In his post-game interview after the stirring Florida State win, Ty Jerome opened a window into the soul of this team and gave us a view of the traits that make me believe that not only is this team special, but that it is unique and conceivably could run the table on this season. Not just to 18-0 in the ACC, but to the end of the NCAA season. Ty revealed to us the mentality, the coaching, and the talent that makes such an incredible accomplishment possible. It is only 3:30 in length and a fascinating talk, so I strongly encourage you to give it a listen in its entirety.
Jerome said, clearly echoing a theme the coaches have broached with the team, that they are "striving for excellence," and that is an opportunity that only comes along every ten years or so (I found this qualification curious). You can either "be excited by that or scared of it," he went on to say, and clearly he and his mates are excited. It was in his voice, in the conviction with which he spoke about it. What we see as a daunting task of rising pressure they see as an exciting mission. That mission, that striving for their own excellence reinforces what he said later, that they are in the same position they have been in all year, unconcerned by what anyone else does, because "we just have to handle our business." Just take care of themselves, and everything else will take care of itself. Having this mindset - an exciting mission for which they only need to be concerned with taking care of their part - sloughs off 90% of the pressure that can accumulate on a team that piles up wins in the public spotlight. It is a mindset clearly cultivated by the coaching staff, and it is brilliant, not because it is some original line of thought but because it has been so clearly communicated and sold to the players. This mindset is a big part of why you see this team be so consistent in its approach to and performance in each game, regardless of context. Each game is another opportunity to climb one rung closer to excellence, and all they have to do is do what they have to do.
Another trait that Jerome's interview responses highlight is the team's poise during games, and ability to maintain its composure. Again, it is a matter of mindset. Jerome related a wonderful anecdote from late in the second half. The game was on the line, the crowd was going crazy, and Jerome and Kyle Guy looked at each other and shared a moment. Isn't this so forking cool??? The two of them smiled to each other, "embracing the atmosphere." If you don't love this, you don't love college basketball. This right here, this moment with all this pressure in this hostile arena and everyting on the line, and these guys are loving it. Jerome expresses here what Coach Bennett said in a recent Coach's Corner for why the team stays composed. "Play with joy," is his admonition to them. The "joy of the game" is the reward, and that is why they are so resilient. This approach to the game again transforms its pressures and uncertainties into part of the experience, the joy. They embrace it. By embracing all the pressures of competition, they draw energy from them rather than being compressed by them.
This mindset that has been cultivated by the coaches with the complete acceptance of the players - who are obviously fertile soil for the message - is why I don't see mental fatigue being an issue as this team goes forward. It is what makes this team unique, suited like no other college basketball team I have followed to maintaining the long-term excellence it takes to go all the way. Whether that means running the table or simply [!!] winning the NCAA Championship, this team is going to take it one game at a time, with each game being its own reward. Tony has taken the key to long youth - each day its own challenge and reward to be cherished and enjoyed - and translated it into basketball terms for his team.
But the proper mindset only gets you to your best performance. That performance level has to be sufficient to the task, and that is where Jerome's comments shed light on the other part of this team's ability to run the table: talent, or more specifically, the ability to make plays. At halftime, according to Jerome, Bennett admitted to his team that he had called too many sets, which hampered their ability to deal with Florida State's defensive pressure. The adjustment he made was to push the big men closer to the baseline and open up space for his players to "make plays" with the dribble. This freedom and expectation to make plays put it on the players to make things happen - and they responded. This ability of the coach to recognize when a patterned approach won't work and trust his players to make plays, and the ability of the players to break down a defense and make plays on their own gives a team more adaptability, more resilience, and makes that team more suited for success in tournament basketball. It was successful - showing the talent of the players and reinforcing to the coach that he can go to this tactic in the future. Future teams that will want to sell out on pressuring the perimeter are on notice that this Virginia Cavaliers team will not blink, and will respond by spreading them out and going to the basket - successfully.
We as fans and observers need to embrace the possibility that the Cavaliers could march all the way to San Antonio and up the ladders with scissors in hand, because there is no doubt this team believes it is going to do just that. This team has demonstrated that it can defeat any team in the country, anywhere in the country, and that it is excited to accept that challenge one joyful game at a time. And if that doesn't get you excited, then you don't love college basketball.
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