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.”
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.”