Tony Bennett and the Virginia men’s basketball team had a rough weekend. After holding the title of best team in the country for most of the season, the Cavaliers became the first No. 1 seed in NCAA Tournament history to lose to a No. 16 seed.
Making things worse, this wasn’t Virginia’s first failure in March Madness. The Cavaliers have been a No. 1 or 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament three other times since 2014, and they only made the Elite Eight once.
In that regional final, Virginia was about 10 minutes away from its first Final Four appearance in over 30 years, but they blew a 16-point lead to Syracuse. Again, the Cavaliers went home in heart-breaking fashion.
After their latest loss, most wanted to apply the choke label to Bennett and Virginia basketball. But on Monday morning, Hall of Fame coaches Mike Krzyzewski and Jim Boeheim were having none of that.
Krzyzewski, who has won the NCAA Tournament five times, reminded everybody of his past failures, arguing that upsets happen. Duke lost to No. 15 Lehigh and No. 14 Mercer in the first round during the 2012 and 2014 tournaments, respectively.
“My heart goes out to him,” Krzyzewski said according to 247Sports. “We’ve lost in the first round a couple of times, and we’ve lost to teams that were deserving of winning. You know, like UMBC was deserving of winning, just like when we lost, C.J. McCollum was pretty good and Lehigh deserved to win. Mercer was really good and they deserved to win.”
Krzyzewski also said Bennett “did such a great job” of “expressing his feelings” after the loss.
On the wrong end of a historic upset, Bennett could have easily refused questions, but he handled his postgame interviews like every coach should after a victory or defeat, and Coach K definitely took note.
Boeheim wasn’t as diplomatic in his response defending Bennett, giving a snarky answer that’s become the norm from the Syracuse coach. He called the group of people who wouldn’t want the season Virginia had “idiots” and added that Bennett is one of his top two or three coaches in the country.
“Unfortunately, in our business, it’s all about the tournament when you’re a good team,” Boeheim said. “When you just get in, like now, I’m a great coach. I’m s*&%, I’m no better than I was two weeks ago. But, oh, you won two games, he must be really — no nothing to do with that.
“I’ve seen coaches win games in this tournament, two, three, four games, and they’re terrible coaches. Things just went right. And it’s what you do over the course of 35 games that determines what kind of coach you are. You win 17 games in the ACC, win the ACC Tournament? He’s got — I think he’s got one guy who was hurt that will be an NBA player. The other guys are — they’re pretty good. There’s a couple. They may sneak in. I don’t know. They may sneak in there.
“But he’s won the ACC against Duke and North Carolina, what four or five years? I don’t know what it is. It’s beyond even trying to understand it. With maybe two recruits in the top 40. And he’s playing against 15 guys on each team over those period of time that were in the top 20 or top 10 or top 5 in wins? Come on. It’s one game. It’s one game.”
There’s a reason these guys are in the Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame. They both hit the nail exactly on the head.
In the single elimination tournament, there’s always going to be unusual results. As Krzyzewski indicated, that doesn’t mean teams such as UMBC aren’t worthy of advancing because they are, but it also doesn’t mean Virginia or its coach had bad seasons.
The Cavaliers had the No. 98 recruiting class in the country in 2017 and came into this season unranked. To go 31-3 with that kind of talent — and 21-1 against ACC opponents — is incredible.
But as Boeheim said, most fans only care about NCAA Tournament results. So until Bennett gets the Cavaliers into the Final Four, it’s not likely most will consider him a top-tier coach.