The weekend passed. The feelings? Probably not. The end to Virginia basketball season in the national theater that is the NCAA Tournament left Wahoos shocked, stunned, and with many other emotions undoubtedly too. Oh, and mad about the madness.
The Cavaliers, who had made history as the first ACC team to win 17 league games and set a school record with 31 wins, finished their season in equally historic fashion as they became the first No. 1 seed to lose to a No. 16 seed in 136 games. UMBC delivered the upset in surprising fashion too. The Retrievers dominated the second half and ripped apart the bedrock Pack-Line defense and outlast mentality to win 74-54.
Coach Tony Bennett and the players handled the aftermath about as well as anyone could. They responded to the chain of questions with respect and offered no excuses, giving UMBC credit for playing better and for the win. Bennett, as he’s done before, provided perspective to his players and anyone else listening.
“Remarkable 31 wins. I think this team maxed out as much as any team that I’ve had,” Bennett said. “We were so healthy and so good up until this last game, so we needed all hands on deck. You’ll remember this. It will sting. Maybe a 1 seed will get beat again, maybe not. Maybe we’ll be the only No. 1 seed to ever lose. It’s life. It goes on. We’ll have to get past that. For some reason this is what we’ve got to deal with, and my job now will be to say hey, how do we bounce back, our players and all that. But a life lesson is sitting there about defining yourself by maybe not what the world says, but there’s other things that matter and then you get back to it.”
No doubt about it. It stings. It stings for the coaches and players because of how much goes into it only for the season to end on a crushing defeat. It stings for supporters because it’s the latest in disappointing defeats in the NCAA Tournament. And those emotions don’t just fall away for everyone because the work week starts anew.
In the days since Friday’s night unimaginable became reality, where many Virginia fans seem to be struggling the most is with outside perception. Opposing fans, co-workers, friends, and maybe even some family members have lobbed jokes at Hoos for certain. Being the first No. 1 seed to lose that opening game has been described as a cross to bear, a scarlet letter, a stain that will never go away, and an ongoing nightmare for future tournament montages and discussions. Concerns have been voiced about its impact on player psyche, recruiting, and long-term success.
Some have lamented – perhaps as much as anything else – the judgment hurled at the program from media sources too. Criticism of the style and system. Verdicts on Coach Bennett being a regular season wonder. Pat Forde at Yahoo! Sports even went so far as to call it the greatest choke in basketball history and labeled the program a towering fraud. As much as the loss hurt, labels like that drew even greater frustration.
Fans always absorb outside opinion on programs. It’s one prism that all kinds of entertainment, including sports, are viewed through. Many Virginia basketball fans, however, have grown increasingly wary of how that outside view describes the Hoos. To call the program unsuccessful, failing, or a fraud due to NCAA Tournament losses draws fury.
The “boring” basketball description ruffles feathers, of course. Being unranked in the preseason – OK fine. Those are at least understandable. Some people want to see a faster pace. Some looked at roster that lost four-year starting point guard London Perrantes and three transfers and drew the conclusion that this team would not be competitive at the top of the brutal ACC.
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Not that any of that makes much sense to Virginia fans, who have cataloged how the program has grown since Bennett’s arrival. So this narrative that Bennett’s system can’t produce wins in the NCAA Tournament, that the style is bad for basketball, that players don’t want to play defense? The analysis that builds on that narrative with Friday’s loss as some sort of one-game proof for that all being an accepted truth? The undertone that the Virginia way is somehow the wrong way?
Unsurprisingly, fans don’t like that narrative. They want to defend the program. They want to defend the pillars. They want to defend the results. They want to defend player development. They want to explain how Friday’s historic loss could happen to any team and almost had before it happened to the Hoos.
Ultimately, the narrative about Friday’s loss doesn’t matter though. What does?
Unlike a narrative, one carried and written from outside opinions, a memoir is the story told from the inside. For Virginia fans that have watched the rise of the program so closely, they know what they’ve seen the past six years, what preceded the climb, and all that’s transpired on the journey before that loss in the brightest spotlight Friday. Wahoo fans have watched the foundation being built with the likes of Jontel Evans, Will Sherrill, Sammy Zeglinski, and others. The ups and downs of tournament collapses against Miami, late-season swoons, the Tennessee debacle, and key injuries.
During this time, UVA has won the ACC Regular Season Championship outright three times. It had one, in 1981, before Bennett’s arrival. UVA has captured two ACC Tournament titles. It had one, in 1976, before Bennett’s arrival. The Cavaliers own an ACC-best 35-19 league road record over the past six years.
After making the NCAA Tournament field just three times with one win from 1998-2009, Bennett has led the Cavaliers into the field for five straight seasons for the first time in program history. They’ve made it six times in seven years as well with an NIT Quarterfinals appearance in the lone season they fell on the wrong side of the bubble. Prior to Bennett’s arrival, Virginia had won 22 NCAA Tournament games in program history. It’s won seven in the past five seasons. Since Bennett first guided the program into the postseason in 2011-2012, UVA owns a 19-12 record in March.
That steady climb has been done methodically and by the rules. It’s been done without disparaging opponents. It’s been done with respect internally and externally. All of which has inspired many observers, Virginia fans, and others alike. In light of the FBI investigation that rocked college basketball at the beginning of the season, it makes all of that all the more enjoyable. Whether outside opinion sees it the same way doesn’t matter.
In the end, for all the attempts to decipher the root causes of the UMBC loss, for all the the soul-searching since, for all the efforts to prove or disprove the flukiness of Friday, for all the storylines that will follow the Hoos, that’s the main lesson to be learned.
The memoir matters more than the narrative.
Going forward, that’s true within the team as well. From the beginning of this season, there was an ongoing chatter about being unranked and proving those predictions wrong. Some players talked openly about it being hard to ignore and how that created a chip on their shoulders. Make no mistake, that likely fueled some of the success too.
When the NCAA Tournament rolled around with the No. 1 overall seed attached and De’Andre Hunter out with a broken wrist, a new prove them wrong and make a run mantra grew. Then the pressure mounted, the players “got out of character” and abandoned the system, and lost their no fear way. The outside noise appeared to infiltrate the psyche.
That’s the issue with trying to fight a narrative. It’s too easy to get caught up in disproving a story instead of writing your own. In the months ahead as the Cavaliers get back to work, they will have plenty of motivational fuel with how the season ended in stunning fashion. If that’s all poured into a tank about proving the doubters wrong, however, it would be fuel misspent. The pressure on the NCAA Tournament stage will already be heightened and that would only increase its mass.
The San Antonio Spurs and their 2014 NBA Championship run is a better example of how to funnel motivational fuel. The 2013 team lead the NBA Final against the Miami Heat 3-2 and held a five-point lead in the final 28 seconds of Game 6. A series of uncharacteristic plays saw that game unravel into a loss and a close Game 7 slipped away. The Spurs talked about how devastating that postseason meltdown was and how it all became the driving force for the next season.
That 2014 team clinched the best record in the NBA with 62 wins and returned to the NBA Finals. Those Spurs won the title 4-1 against the same Miami Heat with each win coming by more than 15 points. They didn’t get there by cursing the basketball gods or claiming the loss was a fluke, the product of some mystic bad luck.
The next season wasn’t about proving anyone wrong . It was about proving to themselves that the way they wanted to play was good enough. It was about playing with an even better quality than before. It was about proving they still had something in the tank. It was about proving to each other that they would rise to the occasion when they returned to the stage. It was about finishing the job for each other.
In the locker room after the game, San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich told his team “I’ve never been more proud of a team nor have I ever gotten as much satisfaction from a season in all the years I’ve been coaching. To see the fortitude you guys displayed coming back from that horrific loss last year and getting yourselves back in position and doing what you did in the Finals, you’re really to be honored for that and I just can’t tell you how much it means.”
It was about the story written from the inside. The memoir.