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After losing to UMBC, the Virginia Cavaliers raised their expectations. That’s what they hope makes this postseason different

uva basketballThe Virginia Cavaliers were supposed to still be playing.

At least, that’s what their selection as the NCAA Tournament’s No. 1 overall seed and their ACC regular-season and tournament championships said. Virginia basketball was supposed to be in San Antonio, vying for its first ever national championship in its first Final Four since 1984. Instead, the Cavaliers were at home in Charlottesville, days removed from being on the wrong end of the biggest upset in college basketball history.

They could have wallowed in self-pity — and there were, perhaps, moments when they did. There’s a well-known picture of Kyle Guy covering his face, sobbing into his jersey with injured teammate De’Andre Hunter putting an arm around him, his other arm covered by a cast on his left forearm, broken days earlier.

The Cavaliers were supposed to have spent late March and early April winning games and, eventually, raising a banner. Instead, they spent two weeks away from the game. And then, when they reconvened, they decided to raise something else: their expectations of themselves.

“Everyone had that mindset coming into the year,” Ty Jerome said Tuesday at John Paul Jones Arena ahead of the team’s departure for the ACC tournament in Charlotte. “From summer workouts — from spring workouts, actually… We took two weeks off, and we got right back to it from our weight room workouts to our on-court workouts, from Day 1, it was just a different intensity.”

It was hard to know how to deal with the most ignominious loss in sports. The Cavaliers’ entire program — from the players’ abilities to the coaches’ system to the very culture itself — came under fire.

But that same culture that was scrutinized also allowed the Cavaliers to respond in the manner they have — with resilience and vigor.

“As soon as we lost, I was like, ‘All right, they’re gonna hold us to an even higher standard,’” Guy said.

Tony Bennett received praise for the way he handled the immediate aftermath of the loss. But if Virginia truly wanted to recover from what was, in the moment, a devastating defeat, it needed to come to terms with it and then improve because of it.

“I think with just how our season ended last year, we needed to grow and learn from it, which we have,” Austin Katstra said. “We’ve moved on past that but carry the lessons we’ve learned from it.”

Bennett says he’s enjoyed coaching every team he has led, each for different reasons.

Of course, when you win at the rate Bennett has in Charlottesville, building a program from cellar-dweller to national powerhouse, there’s no shortage of fun times. Hanging banners and lifting trophies will never get old.

This year’s bunch, though, has been different — not necessarily a greater joy to coach than others, but certainly special in a unique way.

“I have fun every year with my team, but this has been a unique group, and we try to really be united more,” Bennett said. “There’s a better clarity, because, maybe, of what we’ve been through — success-wise, and then obviously last year. Those things kind of bond you together.”

That’s part of why Virginia raised expectations after the worst loss imaginable, rather than letting one game carry over. Even after losing ACC Defensive Player of the Year Isaiah Wilkins and All-ACC honoree Devon Hall, the Cavaliers still had the leadership in place to allow themselves to set a new course. They could fall off and let last year’s ACC regular-season and tournament championships represent the peak of Virginia basketball, or they could renew their internal fortitude and aim for bigger and better things.

“That was one of the reasons I came back,” Hunter said. “I knew we had a lot more to prove, and I knew that this team could do — I’m not gonna say much better things than last year — but we could go a lot farther than we did last year.”

Perhaps Virginia would be just as good this year had the Cavaliers not become the first No. 1 seed to lose to a No. 16 seed. That the Cavaliers are this good after they did lose in that manner, though, speaks volumes.

“All those guys, internally, they wanted to be the best they could be,” Bennett said. “They wanted to work in the offseason. They wanted to grow and learn and be as ready as they can. So when you have a leader like Ty and guys that are driven like De’Andre and Kyle and Jack (Salt), and go down the list, that allows [you] to be able to push them hard but also to enjoy them. … The internal, intrinsic motivation is strong from Ty and those guys.”

Even the players new to the program realized that the returnees higher-than-ever expectations of themselves.

“It started before I got here, just watching them, just knowing that they’re a winning program,” Kihei Clark said. “Coming in, I knew that winning was a big part of this group and the culture here.”

The attitude in Charlottesville on Tuesday was an upbeat one. Players readily answered a variety of questions for over 20 minutes before preparing to leave for Charlotte. In tune with the relaxed atmosphere, several players sported Crocs — the infamous clog shoe that reached peak popularity in the mid-2000s — led by Clark’s brand-new tie-dye version.

“It’s cozy living,” Marco Anthony, a fellow Crocs wearer, said. “He’s just got the freshest ones right now. They just came in his size. He’s got small feet.”

Of course, Tuesday’s media availability is likely the last time the team will be this loose and open until its season ends, whenever that end happens to come. And the players know that. A team doesn’t simply win 28 games and the ACC regular season without knowing that. The Cavaliers will be in Charlotte by Tuesday night, gameplan and scout Wednesday and play Thursday.

Throughout the season, the Cavaliers have shown the ability to buckle down and play at the highest level when they needed to. Two days after losing to Duke at home, the Cavaliers went down to Chapel Hill and defeated North Carolina — “a testament to who we are as a team,” Katstra said. They’ve shown the ability to win in tournament settings by capturing the Battle 4 Atlantis with three wins in three days and won on several Saturday-Monday turnaround, such as the Duke-UNC one Katstra mentioned. Now, though, they’ll face the toughest stretch of the season.

It’s the one they haven’t yet mastered, the one that provides them with the grandest stage to prove this year’s team isn’t last year’s team — in play or in mindset. March is truly a month of madness in the postseason. Virginia’s players know that firsthand. This year, they’ll embrace it.

As Jerome asked rhetorically Tuesday, “Why would I shy away from the moment when it’s finally here?”

Story by Zach Pereles

Augusta Free Press coverage of the 2019 ACC Tournament is presented by Bear Creek. Serving Waynesboro, Charlottesville, Harrisonburg and surrounding communities, Bear Creek provides a hassle-free process to help homeowners create outdoor living spaces that bring people together. Schedule a consultation at


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