Tony Bennett is a stone-cold-blooded SOB.
Oh, don't get me wrong. The humble and gracious persona you see in the interviews isn't a persona at all - that's Tony, as genuine as it gets. But so is the Tony that ordered two college sophomores, still inexperienced and not used to this sort of thing, to face interrogation while already at the lowest point their lives had ever handed them.
Tony told us he had two reasons for making Ty Jerome and Kyle Guy answer media questions after the loss to UMBC. One was to "honor the seniors" - in other words, Devon Hall's and Isaiah Wilkins's seniority and captaincy might ordinarily have put them on the dais to answer routine questions after a routine win, but Tony also thought it proper that it instead meant they get spared the embarrassment in this special case.
The other, he did not go into in detail, instead merely nodding in that direction in a roundabout way. His meaning was not hard to take, though: "You two are the leaders of this team next season and this very humiliating experience is going to be the foundation of your motivation." After his players were repeatedly punched in the face by the UMBC Retrievers, Tony Bennett did it one more time with an iron glove. And because it's Tony Bennett, the Miss Manners of the coaching profession, the iron glove was wrapped in velvet, and not an ounce of resentment showed forth.
So it was that Guy and Jerome sat behind that table, and if you ever claim to have seen someone who looked more like they wanted to crawl into a hole than these two, I'll call you a liar. Ty Jerome tried to hide behind the microphone. Kyle Guy kept wiping his eyes, and made heavy use of his water cup to steady his voice. And for six excruciating minutes, they followed the lead of their coach, stared this new enemy in the face, and did the job they'd been called on to do. Instead of one-word grunts, they delivered raw honesty. The penultimate question - an utterly inane query about whether the players knew the 1-16 upset had never happened before, as if their expressions and mien had not answered that question ever since the buzzer - was answered with the snark it deserved, but it was answered honestly all the same.
When Guy and Jerome were excused, Tony was by himself, and won the rest of the press conference by being Tony. Among other perspective-laden observations, he acknowledged it was his job to get his team to bounce back, and wondered aloud how he might do it. But it's clear he already had some idea, because he'd already laid the seeds by dragging Ty and Kyle up there in the first place. There would be no running from this. Their scarlet letter would go right on the front where they would see it when they looked in the mirror. Rafiki gave Simba a choice: "The past can hurt. But the way I see it, you can either run from it, or learn from it." Tony gave his team no such choice, because he knew the world would not, either.
And so basketball - the practices, the workouts, the games - became, not an escape, but a purpose. Or a bigger one than usual, anyway. Left with no other option, the team followed the example set at that press conference and embraced their new identity. When Maryland fans chanted "UMBC" at them, Jerome practically encouraged others to do the same. When Duke fans raised money to bring K.J. Maura to Cameron, Guy told UVA fans to help make it happen. Which they did. And it would've gone down if UMBC's coach Ryan Odom had not lobbied Mike Krzyzewski to kibosh it. (Which, while I fully appreciated Odom's efforts and motivations, was a shame. Maura's presence, as likely as not, could well have been the inspiration needed to hit just a couple more shots and bring home the win. No doubt Guy had that in mind, too.)
And in owning their story, they dispensed with a whole lot of tropes and cliches, and wrote their own. One in particular: the athlete who claims he and his team don't pay attention to what the media writes. That's almost always a fib. These guys dispensed with that; after all, if you're that open about embracing your scars, you can't then claim that you're not paying attention to what people write about how and why you got them. Honesty was the policy this time around - honesty about their mindset (think: Kyle Guy's Facebook posts on his battles with anxiety), and honesty about their opinions. Jerome has been letting everyone know they've been taking names - Pat Forde, Stephen A. Smith, Mike Francesa - and if we'd had a crystal ball at the time, we'd have seen the hint with his answer to that brilliant 1-16 question from Doug Doughty. "We're all aware of it. Thank you for bringing that up again, you know.....I was aware of it." Because that was it. That was the moment the first protective pieces of armor were forged. The sarcastic thank-you and exasperated eye roll; more than a fleeting annoyance, this was their first brush with a world that was not going to go away about this.
After that press conference, after the summer of soul-searching and life-coaching, after learning to wear their worst experience like armor, how could anyone be surprised that the Hoos were so well-equipped for a rollercoaster tournament run? "They" said it was lucky, but every champion is lucky. Nobody ever won a championship being unlucky. Given a handful of breaks, these Hoos capitalized on every single one. Not every shot went down, but every shot that needed to did - and cleanly. Everyone took turns hitting badly-needed shots, game after game, which makes it only fitting that in the final five minutes of the tournament, five different UVA players took free throws and none missed. They'd have hit fifty in a row if they had to.
And so followed another press conference, with Ty and Kyle joined this time by the other star of the show, De'Andre Hunter. (Hunter as well might have been behind a microphone a year ago, but it is bad form to have someone who could only watch talk about how his teammates screwed up.) Having been honest about their feelings all year, this time the players tried to put on an even-keeled show and largely failed, alternating steady-voiced answers with giggles and jabs at each other. An overarching theme prevailed: "It doesn't feel real."
It probably started to, not long after, once the questions wrapped up and the chance arrived to stop for a minute and look back. Tony made his guys - and himself - face up to reality every single day of the past year-plus. That mindset will let them savor their championship all the more in the coming months and years. It started - after a sickening prologue - by facing questions. It ended - with a joyous epilogue - by facing more questions. Between the questions lies the greatest story in this tournament's very storied history.