterfinal at Barclays Center with revenge on their minds, and also reward: With 20 wins, they figured an upset of the top-ranked Cavaliers might vault them into an NCAA tournament at-large bid.
“That game last week was just a perfect storm of stuff that had to go right for them and wrong for us,” Coach Dave Padgett said.
All of which made what the Cavaliers did even more concretely impressive: ran up a 17-point lead before halftime, and then when the Cardinals managed to cut it to four in the second half, counterpunched by holding them to just one basket in almost nine minutes. To repeat: They gave up just one field goal over nearly a quarter of the game.
“The idea was to try to come out and punch first,” Hall said.
Job well done. Final score, 75-58.
Time after time, as their season wears on, the Cavs put up box scores and stats that make it all the clearer just how much substance they have. The first ACC team to go 9-0 on the road in league play. Victors in a declarative performance over Duke at Cameron Indoor Stadium in January, when they held the Blue Devils to just 22 points in a half. A team that 30 times now has held an opponent to less than 50 percent shooting — in the case of Louisville on Thursday, 36.7 percent.
“The majority of the game, they did have to earn their baskets,” Coach Tony Bennett said mildly.
With every win, it also becomes clearer just what a deceptively superb coach Bennett is. This guy comes off so nice, with his young face and his neat flattop, and his Wisconsin farmer’s accent, and his soothing tone preaching pillars of humility. He all but knocks his opponents out with an ether rag.
“Tony is obviously as good a coach as there is in our game,” Clemson’s Brad Brownell said.
Bennett has had promising teams before — a No. 1 seed in 2014, a No. 2 in 2015 and a No. 1 again in 2016 — but those were just a walk up to this team, which clearly has Final Four quality, and focus, and fight. The Cavaliers have size and brawn all over the floor, from their attack dog of a 6-foot-5 point guard, Ty Jerome, to their 6-11 pile of sandbags in the post, Jack Salt. But maybe the most impressive thing about them is their habits.
“We’re a possession-by-possession team, that doesn’t change,” Bennett said.
It’s said the Cavaliers play “slow,” but that’s not exactly true. They’re actually a team of high energy and constant movement, but there’s nothing flashy. It’s all purposeful movement and balance. Once the ball goes up, they hover around the basket like it’s a hive, keeping every ball alive, until they can pick off the rebound or swat it out to a guard.
“Tipping those out are huge momentum swings of runs,” Hall said.
There was nothing “slow” about a team that puts five players in double figures, as they did against the Cardinals, led by Kyle Guy’s 19.
“I think they’re a very underappreciated offensive team this year,” Padgett said. “I think that’s gone unnoticed because of how good their defense is.”
That defense is not beautiful, but it is undeniably mesmerizing in its own way. They alternately collapse inside and sprint out to the perimeter — “staying engaged all the time,” as Bennett puts it, “staying engaged through the whole shot.”
It doesn’t make them the most classic or artistic or dominant-looking basketball team you’ve ever seen, but it does make them one of the most commanding. They have done what hardly seemed possible, strapped some embarrassing scores on teams in the ACC, the best conference in the land. Take Clemson, which will be their semifinal opponent Friday. Last time they met, Virginia held the Tigers to 36 points. That’s what you call a good fence.
“They just make it so hard,” Brownell said.
For more by Sally Jenkins, visit washingtonpost.com/jenkins.
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