Historic loss shows Virginia was built to fail in March

Yahoo Sports

History made, and the greatest choke in basketball history now on its ledger, it is time to deconstruct the towering fraud that is Virginia basketball.

A series of March collapses reached the ultimate low Friday night, when Tony Bennett’s Virginia Cavaliers — the No. 1 team in America, the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA tournament, the alleged apotheosis of a distinct basketball philosophy — lost to No. 16 seed UMBC. It is the first time a No. 1 seed has ever lost to a No. 16 seed, since the tourney expanded to 64 teams in 1985.

Scroll to continue with content
Ad

The 1-16 upset has long been considered one of the final frontiers in sports. The truly impossible upset. And it has been perpetrated by a commuter school from the America East upon the leafy upper-crust Atlantic Coast Conference enclave founded by Thomas Jefferson.

As TJ himself once said, “I have sworn upon the altar of God, eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.” Now here is that hostility being visited upon his own school. Virginia has gagged upon its own privilege.

The 1-16 matchup has become the ultimate sporting tyranny. The seeds have played each other 135 times before this game, and 135 times the No. 1 has beaten the 16. Now the 16s have had their day, incomprehensibly, against the team judged the best in America.

And now it has happened, on Tony Bennett’s watch and on his résumé forever. A 20-point loss, 74-54, as the top seed in the tournament, to a team that wasn’t even supposed to win its league tourney. It’s unfathomable.

Virginia’s Isaiah Wilkins (21) is consoled after fouling out during the second half of a first-round game against UMBC in the NCAA men’s college basketball tournament. (AP)
Virginia’s Isaiah Wilkins (21) is consoled after fouling out during the second half of a first-round game against UMBC in the NCAA men’s college basketball tournament. (AP)

Bennett is among the more laudable men in his profession. He is accountable and classy, as he was in an interview with CBS after the disaster. Few, if any, coaches would have handled that situation with the poise Bennett did.

But that doesn’t alter the facts of the situation. This was the new low in Virginia history, even lower than Ralph Sampson losing to Chaminade in the early 1980s.

For those unfamiliar with the initials of the giant killer, because they have never before been relevant from a basketball standpoint, that is the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. Their nickname is the Retrievers, and late in the first round of this Big Dance they fetched the dead carcass of BennettBall and left it on the doorstep.

It’s over, this idea that Virginia can win in March with devout defense and dawdling tempo and an offense prone to breaking down at the worst possible time. It’s over when a team that can only play one way, at one speed, is forced into a game that is not of its choosing — coming from behind, playing more quickly, dealing with actual pressure and expectation. It’s over, when you want to be a heavyweight but have a glass jaw and will panic at the slightest provocation.

By all means, give proper credit to UMBC, its fearless senior guard Jairus Lyles and its spectacular rising star coach, Ryan Odom. (If you are an AD at a power conference and you have an opening, or an inkling of an opening, hire him. Now.) It takes a mindset and a belief and a will that is almost inconceivable to pull off an upset of this magnitude, and the Retrievers had it. They will go down in history as the greatest of all Cinderellas.

But there is even more blame to be assigned than credit. Because this is Virginia, and this is a continuation and confirmation that BennettBall is fatally limited come March.

This is the third time a Bennett-coached Virginia team has been a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tourney. This is the third time a Bennett-coached Virginia team has lost before the Final Four.

There was a Sweet 16 loss to Michigan State in 2014. There was an epic collapse in the regional final against Syracuse in 2016. And then there was this complete and utter disaster.

Virginia coach Tony Bennett signals for a jump ball during the first half of the team’s first-round game against UMBC. (AP)
Virginia coach Tony Bennett signals for a jump ball during the first half of the team’s first-round game against UMBC. (AP)

(For good measure, there also was an early exit as a No. 2 seed in 2015 and a 39-point scoring effort in a humiliating blowout last year. March is littered with Cavalier bones.)

This wasn’t losing to Tom Izzo or Jim Boeheim, Hall of Fame coaches with national titles on their résumés. This was folding against a nobody. This was an abdication of composure that cannot be adequately described.

Virginia hoops as coached by Bennett is built on rigidity. You play by a set of well-defined beliefs and principles and rules. It is Swiss timepiece basketball.

So what happens when the watch stops? When the clock breaks? When things go wrong?

Panic is what happens. Take Virginia out of its narrowly constructed comfort zone, make it play faster or make more shots than it is accustomed to, and you can see the cogs and sprockets in Bennett’s precise head start to seize up.

When you can only succeed one way, and that way is taken away from you, the results aren’t pretty.

In fact, they can be historically ugly. Virginia learned that Friday night. Again.

Fans of the program, who have become obnoxiously defensive against its stylistic critics, will undoubtedly try to portray this as the ultimate 40-minute radar blip, indicative of nothing. But it’s indicative of everything that is flawed in Tony Bennett’s approach to NCAA tournament basketball.

A team cannot win it all this way. It cannot come close. But it can make the worst kind of March Madness history.

More March Madness coverage from Yahoo Sports:
UMBC shocks Virginia, first 16-seed ever to beat a No. 1
What is UMBC? Everything you need to know about the university
UMBC’s upset eliminated last perfect bracket in Yahoo Sports Tourney Pick’em
Where UMBC’s upset of Virginia ranks among all-time greatest upsets
Meet UMBC’s other hero, the man behind its famous Twitter account

What to Read Next