The only predictable thing about the famously unpredictable NCAA Tournament is the Grand Conclusions it inspires based on the results of a playoff that is designed for maximum chaos.
Dean Smith, for example, was one of those coaches who just couldn’t get it done in March. So was Roy Williams. So was Jim Boeheim. So was Jim Calhoun. So was Bill Self.
And what do all those men have in common?
They have national championship rings. Ten, if you add them all together. And three of those guys are still coaching in this very tournament.
And so it is with Virginia’s Tony Bennett, whose pack line defense and deliberate offense have carried the Cavaliers to extraordinary heights in the regular season, only to see their whole thing solved time and time again in the NCAA Tournament. Virginia has been a No. 1 seed three times since 2014, losing in the Sweet 16 (2014), Elite Eight (2016) and in the first round (2018). UVA was a 2-seed in 2015, and lost in the second round, same as it did as a 5-seed last year.
These are heartbreaking results for Virginia, but they hardly indicate, as some have suggested, that Bennett’s system works from November to February and even early March, but for some reason falls apart right around St. Patrick’s Day.
This is not to say there aren’t some adjustments to be made. Virginia was felled this year by a four-guard lineup, which is not the sort of thing that ought to be tripping up a major-conference team in 2018. That’s a trend that has been growing for at least 10 years in this “space and pace” era, and for that reason no team that can’t deal with it can be taken seriously as a contender.
I don’t know Tony Bennett and I’m not a basketball coach, so I’ll spare everyone my own recommendations. Besides, everybody already knows Tony Bennett can really, really coach. His first two years as a head coach, he took Washington State to the NCAA Tournament, and he had Virginia in the tournament by year three (2012). The Cavaliers have only missed it once under Bennett, when they went 23-12 in 2013.
Since then, Virginia has averaged 29 wins per season. Since going 16-15 in his second year at UVA, Bennett has won 77 percent of his games and three regular-season ACC championships.
There is no guarantee this will all eventually build to a national championship, of course. It helps to have the best team, but you’re still going to need some good fortune to win six games in a row on neutral floors against progressively more difficult competition.
Remember the year Self won the title? In the Elite Eight game, Davidson had the ball down two on the final possession … and it had Steph Curry … and Curry’s defender fell down … and someone else took the shot. The year Boeheim won his, Kansas shot 12-for-30 at the foul line in the national title game. When Williams finally broke through with North Carolina in 2005, he got one of the worst calls in tournament history with nine seconds left in a three-point game against Villanova in the Sweet 16.
These sorts of things happen for everybody who wins a national title, and every coach acknowledges this. Maybe they’ll never quite happen for Virginia, but as long as Bennett is there, the Cavaliers are going to be in the arena, and that’s about as much as you can expect.