Tom Sorensen

Virginia will be a top seed. Can Tony Bennett’s Cavaliers finally conquer the NCAA?

One skill that Virginia head coach Tony Bennett, right, has mastered is convincing his players to play Bennett basketball.
One skill that Virginia head coach Tony Bennett, right, has mastered is convincing his players to play Bennett basketball. AP

No matter what happens in the ACC men's basketball tournament this week, Virginia will be a No. 1 seed in the NCAA men’s tournament, and likely the No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.

But then what?

The Cavaliers were seeded No. 1 in 2014 and 2016, No. 2 in 2015 and No. 5 in 2017.

In 2014, they lost to Michigan State in the regional semifinal. In 2016, they lost to Syracuse in the regional final. In 2017, they lost in the second round.

The only thing that Virginia coach Tony Bennett, 48, has failed to do in nine seasons at Virginia is make a mark in the NCAA tournament.

Many of you knew Bennett before he was a coach. He played three seasons for the Charlotte Hornets, although he was injured for almost all of his third. He was a point guard – aren’t all coaches? – and backed up Muggsy Bogues from 1992-95.

At a playoff game in Chicago, security didn’t believe that Bennett played in the NBA. I had my media credential and had to vouch for him. The Bulls played defense before the game even began.

I was happy to do it. Bennett was a gracious guy then, and based on every conversation we’ve had since he moved to Virginia, he still is.

Despite his great regular season success, he doesn’t recruit great players. McDonald’s all-Americans rarely go there.

Bennett’s gift is convincing the players he does recruit to play Bennett basketball. Ever been to a party that's so crowded you can't move? That's how the Cavaliers play defense. Everywhere you go, there they are. Nobody in the NCAA tournament will play better defense or at a slower pace.

Do you know how convincing Bennett has to be to entice a player to play grinding offense? Watch a pickup game. Players want to run. Watch the NBA. Players want to run. Watch North Carolina. Players want to run.

TonyBennettHornetsFile
Virginia coach Tony Bennett played three seasons for the Charlotte Hornets. He was a point guard – aren’t all coaches? – and backed up Muggsy Bogues from 1992-95. Charlotte Observer Staff File Photo

Bennett tells recruits they will not run, unless it’s from him after playing poor defense.

They’ve held 13 teams below 50 points this season, among them NCAA tournament teams North Carolina and Clemson.

Can a team that specializes in defense go deep into the tournament? It hasn’t – yet.

But this team might be Bennett’s best, at least defensively. It scrambles and swarms and yields so little inside. The Cavaliers beat Duke at Duke. They have the potential to go to the Final Four.

In the NFL, the axiom, which no longer is true, is that you can win with defense. Can you win with defense in the NCAA tournament? Next week, we’ll start to find out.

Tom Sorensen is a retired Charlotte Observer columnist. Sign up for his newsletter, and follow him on Twitter: @tomsorensen

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