Beautiful, Not Boring: Learning To Love Virginia Basketball And Coach Tony Bennett

Tony Bennett
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GREENSBORO, N.C. – There’s under 1:30 remaining in Virginia’s game against Florida State, and Mike Tobey just dunked again. The Cavaliers are well on their way to a 58-44 win over the Seminoles, advancing to the semifinals of the ACC Tournament against North Carolina, and continuing their quest for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament for the second straight year.

There’s orange everywhere. Not enough to drown out the baby blue in the stands, mind you, but enough to make you acutely aware of how well the Hoos travel and how much dang fun they’re having.

“Our fans are very loyal,” Virginia guard Malcolm Brogdon said. “They come out. UVA was deep in the arena today.”

How is there anyone still left out there who could call this team boring?

People have the same few general complaints about basketball. Teams don’t run an offense. There’s too much one-on-one. Nobody plays any freaking defense. (These grumblings are lazy and misguided in general, but that’s for another story and another time.) If anything, those people should be in love with Virginia.

It’s not the Cavaliers’ fault the shot clock in college is 35 seconds. So they take up a majority of that clock on possessions to get the look they want in the half court. There are few contested jumpers or ill-advised deep threes with 24 seconds left. There are precise cuts, screens, passes, and all of a sudden there’s a wide open corner three or a layup.

The opposing defense just used a ton of energy to play 32 seconds of what it thought was really good defense, and it has nothing to show for it. Think about how demoralizing that is. Then think about the fact that same team has to go and try and score on arguably the nation’s best defense (at least according to KenPom’s adjusted efficiency numbers) right after that.

“It’s a way to lure you to sleep and then boom – attack,” North Carolina forward Isaiah Hicks said about Virginia after the Tar Heels beat Louisville on Thursday.

It’s downright diabolical to the point where it seems as though Tony Bennett would’ve made a hell of a wartime general in another time and place. He gets his guys to act as a single unit, and each moving part does its job without thinking.

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Bowling Green football coach Dino Babers told me last year he was trying to get his guys to practice “the art of knowing without knowing,” and even though that team (a carbon copy of Baylor’s offense) is at the far other end of the spectrum when it comes to tempo, that’s exactly what Virginia is doing.

That execution with regularity puts the Cavaliers in a position to make their first Elite Eight since 1995. They’re still searching for their first Final Four since 1984 when Rick Carlisle and Olden Polynice were on the roster. And even though Virginia likely missed a chance last year with the two-point loss to Michigan State in the Sweet Sixteen, the Cavs are right back where they want to be. The scary thing is, they might even be better.

The win over Florida State wasn’t Virginia’s masterpiece by any means. The Cavaliers were uncharacteristically sloppy with the basketball at times. They allowed Florida State to get to the rim more often than they probably would have liked. One of the nation’s best teams at taking care of the basketball turned it over 14 times. Do-it-all guard Malcolm Brogdon needed 31 minutes of play to get his first field goal (he was just 2-of-8 from the floor for the game). And Justin Anderson was playing his first game in 32 days after fracturing his finger and having his appendix taken out.

Even though it wasn’t perfect – which is relatively normal for most other teams in college basketball – you look up and Virginia has a 14-point win and has held its 15th opponent to under 50 points. “When we hit that number we know as long we we’re winning we’re in a good situation,” Brogdon said, before taking time to mention that the team’s goal is to hold opponents to 40 points or fewer.

This defense is what sets Virginia apart from everybody else in the ACC, and it’s why the Cavs are set to be such a high seed once again. College teams not named Kentucky or Duke just aren’t equipped to handle the Buckingham Palace guard stoicism of that front for 40 minutes. Eventually you crack. You panic. You simply give in.

The rabid Wahoo fans get it; that’s why they cheer louder at the end of the shot clock on a defensive possession than they do when their team gets a dunk. It’s other college basketball fans who still need some convincing.

A win by submission doesn’t have the sheer allure of a TKO, but it’s still mighty satisfying. And I just don’t see anything boring about that.