COLUMBIA, S.C. — A year later, a hundred miles away, Virginia grinned through the horrible memories. The first No. 1 seed to lose to a No. 16 in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament morphed into the first No. 1 seed to return as a No. 1 the year after losing to a No. 16. It takes a strange, hardwearing creature to do such a symmetrical thing. The Cavaliers, humble and seeking catharsis, welcomed reporters to rip open the wound.
“You don’t have to apologize to me,” junior guard Kyle Guy reassured any media members inclined to tiptoe around the haunting history. “I’m very transparent.”
Besides, Virginia has spent the past year coming up with answers for what happened last March — a 74-54 first-round loss to Maryland-Baltimore County in Charlotte — and there are no words to nullify further scrutiny. The defeat is etched into the identity of Coach Tony Bennett’s program. There is no escaping it.
Members of the team have to use it, and if they do so properly, success can minimize it. But there is no forgetting. There is no this-is-a-new-season tripe, even though this is a new season. Throughout their impressive 29-3 campaign, the Cavaliers recovered by keeping the same approach: Own it to control it.
They did an exemplary job of moving forward. You never want to be praised as the team that overcame historic ignominy, but it sure beats being the No. 1 seed that fell on the red carpet and never rose again. If you had to pick a program to handle this kind of turmoil, it would be Virginia, steady ol’ Virginia, with a coach who sticks to his slow-paced style and his timeless pillars and players who seem as impervious about skepticism as they are hype.
At times, these qualities can make you consider Virginia a disturbingly emotionless program, one too robotic to appreciate fully, the team that wins and wins and wins — and then loses when the stakes turn to Madness. The Cavaliers don’t change. It is their best and worst quality.
They do feel, however. They’re not that staid. As the players wept their way off the court in Charlotte last year, they were as human as the scoreboard indicated. Soon after the heartbreak, Bennett started working their minds. They talked about the unforgettable early and often. Before a new season began five months ago, they watched a video of a powerful speech given by author Carmine Gallo in which he articulated the resolve his team now needed to show.
Bennett was careful with the messaging to his team. He wanted to tap into their post-UMBC emotions, but he didn’t want the entire season to be about making up for that loss. He told his players, “If you learn to use it right, it can buy you a ticket to a place you wouldn’t have gone any other way.”
If the Cavaliers blow out Gardner-Webb on Friday, it won’t be because they were so fired up their opponent had no chance. On the other hand, if they somehow fall apart and lose to a No. 16 again, it won’t be because they put so much unnecessary pressure on themselves that they couldn’t handle it. They’re going to be Virginia, for better or worse. They’re going to hope that they’ve absorbed and compartmentalized a hard lesson, but one loss didn’t change their program forever.
The loss damaged how the Cavaliers are perceived, and it invited more criticism of Bennett for his 7-6 record and four early exits in his first six NCAA tournament appearances as the Virginia coach. Until he makes at least a Final Four run, Bennett must fight the belief that his low-possession, defensive system is a bad fit for the Big Dance. Perhaps Virginia will put it all together during Bennett’s seventh tournament run. Or perhaps it will get past the opening round but still underachieve. The truth is, with Bennett and Virginia, the line separating steady excellence and annoying rigidity always will be thin.
They’ve learned to laugh through the pain.
“I get Venmos all the time saying we’ve got to pay them $5 because we lost,” Guy joked. “I don’t pay them, by the way.”
And they’ve learned to use the disappointment, within reason.
“You’ve got to be careful playing with anger,” junior guard Ty Jerome said.
Careful with anger? For many programs, it is a foreign concept. During a recent visit to Nevada, I learned that Wolf Pack Coach Eric Musselman used a loss in a preseason scrimmage to Washington as a season-long motivator. After the supposedly meaningless defeat, Musselman changed the key code to his team’s locker room and made it the final score of that scrimmage.
It’s not like Bennett is above such motivational tactics, but he prefers to appeal to the mind and spirit of his team in a deeper manner. So much of his program is about control: composure on the court and perspective off it. Although passion is one of his five pillars, he chooses to harness it. He is not a man of wild emotional fluctuations, and he coaches his team not to be erratic. Everything is about consistency and taking the long view.
When asked if he ever loses it, Bennett recalls his college days at Wisconsin-Green Bay, playing for his father, Dick, and punching a pillow in his dorm room after practices. That’s so Bennett: Losing it, softly, and with a premeditated plan to avoid injury. He is too grounded in family and faith to be too impetuous.
“You certainly feel things and things bother you, but where does peace and perspective come from?” Bennett said. “I always tell our guys it’s got to be something that is unconditional, and I know I have that in the love of my family. Unconditional acceptance and love. That’s huge. And I know I have that in my faith in Christ. That’s, for me, where I draw my strength from, my peace, my steadiness in the midst of things. But, of course, you feel things. Of course, you desperately want things to go well, and it’s frustrating when you’re not. You step back and look at it.”
Over the past year, Bennett has had to step back and look at the ugliest blemish of his marvelous coaching career. He kept coming back to one of the great questions of his life: What’s your contentment? It’s one of the most penetrating themes in the Bible. In coaching a game in which better is a persistent demand, Bennett asks the same of his players. What is your contentment? In good times and bad, there must be something that provides happiness and satisfaction. It’s essential to consistency. It’s essential to recovery, too.
“Going through those refining moments, they’re tough,” Bennett said. “But you look back at them, and in a way, they’re sometimes painful gifts that draw you near to what truly matters.”
Of course, those words will be considered merely a highbrow kind of gibberish if Virginia doesn’t redeem itself. Then again, what does redemption really entail? For Bennett, it’s a fitting question because, even though we can make it concrete (go to the Final Four or prepare to defend yourself!), it is an abstract challenge to untie after making regrettable history.
For more by Jerry Brewer, visit washingtonpost.com/brewer.
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