SAN ANTONIO –– The No. 1 casualty of the NCAA tournament sat next to his new Coach of the Year award Thursday, and tried to put his fate in some perspective.
“It was a heck of season,” Tony Bennett began. “With a heck of a loss at the end.”
Tony Bennett of Virginia. You remember what happened.
As of Thursday, it had been 13 days since Bennett and his team went careening into the history book. It’s hard to be really shocked in March, but all of college basketball gasped when UMBC took down the top-ranked ranked Cavaliers – by 20 confounding points. The 74-54 score will always be there. So will the infamy of being the first No. 1 seed to ever lose to a No. 16 seed. Virginia and Bennett have that tag, and they have it forever.
And yet, he could smile Thursday, as the Associated Press named him coach of the year. What a 31-3 record earned, one awful night in Charlotte could not put asunder.
2018 AP Coach of the Year - Virginia's Tony Bennett!— NCAA March Madness (@marchmadness) March 29, 2018
Congrats on a great season, Coach! pic.twitter.com/dV2Bp8bOt5
But the past fortnight hasn’t been easy. It couldn’t have been easy.
“I got a great text from one of my players, Ty Jerome,” Bennett said. “And he said, 'Coach, this is now part of our story, and we get to respond to it the way we want. And it will be day-to-day, where we can make the right steps.’
“We shared that with our team the other day. Everybody says, you know, you’ll be better because of the loss. And the fact of the matter is, the only way you’re better after a tough loss is if you respond to it the right way. If you do nothing with it and just say, ah, this was tough, then nothing’s going to happen.”
Time has allowed such reasoned thinking. But the immediate aftermath was ugly. There were even threats against the team on social media. “I think sports is wonderful, and it’s a big deal. And at times, I think things can get blown out of proportion,” Bennett said. “And it’s the times we live in and the society we live in, but I think that’s more the exception than the norm.”
Bennett took some time to decompress after the loss, before he faced the painful question. What happened? Let’s give him the floor and let him explain a post-upset process that no college basketball coach in history has ever had to face.
“I waited. I think maybe I watched the second day, the third day. I said, 'I’m going to watch the game tape to get a feel for it.’ But that’s where you realize what matters. You’re with your family. There’s an emptiness. Whenever the season ends, you’re used to showing up at 3 o’clock for practice. But when it ends as dramatically as ours did, there’s the sting of the loss, and the tournament’s going on, and you’ve got to make the decision.
Virginia’s Tony Bennett picks up the AP coach of the year hardware. pic.twitter.com/jZOa4k6dsi— Brian Hamilton (@_Brian_Hamilton) March 29, 2018
“Am I going to watch the NCAA tournament? Am I going to keep the volume down and watch it? But I watched the games. I love the NCAA tournament, and I hate the NCAA tournament. In the immediate time, there’s part of that where you’re feeling the sting. But it causes you to do a little soul searching and say, 'Ok, what’s my identity? What really matters?’
“And the sun did come up the next day. You think about yourself as a coach to be a protector of your players and the people around you, and that’s where your thoughts go to.”
He made it through the whole game film. Watched it all. Watched UMBC shred Virginia’s renowned defense in the second half. Watched the lead rapidly grow, and his the team — the juggernaut that dominated the ACC all winter — was powerless to stop it. It was a tidal wave of an upset the likes of which the NCAA tournament had never seen.
They went 31-2 (20-1) in the ACC before the tournament, one game doesn’t define a season. Coach Bennett 100% deserves this, and we were honored by his kind words about us. #Class https://t.co/ErFdbCwRie— UMBC Athletics (@UMBCAthletics) March 29, 2018
Regrets? Second guesses?
“We hadn’t been down that much all season. And so then we had to work on some traps, which we work on a little bit in practice, and we weren’t very effective with it. But they were hitting tough shots. And then I think late in the second half when we were down, that’s when you really feel the pressure of that game, and that’s when maybe we took some shots that were ill-advised.
“We were pretty successful in how we played all year and it’s not like we’re all of a sudden going to throw a different kind of team or different guys out there. But absolutely, there are little things I saw as I look back, little adjustments here and there.”
He’s gotten messages of support from other coaches. They can understand what this has been like. Also from the Virginia community. And his team. “When you bring your hands in and you break after every practice and every game, and you say, `One, two, three, family,’ being part of the family is going through great joy and tough sorrows, and that’s been part of it.”
He’ll be fine. He could even joke about the award Thursday. “I thought it was for the NCAA tournament coach of the year,” he said. And he said he knows now his players will be OK. “Young people are pretty resilient.”
Who wants to feel bad about a season with 31 victories and a conference championship, and a team that did so much? “The fair debate,” Bennett called it. “Is it just about the NCAA tournament?’’
"Life on the wrong side of history is challenging, and that's Virginia’s plight now." Said the coach – and tournament victim – of the year, “We get to choose how we respond. And that’s where it’s at.”