Virginia men’s basketball head coach Tony Bennett says he pays little attention to preseason rankings. Judging by the powerhouse performances of his players during the regular season, they don’t sweat them, either.
Despite not being ranked in the top 25 heading into 2017-18, the Cavaliers held the No. 2 ranking for much of the regular season, while also leading the nation in scoring defense. Even after their first ACC loss—against Virginia Tech—the Cavaliers started the next week at No. 1 in AP polling.
After a thrilling victory against fourth-ranked Duke in January—Bennett’s first road win against Duke and UVA’s first victory inside Cameron Indoor since 1995—the Cavaliers were 20-1 and 9-0 in the ACC, their best ACC start since the 1980-81 season.
Why such a dominant start? Bennett described his team after the Duke victory as “the whole being greater than the sum of the parts. … We have really good parts, and there’s talent, and I don’t think our players sometimes get enough credit for their talent. But there is a synergy, or a chemistry, that when they’re right, is making them even better.”
Whether it was Devon Hall’s finishes, Jack Salt’s rim protection, Isaiah Wilkins’ defense or Kyle Guy’s consistency, their blend of talent created a code that other teams couldn’t crack. “When we play together, we are a very scary team, and I love that,” says Guy (Col ’20). “We are very unselfish. On offense and on defense, we’re always trying to help each other.”
Occasionally, the Cavaliers found themselves scrambling. But they’d find their way back, whether through their famed pack-line defense leading a 22-2 run against Clemson or an offensive burst by DeAndre Hunter (Col ’20) to give UVA the edge after a slow first half against Wake Forest.
Still, despite their solid start, the postseason question remains: Can this year’s squad, led by captains Hall (Col ’16, Educ ’24), Salt (Col ’18) and Wilkins (Col ’18), finally make the Final Four? A Bennett-led team has never advanced past the Elite Eight, and Virginia hasn’t made it to the semifinals of March Madness since 1984. This year’s squad is devoid of a singular superstar.
But could that be an advantage?
“In the tournament, you’re probably going to mix in a bad game, and to win the title, you have to win that bad game,” says Mike Barber, Richmond Times-Dispatch staff writer covering UVA basketball, citing UVA’s lack of a “dominant one-on-one player who can score at any moment.” But, Barber added, “When you have that balanced scoring, that should be a plus, because if the other team takes away your best player, you still have two to three guys who can do it.”
That’s a versatility that Bennett also recognizes in this year’s squad—and that may be the ultimate key to advancing in the Big Dance. “Balance has been a strength … we’ve had games with four or five guys in double figures,” Bennett says. “I told our team, ‘Your way is to be good all the time. You don’t have to be great. Just be good all the time.’ ”