College basketball is ripe for dramatic storylines. A single-elimination tournament filled with all kinds of schools from all over the country leads to some wild endings and inspiring narratives. But there may never be a story that matches the Virginia team that became national champions on Monday night.
Just one year after a disastrous upset loss in the first round of the tournament, Virginia returned to redeem itself.
The Cavaliers did more than that, earning the national title and cutting down the nets in Minneapolis. Here are five things that led to that moment for Tony Bennett and his team.
1. A resilient attitude in search of redemption
One year after Virginia became the first No. 1 seed to lose in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, the Cavaliers responded as well as they possibly could. The Hoos lost just three games all season long, won the ACC regular season, and won the national championship on Monday night.
After the letdown of last season, the mental marathon the returning Virginia players and coaches went through was daunting. The Cavaliers were a punching bag and laugh line all season, constantly reminded of a single game failure last year. People questioned Tony Bennett’s coaching ability and the individual talents of every key Virginia player.
In order for this team to overcome those questions, they had to exhibit an incredible amount of resiliency. In just their last three games, the Hoos had to hit a shot in the final seconds to survive Purdue , needed last-second miracle moments from Kyle Guy to sneak past Auburn, and hit a late dagger to send the game to overtime on Monday, where they ultimately prevailed.
This team faced so many hurdles and answered every one of them.
2. Tony Bennett’s system proved successful
Many used last year’s disaster to slander Tony Bennett’s work as both an in-game coach and as a strategist at the helm of a major college basketball program. Like his father Dick Bennett at Wisconsin years ago, Tony Bennett preaches patience, slow pace, and defensive fundamentals. For the casual basketball fan, this can lead to games that feel slow, boring, and unimpressive.
To those fans and pundits, Bennett’s system became the easy scapegoat for the upset loss to UMBC. Virginia does things differently, so people blamed those differences for their historic stumble.
If that’s the case, then Bennett and his system deserve praise when Virginia succeeds. After losing only six games in two years, capping things off with a national title, Bennett deserves endless recognition and admiration. In an era where most basketball around the world is getting faster, Bennett and his team forced everyone to play at their pace and they dominated teams who failed to adjust.
3. De’Andre Hunter dominated on both ends
Facing fellow future NBA lottery pick Jarrett Culver, De’Andre Hunter faced more pressure in this game than any of his Virginia teammates. All tournament long, Hunter struggled with his jump shot and ceased to be Virginia’s primary offensive option. Against Purdue, he spent long stretches of crunch time on the bench.
Monday night, Hunter reminded everyone why he was named first team All-ACC and will be a top-10 pick in June’s NBA Draft.
The sophomore swingman scored a career high in the national championship game, dropping 27 points, including the biggest bucket of the game. With the Hoos down three late in regulation, Hunter hit a catch-and-shoot triple to tie the game.
Hunter’s dominance of the game wasn’t just limited to his scoring. He grabbed seven rebounds and played elite defense for the entire game. Jarrett Culver, draped by Hunter for most of the game, managed just 5-22 from the field.
Hunter’s ability to carry his team on both ends of the court will be remembered as an all-time great championship performance.
4. Kyle Guy and Ty Jerome sparked Virginia’s offense
All season long, Kyle Guy and Ty Jerome paced Virginia offensively. Those two guards are among the best jump shooters in America, but developed their games this season, with each adding more playmaking ability.
Jerome has always had point-guard DNA in his system, yet really showcased his court vision this season. He added more than a full assist per game this season, and on Monday night his passing prowess was on display. Jerome dished out nine assists to go with his 16 points and eight rebounds. His ability to locate open teammates or sink a floater as he navigates the paint opens up so much for Virginia.
Guy, meanwhile, was more of a stand-still shooter in the past. This season, he added so much more to his offensive arsenal. Not only could he make a 3-pointer with defenders in his face, but Guy has clearly demonstrated the ability to score off a pump fake or backdoor cut. He used every trick in his bag Monday to score 24 points on just 15 field goal attempts.
5. Mamadi Diakite elevated his play
Virginia’s lineup was buoyed by strong play by its guards and wings all year long, with a lack of a true presence in the paint. All of the Virginia big men seemingly had their moments, but none really staked their claim as a true gamechanger for the Hoos.
Starting with the first round of tournament play, Mamadi Diakite changed that. The junior center elevated his play and Tony Bennett responded by giving Diakite more playing time and more responsibility.
This season, Diakite averaged 7.4 points, 4.4 rebounds, and 1.6 blocks in just under 22 minutes per game. In six tournament games, he contributed 10.5 points, 8.2 rebounds, and 2.7 blocks in more than 34 minutes per game. Without his rim protection and rebounding in the paint, this Virginia team would not have won six games through the tourney.