College basketball: Virginia looks poised for deep NCAA tournament run after ACC championship over North Carolina

Virginia won its third conference title Saturday night, and looks to be the top team in the NCAA tournament. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)
Virginia won its third conference title Saturday night, and looks to be the top team in the NCAA tournament. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)

NEW YORK – There’s something about this Virginia team that is different. The coaches are the same, the players are (mostly) the same and the style of play is the same.

Yet, somehow this team feels different.

Words like “complete,” “unified” and “togetherness” came up a lot when talking to players and coaches about this team. Head coach Tony Bennett even recited Psalms 133 before and after Saturday night’s 71-63 ACC championship win over North Carolina.

The verse reads: “Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity!” And Bennett believes that is what sets this team apart from the rest.

“They’re so unselfish,” Bennett said, “And it’s just a blessing to be part of it.”

That unity was on full display against North Carolina. Virginia led for most of the contest, but the Tar Heels rallied on several occasions, trailing by as little as two points midway through the second half. But for every UNC rally, there was an even more emphatic defensive shutdown and offensive explosion from Virginia.

“That speaks to our defense,” senior guard Devon Hall said, “and how we stand to get back and build a wall. We pretty much thrive on defensive stops.”

When Garrison Brooks hit two free throws to draw within two points with 11:43 to play, Virginia didn’t allow a single Tar Heel field goal for the next three minutes. And when North Carolina finally did score again to cut the deficit to three points with 8:17 to play, Virginia went on an 6-0 run and neutralized a Luke Maye triple with a huge Ty Jerome 3-pointer to keep the lead at nine points with 2:52 in the game.

“It was just – we were right there,” UNC guard Joel Berry said. “And it’s just like, they’ll come down and they’ll hit a big-time shot … we just didn’t dig deep enough to try and get that stop.”

That was the game. North Carolina came within five points again, but Virginia iced the game at the line with eight free throws to take home its third conference title and secure its bid for the top overall seed in the NCAA tournament.

“You want to play your best basketball at the end of the year,” Bennett said.

But why is Virginia more “unified” than every other program in the nation? Is it because they don’t have a single star player who carries the team? Maybe. Bennett even joked that “his” one-and-done’s aren’t players, but rather one-shot defensive possessions rather than freshman phenoms. Bennett added that it’s the older guys who help the younger guys gel into a cohesive unit.

“Our leaders, I’ll start with Devon [Hall] and Isaiah [Wilkins] and Jack [Salt] … they’re almost like they started out as entry level at a company, and now they’re advanced up to executive level,” Bennett said. “They’re so clear in how they have to play. They’re so sound.

“Coach-led teams can be good, player-led teams have a chance to be really good,” Bennett finished, “and that’s what we have here.”

What about their playmaking ability? This Virginia team is better defensively and offensively than teams in the past, but not by a whole lot. So, nothing has changed really from that standpoint. Strength and conditioning coach Mike Curtis has a theory:

“One of the things we’ve probably had in years past were a little bit better genetically gifted athletes,” Curtis said. “Guys who are faster, can jump higher, bigger. This group of guys has a skillset that’s probably a little bit superior from a basketball standpoint. That’s just my opinion.

“All of these guys, they work at their craft and they all have a little bit more of a robust skillset than those ones in the past. Those ones in the past were probably a little better athletes.”

Bennett agreed, noting this team challenged itself more than other teams he’s coached, especially after coming off a disappointing second-round exit in last year’s NCAA tournament.

“Each guy really went to work on their skill development, their physical improvement and they all improved,” Bennett said. “And that total improvement lifted this team up.”

But the simplest assessment of why this team is different came from former Cavalier Justin Anderson, now with the Philadelphia 76ers. Anderson saw what a talented Virginia team could do in 2015 when they went all the way to the Elite Eight. And three years later, as he watched from the Barclays Center stands, Anderson didn’t mince words when talking about this team’s capabilities.

“They’re really good. They’re going to win a championship.”

And for Virginia, all it needs to be is as simple as that.