The Final Four is set. USA TODAY Sports’ Scott Gleeson looks toward Saturday’s games featuring Auburn vs. Virginia and Texas Tech vs. Michigan State.
USA TODAY Sports
MINNEAPOLIS — Virginia guard Kyle Guy spent the last year waking up to the nightmare that others consider one of the greatest moments in sports history.
“Not a lot of people think about both sides of March Madness,” Guy said.
Guy was asked last week what the Cavaliers’ Final Four bid meant one year after his team’s historic NCAA tournament loss to No. 16 seed Maryland-Baltimore County. At a loss for words following the team’s thrilling Elite Eight win over Purdue in overtime, the All-America guard eventually put the obvious into perspective.
“We made bad history last year,” Guy said, “we’re making great history this year.”
That’s been the not-so-hidden goal of the 2018-19 season for a group of returners that were shell-shocked in the aftermath of last year’s first-ever No. 16-over-No. 1-seed upset: Rewriting Virginia’s history in college basketball lore.
“Pretty positive they’re going to make an (ESPN documentary) 30 for 30 on the upset,” Guy told USA TODAY Sports back in November. “We might as well make it a better story for us.”
The Cavaliers’ redemption story is now at the forefront of this weekend’s Final Four, where Virginia (33-3) is the lone No. 1 seed remaining. The winners of back-to-back ACC titles, take on No. 5 seed Auburn in Saturday’s first semifinal game.
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Yet Saturday has never been the goal in erasing heartache and silencing the doubters who created the trademark, “Virginia can’t win in March.”
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It’s always been about Monday.
“A lot of people think that a Final Four would cover it. For me personally, a national championship is the only way to shut everybody up,” said Guy.
“Getting here has been amazing, the journey itself. But winning it all, then we could finally be satisfied and completely get the monkey off our back.”
This year, Virginia’s kept its core principles intact, once again sporting the nation’s best defense (limiting opponents to 55 points a game). But it’s also improved in a variety of ways. The Cavaliers’ offensive efficiency ranks second in the nation, per KenPom, and the team shoots 39.4% from three-point range — the best of any remaining Final Four teams.
Virginia’s do-everything guard Ty Jerome, who had 24 points and seven assists in the Purdue win, said the Cavaliers have always been about out-working their opponents, beating more athletic and gifted teams by slowing the game’s tempo with a patient offense and pack-line man-to-man defense.
“Anyone can go out there and implement a pack-line D,” Jerome said. “It’s what we do every day in practice, how disciplined and detail-oriented we are.”
Jerome’s improvement as a junior, along with the blossoming of projected NBA lottery pick De’Andre Hunter and buzzer-beating hero Mamadi Diakite, and the addition of “play of the century” passer, freshman Kihei Clark, have made Virginia a formidable No. 1 seed.
But the psychology of this team remains UVA’s X-factor. Jerome said last year’s sour ending and the doubt from the outside world only added fuel to the team’s fire.
“We’re still college kids. We hear everyone ripping us,” Jerome said. “I watched every (NCAA tournament) game last year after we lost. It was painful. But it was part of being a student of the game. You have to learn no matter how painful it is.”
Coach Tony Bennett, who has transformed Virginia into a perennial contender in the last six years — garnering a No. 1 NCAA tournament seed in three of those years — isn’t shy in admitting this team has capitalized on last year’s adversity. But he says it’s been a balance of driving off it, but not dwelling on it.
“If you learn to use (the adversity) right, it will buy you a ticket to a place you could not have gone any other way,” Bennett said. “Through any adversity, there’s such wisdom in it. That was devastating in so many ways that I knew we had to be there for each other in ways we never would have had that not happened.”
Bennett has been a key name in the college basketball coaching sphere as the son of legendary coach Dick Bennett, who in 2000 led the Wisconsin Badgers to the Final Four before being ousted by coach Tom Izzo’s Spartans.
“I don’t know if you cheer for people, but Tony’s been one I cheer for,” Izzo said. “I used to work his Dad’s camps. I’ve got to admit, my respect for Tony was upgraded last year with the way he handled that (first-round) loss. I’m not sure there was anybody that’s ever done a better job of handling something. And in its own way, using that as a motivator to not feel sorry for ourselves — it’s a part of who we are, and let’s move forward.”
Izzo was referencing a postgame news conference that went viral when Bennett, his team sobbing and reeling in the pain of the UMBC upset, credited the mid-major for the stunning victory and didn’t make any excuses for his team while at the same time holding out the faith that his players’ suffering would lead to something.
“I didn’t know that (the UMBC loss) would get us to a Final Four,” Bennett said. “I just knew that it would deepen us in ways — on the court, off the court, what we believe—and mark us for the right stuff.”
Guy puts into contrast the difference of last year’s news conference vs. the ones he and his teammates will be in this week in Minneapolis.
“Sitting up at that podium next to coach (Bennett) afterwards last year, that was life-changing for me how he handled it,” Guy said. “Coach has taught us that basketball is just like life, and I truly believe that in both life and basketball, everything happens for a reason.
“(The UMBC loss) was part of our journey, but it’s not the whole story. There’s another chapter to be written. We’re going to continue to change the narrative.”