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Virginia doesn’t need Final Four validation, but drive for it still runs deep


NEW YORK — “Where’s the champagne?”

That’s the question that former star Justin Anderson had as he burst into the Virginia’s locker room 15 minutes after the Cavaliers had finished cutting down the nets at the Barclays Center following a 71-63 win over North Carolina. The ACC tournament trophy, which had been lugged through the bowels of the arena by current star and tournament MOP Kyle Guy, sat on a chair in front of Isaiah Wilkins’ locker while Anderson went from player to player, interrupting interview after interview to make sure he dapped every single person wearing a championship snapback with a piece of net tied to it.

“Finish strong,” the Philadelphia 76ers’ small forward said. “Gotta finish strong now.”

MORE: Breaking down the Cavaliers’ NCAA tourney chances

Virginia has been here before. This is the fifth time in the last five years that the Wahoos have won some kind of ACC title. Just like this year, they won both the ACC regular season and tournament titles in 2014, adding a regular season title in 2015. No one else in the conference can come close to matching that, and considering the fact that they are in a conference with two Tobacco Road bluebloods that have won a national title in the last three seasons, it’s a remarkable achievement.

Think about it.

No program has had more success in the ACC in the last five years than Virginia.

But they haven’t done it in the tournament. They haven’t gotten to the Final Four. They were upset in the Sweet 16 by No. 4 seed Michigan State in 2014. The following year, the Spartans picked off No. 2 seed Virginia in the second round. In 2016, Virginia was again a No. 1 seed and held a late 15-point lead in the Elite 8 against Syracuse before blowing it in the final 10 minutes, costing themselves their best chance to date at getting to college basketball’s final weekend.

And that has become what this season for the Wahoos, at least from the outside. Is this the year that Tony Bennett’s style of coaching is validated with success in March, when they are the No. 1 overall seed in the tournament and the top seed in the South?

“We went to an Elite 8, almost got to a Final Four, but the NCAA Tournament, you want to do as well as you can in that,” Bennett said. “Those are the tangible things everybody judges you on.”

Virginia is unquestionably the most accomplished team in college basketball. They won the ACC regular season title by a full four games. They won the ACC tournament title. They are the consensus No. 1 team in both polls. They are No. 1 in the RPI and on KenPom, the preeminent results-based and predictive metrics. They set a program record with their 31st win of the season on Saturday night, but “that record doesn’t mean anything if we don’t get to 37 wins,” Guy said.

The players in that locker room aren’t stupid. They aren’t naive. They know what people think about the way that they play. They know that grinding teams down defensively, that winning the way that they win is not the most thrilling or exciting brand of basketball. In an era where teams are getting smaller and faster and more perimeter-oriented at every level of the game, Virginia is putting together what may turn out to be the single-best defensive season that we’ve seen from a team in the KenPom era.

“Everyone’s lying if they’re saying they don’t hear any of that or they don’t ever think about it,” Guy said, acknowledging that it’s compounded by the fact that they’ve yet to get to a Final Four in the Bennett-era. “We just try to say in our own lane, blinders on like horses, don’t worry about any of the outside noise. But you definitely notice when watching another college basketball game and people are sh***ing on us.”

That’s where the motivation comes from.

That’s part of why so many former Wahoos were perched behind Bennett’s bench on Saturday night. From Anderson to Joe Harris to Akil Mitchell to Evan Nolte, the alumni that were able to make it to Brooklyn on Saturday night did.

“Once you’re a part of the UVA program, you’re part of the family and that’s indicative of us being on the floor right now, being behind the bench tonight,” Harris said. “So I want [a Final Four] for him. I want it for him for the validation.”

The question is whether or not validation should be needed.

The idea that a team or a program is not ‘legit’ because they have not had a Final Four run in the NCAA tournament has always been silly to me. Anything can happen in a one-game elimination event like the NCAA tournament, especially when dealing with a sport like basketball that is being played by 19-22 year olds. Wild stuff always has and always will happen. It’s what makes the NCAA tournament great, and it’s why judging a program based off of nothing but tournament success is unfair.

“It’s March, dude. Anything can happen,” Guy said. “The basketball gods haven’t been in our favor.”

“To win a regular season ACC, that’s the long haul. That’s big. That’s tough,” Bennett said.

But at some point, the wins have to come.

And Virginia has never been better set up to make a run in March than this season.

Whether you like it or not.

“It’s just funny,” Ty Jerome said. “Trae Young might not even be in the tournament, and that’s not a knock on him. He’s a great player. Marvin Bagley deserves all the attention he gets. Deandre Ayton the same way. It’s not a knock on those guys, and ESPN has the right to cover whatever they want.”

“But if we win it all they’ll have no choice but to cover us.”

“If we haven’t gotten the respect now,” Anderson said, “we don’t need it.”

“What we do works.”

Late run sparks Villanova past West Virginia, into Elite Eight

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BOSTON — It is always just a matter of time before the avalanche comes.

And when it does, you better hope that lead you have is big enough to withstand what’s coming.

For No. 5-seed West Virginia, it was not. With 11 minutes left on Friday night in Boston’s TD Garden, the Mountaineers led 60-54 and had seemingly wrestled control of the game from the No. 1-seed in the East Region. Less than five minutes later, after the Wildcats hit four of their next five threes, Villanova had taken a 76-66 lead by going on a 22-6 run, and West Virginia was never able to recover.

Jalen Brunson led the way for the top-seeded Wildcats with 27 points and four assists while Omari Spellman finished with 18 points, eight boards and three blocks and Mikal Bridges chipped in with 16 points despite playing relatively poorly — by his standards — on Friday.

With a 90-78 win, Villanova advanced to the Elite Eight and a date with the winner of tonight’s game No. 2 Purdue-No. 3 Texas Tech.

That’s the way that it works with this Villanova team. Armed with the most potent, high-volume three-point shooting attack in college basketball — maybe in the history of college basketball — fans of their opponents are just waiting for the inevitable.

On Friday night, Villanova shot 13-for-24 from three, which is damned-impressive and exactly what we expect at the same time, but the game was won during that five-minute surge when West Virginia just didn’t have an answer.

VIDEO: Omari Spellman, Eric Paschall with mammoth dunks for Villanova

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Villanova took the lead on West Virginia and turned the tide of momentum with a pair of emphatic dunks in transition.

It started with Omari Spellman, who had an unbelievable sequence, spiking a shot into the floor before throwing down a put-back dunk all over a defender:

A couple of possessions later, Eric Paschall finally did the impossible.

He dunked on Sagaba Konate:

I am having way too much fun at this game.

No. 1 Kansas into Elite Eight with win over No. 5 Clemson

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OMAHA, Neb. — Once Kansas found its stride, Clemson had little chance of keeping pace – even after a late stumble.

The No. 1 Jayhawks ran away from the No. 5 Tigers with a second-half flurry that powered them to a 80-76 victory Friday night at CenturyLink Center to put them in the Elite Eight on Sunday against either Duke or Syracuse.

Kansas moves on to the Midwest Region final on the back of a second-half offense that Clemson had nearly no success in slowing until the final minutes, when the Tigers turned a 20-point laugher into  a six-point nail-biter.

Malik Newman paced Kansas with 17 points while Devonte Graham 16 and Udoka Azubuike 14 and 11 rebounds.

Clemson got 31 points from senior Gabe DeVoe, but there just wasn’t enough help around him for the Tigers to keep things competitive after the Jayhawks hit them with three-consecutive 3s in the opening minutes of the second half to open up a 20-point lead.

Clemson was already hanging on by a threat after it shot just 35.7 percent from the floor and committed eight turnovers. DeVoe’s 12 first-half points kept the Tigers afloat, but they never enjoyed a lead before halftime.

The Jayhawks, meanwhile, had five players  score at least six points in the first half, including 10 from Azubuike, Their usual strengths – 3-point shooting (4 of 13) and Devonte Graham (1 of 7) – were absent in the first half, but Clemson was unable to take advantage as Kansas continued to get quality looks inside and stops on defense.

The Jayhawks previously played Syracuse in December, beating the Orange by 16 on a neutral floor in Miami. They haven’t faced the Blue Devils, though they have already shared a building with them once this year in the Champion’s Classic. Kansas topped Kentucky, 65-61, while Duke defeated Michigan State, 88-81, that November night in Chicago.

VIDEO: Mikal Bridges tries to dunk on Sagaba Konate, gets denied

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There really is nothing better in this world than seeing someone who is typically a great dunker take flight to try and dunk on Sagaba Konate of West Virginia, because it never, EVER ends well for the dunker.

See: Bridges, Mikal:

Auburn AD Greene gives Bruce Pearl a vote of confidence

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Speaking publicly for the first time about head coach Bruce Pearl, new Auburn athletic director gave his embattled head coach a vote of confidence.

Greene was on an in-house podcast produced with the voice of Auburn sports, and was asked about Pearl’s standing in a pod that lasted less than five minutes and felt more like a press release than anything else.

“He’s been a tremendous blessing for the Auburn family,” Greene said. “The FBI investigation is a long process. We’re going through that process to make sure that we, as a university, are doing what it is that we’re supposed to do to comply. Coach Pearl has been excellent in that regard and I look forward to continuing to work with him as we continue to do the very best to support he, his staff and the student athletes of Auburn University.”

This is the first time since former assistant coach Chuck Person was arrested that a member of the Auburn athletic department had spoken so positively about Pearl. In the fall, Auburn’s president Steven Leath lamented Pearl’s lack of cooperation in the investigation, but just last week released a statement saying Pearl is “working with university officials as part of our due diligence.” Pearl said after his team’s 84-53 loss to Clemson in the second round of the NCAA tournament that he would like to return.

There has been speculation that Pearl’s job was in jeopardy ever since Auburn was mixed up in the FBI’s complaint. Two players were forced to sit out this entire season after the FBI alleged they had received money funneled through Person from a runner for an agent and a financial advisor.

“One of the challenges that we have facing the industry is college basketball,” Greene said. “We want to make sure we work incredibly hard to clean up the game, to make it as pure as it can possibly be so that our student-athletes can enjoy the intercollegiate athletic experience. one of the things that we have to keep in mind is that the state of college basketball is not in a good place right now and I’m a little bit disappointed that auburn is involved in that, but that doesn’t take away from the excellent job that Coach Pearl has done.”