LOUISVILLE — If you had to choose a face to portray the Virginia men’s basketball program, it actually would not be the boyish smile of Coach Tony Bennett. His look is too sweet and perfect, and he masks the requisite steely edge. More fitting would be the restrained, imperishable expression of forward De’Andre Hunter.
His visage is so consistent, so confident — and so unnerving. He is such a no-nonsense personality, and then he grins, ever so slightly, and you’re not sure whether that indicates joy or premeditation. That look represents Virginia basketball at its best. The Cavaliers loom as this static juggernaut. They’re right there, stone cold. They’re not changing. You know what to expect, and that’s the terrifying part.
That’s also the part that gets them in trouble at this time of year. The NCAA tournament doesn’t always reveal the best team. It prefers to shine a light on the most adaptable squads or the ones that, when all is equal and the pressure is highest, can simplify the game and allow their talent to take control.
This week will be the ultimate test of whether Virginia has improved its flexibility. It will always be a theme for Bennett and the Cavaliers because they play such a distinct style that borders on rigid. But last week was more about mentally overcoming the historic 2018 loss to Maryland-Baltimore County and then continuing to relax to advance to the Sweet 16 for only the third time in Bennett’s seven seasons at Virginia. Mostly, the Cavaliers needed to get out of their own way.
Now the monkey is literally off their backs, thanks to Bennett carrying the stuffed animal into the locker room Sunday night and yanking it off himself after a 63-51 victory over Oklahoma. The greater challenge — and the truer indicator of the program’s current postseason elasticity — starts Thursday night against Oregon in the South Region semifinal round. If the top-seeded Cavaliers beat the No. 12 Ducks, they will play in a heavyweight showdown Saturday against the Tennessee-Purdue winner with a Final Four berth at stake.
It’s interesting to debate whether this is the Cavaliers’ best team under Bennett, but I’d rather argue a different point: This is the best chance they have had to advance to the Final Four. Considering they blew a 16-point second-half lead to Syracuse in the Elite Eight three years ago, it might seem a difficult argument. But stay with me.
When I say “best chance,” I’m talking about this being the most-equipped Virginia squad. Experience, and lessons learned from struggle, has something to do with it. Bennett has been forced to receive plenty of hard lessons. His team is a No. 1 seed for the fourth time in six seasons. It was also a No. 2 seed in 2015. If a program can’t perform to its high seed when given five prime opportunities in a six-year period, some soul-searching is needed, even though this tournament can be a crapshoot. But if the disappointment leads to a breakthrough, well, that’s just how March works. Bennett and his current upperclassmen have been through enough to develop ample tournament resolve.
This is also Virginia’s best chance because of evolution and pure talent. The Cavaliers remain a slow-tempo, defense-centric team, but they are more dynamic within the system. They have the ability to score quickly, and sometimes they do so to punish faster-paced teams with poor defensive habits. The current squad is the most efficient offensive group Bennett has ever coached. Virginia ranked second in the nation in offensive efficiency this season, its highest mark of this six-year run. In the previous five years, it finished in the top 10 in offensive efficiency just once (2016). The previous two seasons, it ranked 30th in 2018 and 50th in 2017.
The efficiency includes the shot-making ability of Hunter, who will be a top 10 pick if the redshirt sophomore decides to enter the NBA draft. He is both a defensive ace and a give-him-the-damn-ball superstar, and when in doubt, there should be no doubt where Virginia turns.
The efficiency also includes the steady play of highly skilled junior guards Ty Jerome, who is receiving ample NBA draft buzz, and Kyle Guy, who has a legitimate chance to be a pro despite his slender 175-pound frame. This isn’t Virginia using its system to manipulate the game and play up to high-level competition. This is Virginia — with the most well-regarded NBA prospect it has had under Bennett, another probable NBA player and a third with a decent shot — matching ideal talent with a system that makes the game difficult for opponents.
Virginia has four Bennett-coached players currently on NBA rosters (Justin Anderson, Malcolm Brogdon, Joe Harris and Mike Scott). If Hunter and Jerome turn pro after this season and go in Round 1, it would be the first time Bennett has had multiple first-rounders in the same draft. As a fringe NBA prospect, Guy definitely needs to return for his senior year, but even so, Bennett has never had a trio this close to being draft worthy at the same time.
And it’s not just about the three at the top of the roster playing the best they have during their college careers. Below the NBA level, there is a solid balance of talent, and some of those players have skills that make Virginia less predictable. During the tournament, the scoring and rebounding of Mamadi Diakite have added a pleasant dimension. But I also like the fact that with Diakite, Jack Salt, Jay Huff and Hunter sliding over to power forward on occasion, the Cavaliers have the depth to match up with frontcourts in any fashion that they want. In addition, the length of Braxton Key, a 6-foot-8 guard, gives Virginia more size and versatility. And then there’s freshman guard Kihei Clark’s ability to pressure the ball. He extends Virginia’s pack-line defense so much that it can suffocate offenses, and the Cavaliers can turn up the heat without abandoning what they do best.
The key for Bennett is versatility within structure. If the coach and the players can stay loose, there’s more of a chance to win with talent when Plan A fails.
“It’s not the same defense that he’s run,” Oregon Coach Dana Altman said of Bennett. “They get out a little bit more than what they previously have. They’re really pressuring the ball a little bit more with Clark. He’s picking up a little more fullcourt and all that. So I think it’s a little different.”
For Virginia, a little difference is an enormous adjustment. And it will need every subtle trick. The other three teams in the South Region are sound defensively, too, and they play slow on offense. Virginia’s defensive execution and tenacity might be a shock, but there will be no discomfort in having to grind out a game.
In isolated situations, though, the Cavaliers might want to speed up the game. It defies their nature, and statistically, you can still make a case that they play the slowest tempo in college basketball. But for a couple of possessions or for several minutes throughout the game, they can throw curveballs. Of course, “can” isn’t the same as “will.” Virginia needs to scrounge up a level of audacity it hasn’t shown consistently.
“For us, it’s always about trying to get the best shot possible,” Jerome said. “So if that comes quicker on the shot clock, that’s fine. Or if that comes late, that’s fine, too. And then it’s always about just trying to make them take a tough shot. That’s our motto: Make them take a tough shot and get a good shot. Whatever pace that comes at, we’re fine with.”
Well, prove it.
The face of Virginia basketball can remain stoic. But the Cavaliers need to play with some rebellion. If the system doesn’t work, break it. Better yet, transcend it. For the remainder of the tournament, their instincts are as valuable as their plan.
For more by Jerry Brewer, visit washingtonpost.com/brewer