Tony Bennett called it a “painful gift.”
“If you use it the right way,” the Virginia coach said,” it can buy you ticket to a place you couldn’t have gone any other way.”
Bennett and his Cavaliers used it to acquire the ultimate redemption: from first No. 1 seed to fall to a 16 to first-time national champion.
The Retrievers of Maryland-Baltimore County are now a distant memory, a key step in Bennett and Virginia’s 10-year climb to the top of the heap in college basketball.
The final step, the Cavaliers’ 85-77 overtime win over Texas Tech in Monday night’s national title game in Minneapolis, didn’t unfold as many watchers predicted. The game was going to be “tough to watch” or “ugly” or “boring.”
It wasn’t any of those things.
While it was a matchup of elite defenses, the Cavaliers and Red Raiders also brought efficient offenses to Minneapolis.
Texas Tech, in particular, had difficulty getting untracked early. The Red Raiders trailed 17-7 halfway through the first half. But they scored 22 points over the last 9½ minutes before the break.
The teams surpassed the over-under, a paltry 118 — bet down from 119 or 120 at most places — with almost three minutes remaining in regulation.
Ultimately, Virginia’s offense was the difference. The Cavaliers’ big three of De’Andre Hunter, Ty Jerome and Final Four Most Outstanding Player Kyle Guy accounted for 67 of Virginia’s 85 points and made 10 of 20 3-pointers.
The 2019-2020 season was deemed to be top-heavy. And while, Texas Tech and Auburn made the Final Four instead of the likes of Duke, Gonzaga, North Carolina and Kentucky, Virginia spent much of the year atop the rankings of most advanced analytics sites.
KenPom’s final top five: 1. Virginia, 2. Gonzaga, 3. Michigan State, 4. Duke, 5. Texas Tech.
While the Cavaliers will likely lose Hunter, and possibly Jerome, and Red Raiders star Jarrett Culver is almost certainly NBA-bound, there are many moving parts to consider when trying to decide what October’s 2019-2020 preseason poll will look like.
Let’s speculate anyway on three teams that could take a big jump next season and three others that might be on the decline.
Arizona: While clouds are still swirling over the status of head coach Sean Miller, the Wildcats should be markedly better after a forgettable 17-15 campaign. Las Vegas product and former Duke recruit Chase Jeter will be eligible and sophomore point guard Brandon Williams will be a year older.
Add in one of the nation’s best recruiting classes, and Arizona can compete with Oregon and Washington in what will likely be a much-improved Pac-12.
Saint Mary’s: The Gaels’ season was subpar by the standards Randy Bennett has set in Moraga, Calif., until they pulled off a monster upset of Gonzaga and stole an NCAA Tournament bid from a bubble team.
Their two best players, senior guard Jordan Ford and 6-foot-8 junior Malik Fitts, will return and be joined by redshirt freshman point guard Kristers Zoriks, who’s recovering from ACL surgery.
The Gaels could compete for the WCC title, especially if the Zags are hard hit by early departures.
Memphis: Head coach Penny Hardaway’s first season was pretty decent, especially as the Tigers improved in January and February.
Memphis will be very young next season, but that youth will include 7-foot center James Wiseman, the No. 1 recruit in the nation. Hardaway is also pursuing 6-9 McDonald’s All-American Trendon Watford.
North Carolina: The Tar Heels will likely lose five of their six best players. Obviously, Roy Williams could conjure a top-15 team next season, but his recruiting class (No. 48, according to 247Sports) isn’t typical of Chapel Hill.
Snagging Cole Anthony, the nation’s top incoming freshman point guard could change that.
Tennessee*: Head coach Rick Barnes is staying put, hence the asterisk. If he convinces SEC Player of the Year Grant Williams and/or Jordan Bone to return — both have declared for the NBA Draft but left the open the option to stay in Knoxville — the Volunteers will be just fine. If not, Barnes will have to replace his top three scorers.
Gonzaga**: The Bulldogs get two asterisks, because they have more questions to be answered. Rui Hachimura is probably gone. Brandon Clarke will likely join him, but that’s not a sure thing. (If both return, the Zags will be a consensus No. 1 in late October.) Without them, Gonzaga will still be relevant — if not Top 5 — assuming Zach Norvell and Killian Tillie return.
Sophomore big man Filip Petrusev is a good candidate to make a strong step forward, and Mark Few has something he hasn’t had before: the No. 5 recruiting class in the country.
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