I will never doubt Tony Bennett again.
In a year where the Virginia Cavaliers were supposed to be rebuilding, in a season where they were supposed to be a season away from underclassmen like Kyle Guy, Ty Jerome and De’Andre Hunter, Bennett may have the best team he’s ever had as a college basketball coach.
On Saturday, No. 2 Virginia went into Cameron Indoor Stadium and knocked off No. 4 Duke, 65-63, despite the fact that Duke’s super star Marvin Bagley III went for 30 points and 14 boards. Wendell Carter added 14 points, 15 boards, four blocks and four assists.
Duke — a top five team with arguably the most talented starting five in the sport — did what they always do: They dominated the paint, they ran their offense through the biggest and best front line in the country and, frankly, they controlled the majority of the second half in one of the best home courts in college hoops, and it still wasn’t enough.
Which begs the question: Is Virginia actually the best team in college basketball?
I’ve long argued that it is Villanova. They have a lottery pick in Mikal Bridges. They have another NBA player and a potential National Player of the Year in Jalen Brunson. Their head coach has won a national title and may end up in the Hall of Fame when it is all said and done. They are old, they shoot the cover off the ball, they are a nightmare to matchup with given their versatility. It’s not a coincidence that the Wildcats have been the most successful program in the country for the last five seasons.
If not them, then Purdue seemed to be the name at the forefront of the discussion. Or maybe you thought it was one of the absurdly-talented preseason title favorites — Michigan State, or Arizona, or the Duke team that Virginia just knocked off — that haven’t quite seemed to put it all together yet.
Whatever the case was, prior to Saturday, unless your address is in Charlottesville, you probably didn’t think that Virginia was college basketball’s best team.
But if Saturday was evidence of anything, they might just be.
Nothing about the way that Virginia plays is sexy. They are the slowest team in the country. They grind you down defensively. Their fans cheer shot clock violations louder than they do three-pointers. They prefer to run through two or three sets and take 28 seconds off of the shot clock than shoot anything other than a great shot.
And while watching them may put you to sleep faster than taking a dose of Nyquil and trying to read War And Peace, playing against them is death by 1,000 papercuts. Every win looks beautiful in the ACC standings, and as things currently stand, the only team within two games of Virginia in the conference title race is Louisville, who probably won’t be making any miraculous runs to a league title, not when they’ve lost to Virginia the last four times they’ve faced off.
That may be why Virginia cannot get the respect that they have earned.
Sexy sells in college basketball. The teams that have the NBA talent, the high-flying athletes, the pace-and-space offense. They are the ones that get the attention. Virginia doesn’t really have any of that. De’Andre Hunter, a redshirt freshman that played 24 minutes off the bench on Sunday, is probably the best NBA prospect on the UVA roster, but he’s still a few years away and likely won’t be the kind of player that we’re talking about as a potential lottery pick. Kyle Guy is fun to watch when he gets it going, but he’s not going to do all that much more than run off of screens and catch-and-shoot. Ty Jerome makes more big shots than anyone, but he also makes London Perrantes look athletic.
But that’s only half the problem.
Virginia is dealing with some of the same issues that Villanova dealt with before they won their title; that Bill Self and Jim Calhoun dealt with before their titles; that Sean Miller is currently dealing with. Tony Bennett has never done it in March. He’s been to the last four NCAA tournaments and made it out of the first weekend just twice. He lost in the Sweet 16 as a No. 1 seed in 2014. He lost in the second round as a No. 2 seed in 2015. He lost in the Elite 8 in 2016, blowing an 16-point lead against No. 10 seed Syracuse in the final nine minutes. Last year, as a No. 5 seed, Virginia got dropped by Florida in the second round.
Fair or not — it’s not — until Virginia is playing on that first weekend in April, they are always going to be looked at as that team that can win games in January but cannot in March.
When that is the reputation your team has, it is really hard to shake it. Ask Villanova. They are not even two years removed from a national title and they still battle it.
This may finally be the group that gets Virginia to the Final Four.
And if this team — the one that was supposed to be rebuilding, the one that was supposed to still be a year away from reaching its peak — is the one that finally gets Bennett and Virginia to the Final Four, it would be the perfectly fitting for the program that is quietly one of, if not the best in the ACC today.