Virginia basketball is embracing its past and moving forward as it enters March Madness

Photo of Virginia basketball is embracing its past and moving forward as it enters March Madness

The ‘Hoos are rolling in the ACC tournament.

Virginia head coach Tony Bennett sat on the dais alongside two of his players — Kyle Guy and Jack Salt — after the Cavaliers used a second half surge to handily defeat the NC State Wolfpack in the ACC tournament quarterfinals. This year’s tournament is being played at the Spectrum Center in Charlotte, forcing the Cavaliers to return to the site of Virginia’s mind-blowing loss in the NCAA tournament last year.

“Kyle, forgive last question about UMBC...” one reporter started.

The third year shooting guard, who had 29 points on 10-for-13 shooting (7-for-9 from three) against the Wolfpack, started to answer the reporter’s question before adding, “ guys don’t have to apologize for asking those questions. I’m happy to answer them.”

Such has been the case for the Cavaliers since the final horn sounded and the UMBC Retrievers became the first-ever 16-seed to upset a No. 1 seed. Virginia never shied away from questions about the devastating loss, instead confronting it head on both with the media and internally.

Now, Bennett and the Cavaliers are trying to focus on the road forward, not the one behind them.

“The last time I sat in here we were talking about our regular season conference championship and that test over two and a half months, 18 games,” Bennett told the media before the team’s trip to the ACC tournament. “Now you’re going into a different tournament where it’s one and done and then the same with the NCAA tournament. Just being as ready as we can and pressing on.

“I think everybody’s going to say, ‘You’re going back to Charlotte and that’s where you played and lost to UMBC.’ We’ve tried to grow as much as we can and learn from it. It’s all been talked about enough. It’s time to press on and get ready to play. There’s not a whole lot more to be said.”

Instead, the Cavaliers have tried to let their play on the court do the talking. Virginia is currently ranked No. 2 in the nation, hold a 29-2 record, and finished with a share of the ACC regular season title at 16-2 (tied with North Carolina). Both of Virginia’s losses came to Duke, and the Hoos hold wins over North Carolina, Virginia Tech (x2), Florida State, Wisconsin, and Maryland.

Critics of Virginia’s “methodical” style like to say that the Cavaliers aren’t built to come back against teams because the pace of play is too slow. Against NC State on Thursday, the Cavaliers trailed by four in the second half and won 76-56. On the road in Chapel Hill, UVA fell behind by seven with seven minutes to play and won 69-61. At Louisville, the Cards built a 12-point lead early in the second half before the Hoos came back to win 64-52.

With Bennett at the helm and experienced veterans like redshirt fifth year Jack Salt and third years Guy and Ty Jerome as on-court leaders, the Hoos are in good hands this season when things get challenging.

“We’re a team,” Guy said. “I think I’ve been saying this phrase a lot, calm is contagious, and it starts with Coach Bennett and ripples all the way down to our first years. When we have experience, we can stay calm in these situations. We never really worry. We know what we need to take care of, and in the second half it was just buckling down on defense and making open shots.”

Virginia’s defense is its usual stingy self, allowing just 54.6 points per game and ranking second on KenPom. The offense, however, is the biggest difference between this year’s squad and last year’s team. The Cavaliers have the second-most efficient offense in the country and are averaging over 72 points per game despite the slowest tempo. It’s beautifully efficient, and the Hoos work the ball around to find a great shot every possession.

When shots aren’t falling — like the first half against State on Thursday — Virginia doesn’t panic. The contagious calm takes over, they buckle down on defense, and don’t get rattled on offense.

Virginia takes on Florida State tonight at 7 p.m. for a shot at the ACC championship game.

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