After beating then-#4 Syracuse by 19 points to clinch the ACC regular season title, an emotional Tony Bennett walked off the court at JPJ for the last time this season. Asked what made this Wahoo squad so special, he didn't hesitate: "They're humble." And why wouldn't they be? The team is a composed of well-raised, well-coached kids. Bennett preaches "humility" as one of the program's pillars. And, most of all, the group has shared experiences that left them no choice but to be humble...as has been discussed so much down the stretch, it all goes back to The Tennessee Turnaround.
From the moment the buzzer sounded on last year's NIT year, the 2013-2014 Virginia Cavaliers season received sky-high expectations. After all, Coach Bennett returned two all-ACC players in Joe Harris and Akil Mitchell, brought in two talented freshman, London Perrantes and Devon Hall, and also got access to Malcolm Brogdon and Anthony Gill, who had taken redshirt years. The only losses were Jontel Evans, a leader and an elite-defender who posed no threat on offense, as well as transfers Paul Jesperson and Taylor Barnette. Fans believed this was a team that should be ranked all season, compete at the top of the conference (not win it, that would be ridiculous), and receive a high NCAA seed. Even the media was on board, picking UVA to finish 4th in the ACC and ranking them 24th in the AP preseason poll.
However, as the season tipped off and the calendar turned toward winter, things weren't going according to plan. The season didn't qualify as a disaster - after all, the Hoos had a solid win over SMU and had avoided the bad losses that had plagued them in the prior year. But it wasn't the start that Wahoo fans had expected. After starting off the year with a win over JMU, the Hoos fell at home to VCU, blowing a late lead and allowing a Treveon Graham buzzer-beater. Wisconsin came to JPJ and held the team to just 38 points. Things took a turn for the worse when Wisconsin-Green Bay gave Coach Bennett a rude welcome to his old stomping grounds, handing the team a 75-72 defeat.
Still, Virginia had a chance to finish out-of-conference play on a positive note by picking up a solid road win over Tennessee on December 30th. To say the team failed to do is an understatement. The Volunteers shot the lights out, going 11-18 from three-point land to finish with an outrageous 1.40 points per possession. Ten minutes into the game, they led by 17. At halftime, it was 22 (after a late UVA run), and twenty minutes later, the Hoos went home 87-52 losers.
As the Hoos walked off the court, a 16-2 regular season seemed laughable. "We got out-toughed, out-played, out-worked. Out-everythinged," a devastated Joe Harris said after the game, calling the loss "embarrassing." Even Tony Bennett was baffled; the team had practiced well all week, he insisted, and coming out like that was a shock.
We all know what happened next. Joe Harris showed up at Tony Bennett's house, determined that his senior year not end in disappointment. They talked for four hours, discussing their vision for the season, the things that Harris had worked so hard for, and what had to be changed. A week later, the Hoos traveled to Tallahassee and shocked the Noles, despite an early Injury to Harris. They came home and dominated Wake Forest, then pulled off another crushing road win, beating NC State by 31 points. It took Duke a lucky bounce on a late Sulaimon three to overcome UVA's late comeback attempt at Cameron. But the Hoos were unfazed, reeling of 13 straight games, the last of which clinched the team's first out-right title in 33 years.
Two weeks later, the magical run continued, as the Hoos broke their streak of futility in the ACC Tournament with 3 victories in Greensboro, including a win over Duke to be crowned ACC Champions. With the win, Virginia also earned the #1 seed in the East Region. After the struggles during the out-of-conference, who would've believed that this would be the scene on Selection Sunday:
But what changed after Joe Harris and Tony Bennett's conversation? How did the Tennessee loss end up shaping the rest of the team's season? In the out-of-conference, UVA looked like a bunch of players, a talented bunch, that couldn't figure out how to play together. Tony Bennett struggled to find a rotation that would work, as he tried out different starting lineups and deep substitutions to no avail.
The team's biggest issue was turnovers, probably evidence of what fans deemed a "lack of chemistry." That's the nice way of saying that players didn't know when to shoot, when to differ to others, (and when to put their hands out to receive a pass). Before the Tennessee game, the Hoos turned the ball over on 20.5% of possessions, a number that put the team close to the bottom 10% of the NCAA. During ACC play, against harder competition, the team was second in the conference, turning the ball over on 13.9% of possessions. Even in a slow, 60-possession game, reducing turnovers by 6.6% translates to about 4 extra turnover-less possessions and about 5 extra points on offense (assuming the league average scoring on a turnover-less possession). It also helped the defense, since most of UVA's mistakes were of the live-ball variety.
The defense, which had been great, ranking in the top-15 in KenPom's adjusted efficiency rankings, became elite, finishing the regular season at #3. The offense, which had spent time ranked worse than 150th, climbed all the way up to the top 25, and was second in efficiency, after Duke, in conference play. Players finally settled into roles they were comfortable in. Malcolm Brogdon scored in double-digits in 6 of 13 non-conference games, including a scoreless outing in Knoxville. He would score go on to score between 10 and 19 points each of the 18 ACC games, and was the only player in the conference to put up double-figures every game. He found his three-point shot, going 13 for 23 during a 7-game midseason stretch. Joe Harris maturely accepted a lower role on the team, absorbing heavy defensive attention and setting up his teammates. And Akil Mitchell, whose season had been spiraling into oblivion offensively, suddenly became ultra-efficient and aggressive as ever.
The team embraced its balance and depth. UVA is the only team in the ACC that has no player who uses 24% or more of offensive possessions. Rather, when they're on the court, Justin Anderson, Mike Tobey, Malcolm Brogdon, Joe Harris, Anthony Gill, and Darion Atkins each use between 20.0 and 23.9% of possessions (Akil Mitchell trails just behind at 18%). Until the Tennessee game, Virginia had somehow turned its depth into a burden. After the loss, it was suddenly the team's greatest strength. When Joe Harris went down early in the ACC-opener against Florida State, 4 other players scored between 11 and 16 points to make up his scoring. Conference opponents couldn't stop the ever-consistent Brogdon from getting his, and couldn't focus on anybody else either; shutting down one player meant anyone else could go off on any given night.
Fans often extol the power of a big loss as a "wake-up call," and I rarely ever buy it. But there's no denying the effectiveness of The Tennessee Turnaround, an occasion so momentous that it even earned capitalization. The team didn't need a "wake-up" to get them to expend effort; the Hoos were talented individuals who were practicing hard and playing hard. Rather, they needed it as a refresher on the importance of humility; they didn't just need to play hard, but to play like a team (and preferably one with a chip on their shoulders). By turning a "meh" start into a near-disaster, players were forced to look inside themselves and re-think their roles. And, in interviews after the ACC title win, it was evident that the refresher they received had stayed with them:
Malcolm Brogdon said the team lives their lives by Tony Bennett’s Five Pillars: "Humility…and the other four." (He eventually named 4-5)— Lauren Brownlow (@lebrownlow) March 16, 2014
When commentators have used early Virginia losses to discount their NCAA tourney hopes, they are ignoring the fact that this season has been anything but static. There was pre-Tennessee UVA, the one that couldn't get it together because they lacked chemistry. And now there's post-Tennessee UVA, the one that is admired, by opposing coaches and by national media, for how well they "know who they are" and play as a team.
Would UVA have figured things out and won the ACC title without getting pummeled at Tennessee? Maybe (and we could all have averted a lot of panic around New Years). Even so, 35-point loss and all, you won't find a Wahoo ready to take that one back, as UVA looks to convert a wildly successful ACC regular season and conference tournament into more post-season success.
In case you needed a more visual narrative of the stark difference between the pre-Tennessee and post-Tennessee Hoos, this excellent highlight reel should do.