Welcome to Part II of our Final Four Roundtable. We're going to dive right back in by asking the question that is on everyone's mind:
What does Virginia have to do to win the Championship?
Maize: My gut feeling is that two Teams of Destiny will arrive in the title game. Tony Bennett vs. Tom Izzo. MSU has the look this year, and UVA will have to will their own destiny into place.
StLou: Limit mistakes, convert good shots, stay focused under the bright lights. That's really what they need to do to get to Monday in the first place, against an Auburn team that will capitalize on unfocused play. The Final Four is a weird animal, a media circus in the days prior, and played in a football stadium with 60,000 in attendance, weird acoustics, lighting, and sight lines. The whole thing is disorienting, and the victor is usually whoever can find a way to play locked-in like it's just any other game.
Seattle: Be themselves. This team has shown a remarkable ability to remain focused, to trust the game plan, to play for each other, and to be resilient no matter what. If they win the championship, it is going to involve playing two vastly different teams with completely different styles. Stick to the Pillars, enjoy the Moment, enjoy the hoopla and the presence, but know when to work. The coaches are going to have to be adaptive and the players determined.
Against Auburn, it means getting back quickly on defense after every offensive possession and finding shooters. Find the shooters and stop the ball. Defend and stay in front of drivers without requiring rotations. Control the boards. If Auburn beats UVA it will be from a combination of hot outside shooting and broken plays.
Then Texas Tech or Michigan State will be completely different. Both teams are bigger, more physical, more defensive than Auburn. Each has a bellwether player surrounded by quality supporting cast like Purdue. As was said leading up to the Purdue game, the second game means relying on your principles.
Virginia is the best team in this tournament. All they have to do is play well and have a reasonable balance of 3-point shooting percentage. If they can just play well and shoot okay from the arc, they will cut down the nets Monday night.
HooAmp: Just keep playing sound basketball. Virginia has won in a variety of ways in the tournament: two double-digit comebacks against different-caliber teams and styles and also psychological roadblocks for the 'Hoos, the classic UVa style of grabbing a sizable lead by halftime and maintaining the cushion, and a grind-it-out defensive slugfest that was a close game from start to finish. The offense had to be on point in one game, and it sort of was against Purdue, and even then, the shooting wasn't great (41.5 percent overall). UVa was also under great pressure to make free throws vs. the Boilermakers and did so, another great sign. Virginia has yet to play a complete game, but has not thrown up a stinker. To win the title, UVa may need one of those games where it all clicks, offensively, defensively, free throws, coaching moves, everything. It also wouldn't surprise if the Cavaliers have to score at least 75 points in at least one of the remaining games (if they play two) to bring home the trophy.
Val: Virginia can beat all of the teams in the Final Four, so I’m in agreement with the Hoos Place consensus: play our game. We’ve got the offensive weapons and the flexibility to match up with either a bruising Michigan State or the roadrunners of Auburn. For Auburn, we need to hit 2s, I think. Kentucky shot 56% from 2, so this is the game for Diakite to continue his roll and maybe Hunter to play like a lottery pick.
I'm not particularly superstitious, but what traditions have evolved for you over the past four games?
Maize: Nothing in particular over these past four games. Which is out of character, because my brain is a huge sucker for superstition. I am, for example, completely convinced that every time TV shows a graphic that says one team is on an X-0 run, the opposition will score on that very possession. Especially if I'm rooting for the team currently on the run.
Seattle: This probably started sometime early last year, or maybe the year before, but at a point in the game when it is going poorly for the Hoos and my anxiety starts to overwhelm me, I verbalize - it used to be out loud to the room but now I text it to my girlfriend – We’re going down. I seemed to notice that when I said it, the Hoos would turn the game around and go on to win. Eventually it became my obligation to help the effort by blunting enemy runs with the talismanic words. It has only failed a terrible few times when the Fate running against us was too strong for my mojo to overcome.
StLou: It's not necessarily the last 4 games, but the superstition I've had lately, neither I nor my wife wear UVA gear during the game (she wore her UVA t-shirt during the first half of the Gardner-Webb game, before I made her change, so obviously it works!). I also like to watch the game from home vice a bar, with my dog sitting on the couch next to me on the UVA blanket.
HooAmp: I was more superstitious in the past when big wins were harder to come by. But this team, and really, many of Bennett's teams, have won so much that it often hasn't mattered what I'm doing. I have been alternating between two T-shirts on gamedays for most of the year, but I don't know if I'd call it superstitious. I am, however, someone who despises the early callings of games, whether losses or wins, especially from UVa fans who saw an excellent example of a game never being over just last season. During the Purdue game, when Virginia grabbed an eight-point lead in the second half, my friend that I was watching the game with said something like, "Wow, we might actually pull this off," and though he used "might," I still told him to zip it, as he has had a propensity in the past to call games way before they are over. And then in OT, when the victory was all but wrapped up, he said he received a text from his boss, and my guess was it was going to say, "Congratulations," and I told him to not even look at it. Like many fans, I wasn't going to believe it until Virginia was up by more than three and with no time left.
Val: For me this tournament I’ve been watching the games in silence. Part of this was that I had really come to appreciate Dan Dakich’s commentary during the season and that having to listen now to Chris Webber would be torture. It has kept me calmer, even during the first halves of Gardner Webb and Purdue.
But the superstition that I’m hanging my hat on comes via a friend. When a group of fellow alums got together for the ACC tournament, one guy gave my friend, Mike, an orange and blue shirt that looked like a bowling shirt. Mike has worn the shirt, and tweeted it out to us, for these past four games. Apparently Mike’s wife washed the shirt (!) before the Sweet 16, and we took him to task, and I have to trust that it’s not been washed since and Mike will wear it Saturday night and at work all day Monday.
What do you think of the rest of the ACC's performance in the NCAA tournament?
StLou: Eh, about what I expected, I suppose? I was never sold on Cuse this year, so an 8/9 loss seems right. Ditto Louisville, who just had too much turnover this year under a new coach to have really high expectations (though credit for getting there). After that, I felt bad for FSU having to overcome the loss of Phil Cofer's dad at the same moment they ran into a great Gonzaga team... I really liked that FSU team this year and was pulling for them maybe moreso than I was any other ACC team. Virginia Tech played a hell of a tournament, hell of a season really, and they similarly earned my respect; Sweet 16 seemed about right for them. Really, it boils down to Duke and Carolina at this point. For Carolina, I did think they were overrated as a 1-seed, they feasted on a down ACC this year and got Duke twice without Zion, I felt like the first good veteran team to get them was going to knock them out, so credit to Auburn. Duke was a Final Four Or Bust team, though, thanks to (fair or not) media expectations... well, Bust. Can't say I'm not happy about it.
Like I said, it was a down year in the ACC this year. Frankly, I think next year could be even worse.
Duke: It wasn't too shocking, but the Blue Devils have the best player in college basketball, and he happens to be one of the best ever, but they did not have the best team. As somewhat expected, they could not grind through the tournament, and in fact, very easily could've lost to Virginia Tech or UCF. This team was crowned one of the sport's best ever at the beginning of the season, and some people wondered if it would lose a game, so not even making the Final Four has to be deemed a failure.
UNC: I thought this team had the look of one that could make a run to the title, just as the Tar Heels did two years ago, but it was not to be. I was very impressed with their near win in the ACC tourney championship against a full-strength Duke team. I was surprised to see them get run out of the building by Auburn, essentially getting beat at their own game.
Florida State: FSU had another Elite Eight run in it, but just ran up against a more solid Gonzaga squad. The Seminoles may even be disappointed they only made the Sweet 16, given they set the school record for victories, but it was still another rock-solid season from Leonard Hamilton's crew. Virginia is always going to be in for some physical battles with FSU as long as Hamilton is there. I was surprised to learn FSU hasn't had a losing season since 2004-05, and it has notched at least 20 wins in 11 of his 17 seasons. More consistent than I thought.
Virginia Tech: I thought Virginia fans underrated the Hokies each of the past few seasons. Even when they weren't that good, they gave the 'Hoos problems. They were great this season and probably had their best team in program history. Buzz Williams can flat-out coach, and UVa fans, while they didn't have to be afraid of Tech, should be glad Buzz and this senior class is leaving. That should make the Hokies less of a thorn in the Wahoos' sides, depending on who they bring in as the next coach. Tech was *this close* to dumping a Zion-led Duke team and getting a chance to play for a spot in the Final Four. I also thought this collection of Hokies was more likable than some past iterations, and Buzz was a character I couldn't help but not dislike.
Louisville: The Cardinals had a very good middle of the season that had them in the running for a top-four NCAA tournament seed and coach of the year consideration for Chris Mack. And then Feb. 9 to March 9 happened. Louisville suffered the soul-crushing defeats to FSU, Duke, and Virginia, barely slipped by Clemson, got crushed by Syracuse, took a terrible defeat against BC, and then topped it off with another tough loss at UVa. A lackluster effort against Minnesota in the Big Dance cemented Louisville's second consecutive late-season swoon.
Syracuse: March is usually Jim Boeheim's time, as he's made a couple of surprising runs through the tournament, one at the Cavaliers' expense. I was surprised to see the Orange bow out early against equally unimpressive Baylor. One has to wonder if the team was affected by the tragedy that occurred Feb. 21. Syracuse went 2-5 from that point on.
Val: I think the ACC showed well. We placed five teams in the Sweet Sixteen. StLou may consider this a down year for the ACC, but this bespoke our depth in the ACC.
Maize: It's technically disappointing, seed-wise, but I'm not surprised Duke and UNC crashed out early. Carolina was known to be prone to the occasional terrible game, and I wrote them off in my bracket because of it. (Not that early, but still.) Duke can't shoot, and teams that can't shoot don't win titles either, regardless of whether or not they have The Zion. And Florida State, so, they lost to exactly the kind of team they should lose to: one that has enough athletes to keep up with them, and that can actually run a refined system.
Louisville: I initially didn't but into the theory that Duke broke them mentally, mainly because they showed a lot of fight in the two games against us. In retrospect, the games against us were personal for Louisville but Duke did break them otherwise. The effort against Minnesota was embarrassing. Once it was apparent that the Gophers were going to play hard, the Cards rolled over and couldn't wait for the season to end.
Florida State: They were a Final Four caliber team that just happened to run into another one in the Sweet 16. We know all too well how that goes. I'll remember their run for how they eviscerated Murray State and Kabengele's emergence as a terrifying force. Here's to hoping he chases the NBA dollars this offseason.
Virginia Tech: The Hokies had a nice run that was a fitting end to their programs ascension under Buzz Williams. They benefitted from a soft draw and a partisan crowd against Duke. But no one will remember that two years from now. A tip of the cap to the Hokies but I wish their run was ended by someone other than a dreadful program like Duke.
North Carolina: Faced with a red hot shooting Auburn team that liked to run even more than the Heels, UNC had no answer but to pour gasoline on the fire. Not surprisingly, it blew up in their face. It was not one of their better efforts in recent history but this was a team whose parts never really seemed to fit together just right. When Coby White and Cam Johnson were brilliant, they won. They're losing a lot this offseason, so Roy better land Cole Anthony.
Duke: Fair or not, anything less than a national title was an epic failure. I delight in delivering K a big, fat F.
Syracuse: I honestly forgot they made the tournament. They were doomed by an inability to field a healthy squad at the end of the year (or to keep their players out of trouble). I was a bit bummed that they lost to Baylor. One, because I am not a fan of the Baylor program. But more importantly, I was intrigued to see Gonzaga deal with the Cuse zone.
Most of you were in agreement (FF Roundtable Part I) that the Purdue win was the best, so put the other three games we played into perspective.
HooAmp: I sort of did this above. Virginia has shown its versatility with this set of four victories, which should be an asset in Minneapolis. It overcame the UMBC ghosts and its own mental block against Gardner-Webb. The Oklahoma win was the most Virginia-like of the tourney. Oregon was a first-to-50 grinder that is probably the second-most common way Virginia wins games. And the Purdue matchup was a different animal, with the team taking a big punch, getting down early, withstanding an all-time individual performance, and again facing history in the face, this time coming through to make the Final Four, unlike in 2016. UVa still has yet to play a great all-around game, but it has shown all the weapons and flexibility that make this version of the Wahoos so dangerous.
Maize: If the Purdue game hadn't been what it was, the Oregon game would be the one going down in Hoo lore. It wasn't pretty; in fact it was everyone else's stereotypical idea of what a UVA game looks like. It was the dentist chair all over again. But it featured some truly clutch plays and some bad blood to boot. Ehab Amin would be a punching bag around Hoo message boards all week long if Purdue hadn't wiped his Duking around from our collective memory.
StLou: The 1 vs 8/9 game always seems to fade into the woodwork, doesn't it? 1v16 is either way more exciting than it ought to be, or it’s a fun romp that lets the benches empty and fans start celebrating early. Sweet 16 and beyond, everything's a battle. But that Oklahoma win deserves to be remembered, because the Hoos beat a Final Four coach with a veteran lineup while trying to refocus after an emotional win vs G-W. I know it's cliche, but it was as important as any other win this month, and helped set a tone for the team being focused on the opponent at hand, not looking a game ahead, not looking at ghosts behind.
What makes Coach Bennett tick?
Maize: Faith. It's an unfortunately controversial answer sometimes, but that's the very core of the man. There's a Tony quote on his Wikipedia page: "When you have a relationship with the Lord, there’s a peace and perspective you have. The world didn’t give it, and the world can’t take it away."
Peace and perspective. Does that describe his reaction to UMBC, or what? His faith gives him his perspective, and his perspective is what drives every ounce of his coaching work that doesn't have to do with X's and O's. He can say things like he's totally fine not going to the Final Four and yet have this incredible burning desire to go, and in anyone else that would seem like a bizarre contradiction and you'd probably doubt his motivation. In Tony it makes perfect sense.
HooAmp: I think we all knew this answer pretty much, but it has come into focus even more after the past couple of seasons. He is a man at peace, no matter what happens in the rest of his career, but his competitiveness burns fiercely to win a championship. He hit the reset button after UMBC, turned the situation completely around, turned a really bad event into a really good future, and put together his best season, thus far, at Virginia. He knows he will be OK even if he never wins a title. And yet, he is free to attack life and the game of basketball with his fullest effort and with fewer inhibitions and worries, now unshackled from many burdens that weighed him down in the past.
"If you learn to use it right, the adversity, it will buy you a ticket to a place you couldn't have gone any other way." He is living by this mantra right now.
This is a man and coach that is a huge problem for the rest of college basketball.
And as always, he's into molding young men that are great people in addition to being great students and basketball players. That part has always been there, but I think the attitude shift above is new.
StLou: The guy's remarkably transparent. The same drive that turned a kid playing at UW-Green Bay into an NBA point guard is the same drive that turned college basketball backwater Wazzu into a Sweet 16 team. The guy is just really driven to win at whatever he does. He's chosen to be a family man, a mentor, and a basketball coach (yes, there's overlap between the three), and he's set himself to be excellent at all 3. The 5 Pillars don't apply just to his program, they apply to how he lives his life in all regards.
Val: Bennett is supremely focused. HooAmo and Maize used different words to describe a person who knows himself and is comfortable in his own skin. Bennett wants to win because he wants to win and not because he’s looking for a win to validate himself to any of us. It gives him the confidence to play the game the way he wants to play, to recruit the players he wants, and to grow the young men in his charge. We may all want Jay Huff to play more, we all know he should play more, but Bennett has the confidence not to second guess himself.
Now, Bennett has been stunningly successful as a still-young coach, and sometimes supreme confidence can prove the undoing of the formerly successful. Any soccer fan will recognize the similarities between a young Arsene Wenger and Tony Bennett. I used to worry about a stubborn side to Bennett, and that it might prove his undoing, but he’s proved to be extremely flexible this season. I’m not worrying about it anymore.
As a public service to Wahoo Nation, what is the best story/link you've seen on the Hoos this week, or any other, that you'd like to share?
The New Zealand publication writing about Jack Salt was awesome, hilarious, and eye-opening all in one: Jack Salt
David Teel's piece on UMBC coach Ryan Odom rooting for the 'Hoos was interesting, unique, and further proof UVa lost to a "good" No. 16 seed: Ryan Odom
Joshua Needelman's story detailing Kyle Guy's mental health issues from last season, after UMBC, and even into this season, was deep and wonderful. Kyle Guy
Maize: I so agree with HooAmp’s selection on Salt. The US media has every opportunity to watch this program every day if it likes, and yet still doesn't always get it right. Some guy on the other side of the world does his homework and hits the bullseye.
So, my other choice, in case you haven't already seen it, how about "Guardians of the Final Four" on Reddit? Fitting since Reddit started in a UVA dorm room. And also spot on.
StLou: I'm a full fledged proponent of The Athletic, the subscription long-form sports journalism startup that is producing the kind of excellent content SI and ESPN used to. They had two pieces last week on Tony that I thought were fantastic.
The first wasn't JUST about Tony, but about Tony and Matt Painter, and their respective relationships with their mentors, Dick Bennett and Gene Keady. It's a touching article about two great programs, four great coaches, that adds some additional depth to Saturday's win: Tony Bennett and Matt Painter
The second is an article focused on Tony getting over the hump Saturday night, weaving Tony's narrative and UVA's over the last few years and decades into a compelling one-stop-shop story of what Saturday's win really meant to everyone involved: Tony Bennett
Val: Read this piece on Jay Huff: Jay Huff
And lastly, who’s cutting down the nets on Monday night?
StLou: So… I've steadfastly refused, this postseason, to ever think about any game other than the one in front of us. Last year I provided a Hoos Place scouting report on the K-State win in the 8/9 game because I thought I was safely assuming UVA would meet them. This year I didn't look at Ole Miss / Oklahoma before UVA had safely moved on to the 2nd round. I didn't scout Tennessee and Purdue before UVA took care of Oregon. So I'm sticking with it by not even thinking about Texas Tech and Michigan State unless Virginia first beats Auburn. Apologies, I know that makes me no fun on this one!
HooAmp: Obviously, I really hope Virginia completes the storybook ending. The Wahoos have the goods to it, now it is time to deliver.
If not them, then Michigan State is likely going to win Tom Izzo's second championship.
Maize: No comment on account of superstition and jinx-avoidance.
SeattleHoo and Val: Hoos, baby!