Virginia, dumped from the ACC Tournament early, regroups with extra day of preparation

uva basketballVirginia hadn’t planned to spend its Saturday back in Charlottesville. The plan was to return home Sunday and watch the Selection Show with the ACC Tournament trophy in hand.

Thanks to Florida State, though, the Cavaliers fell short of that goal — well short. The Seminoles bounced Virginia from the conference tournament Friday night with a 69-59 win.

“I wanted these guys so bad to get a chance at a title fight … but that didn’t happen,” Bennett said Friday night after the defeat. “It wasn’t that their effort was poor or anything, but now we’ll use it to the best of our advantage.”

So the Cavaliers decided to put their frustrations and their extra time to good use by having a Sunday practice Bennett described as “intense but not super long” — as is normal for this point in the season — shortly before the team settled in to find out its NCAA Tournament seeding fate.

“We said, ‘Let’s get excited to find out who and where we’re playing and grow from what we learned in the Florida State game and just try to become a little bit better team each day,’” Bennett said Sunday night. “That’s sort of the mindset. It really is.”

Virginia earned the No. 1 seed in the South Region, a spot that pits the Cavaliers against the Gardner Webb Bulldogs in Columbia, South Carolina.

“I think we knew we were gonna be a pretty high seed,” Bennett said. “I think we felt pretty good about that. Obviously you know everyone can play in this tournament, but to be a 1 seed, it means a heck of a season. It doesn’t guarantee you anything, as we know, but it certainly means a heck of a season, and now you get ready to go play against teams that are all playing well.”

The Cavaliers couldn’t specifically prepare for the Big South Tournament champions during their Sunday practice. But they’ll quickly begin their preparation for a sharpshooting team that earned road wins over two ACC teams, Wake Forest and Georgia Tech, earlier in the year.


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“Gardner Webb is very good,” Bennett said. “You have to win on the road and beat good teams in that league, which they did — teams that are playing very good basketball. … There’s certainly great respect for them. We’ll watch them now and dig in and see what they’re like, but I know they’re good, and I know you have to be ready to play.”

In a way, Bennett had to subscribe to the theory that his team can actually improve more following a loss than following a win. It’s a new position for the Virginia head coach.

“I’ve never been a proponent of that,” Bennett said. “You always want to go as far as you can. But I guess I have to be [a proponent] now.

“I think it makes you realize that if you’re always just pulling games out, you have to always know you’re susceptible to anybody that you’re playing if you don’t play at a high quality. … and that [loss] is a really strong reminder.”

Of course now the waiting is over. For teams with tournament aspirations, Selection Sunday serves as the most exciting day of the year to that point. The path to a championship is finally revealed. And that’s no different for Virginia, even though the Cavaliers are coming off a loss two days ago. Now the planning for and the exhilaration of pursuing a championship during three action-packed weeks begins. Virginia won’t take the floor until Friday, but the preparation is already well underway. In fact, it started as soon as the Cavaliers walked off the floor in Charlotte for a final time.

“You figure out areas that you feel like you need to tighten up and then prepare well knowing that you’re going into this tournament now — another one-and-done — and you want to be as ready as you can,” Bennett said.

Story by Zach Pereles

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Team of Destiny: Inside Virginia Basketball’s Run to the 2019 National Championship, by Jerry Ratcliffe and Chris Graham, is available for $25.

The book, with additional reporting by Zach Pereles, Scott Ratcliffe and Scott German, will take you from the aftermath of the stunning first-round loss to UMBC in 2018, and how coach Tony Bennett and his team used that loss as the source of strength, through to the ACC regular-season championship, the run to the Final Four, and the thrilling overtime win over Texas Tech to win the 2019 national title, the first in school history.


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