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Richmond Times Dispatch (Virginia)


CHARLOTTESVILLE — In the moments after Virginia's crushing first-round loss in the NCAA basketball tournament, sophomore guards Kyle Guy and Ty Jerome found each other on the court in Charlotte, N.C., and embraced.

"Me and Ty were bawling our eyes out," Guy said in the locker room afterward. "I hugged him and he said, 'We're going to get one before we're done.' Our intentions are to do that."

With three starters and the ACC's sixth man of the year returning, there will be, as there annually is, reason for optimism.

The Cavaliers have mastered losing with dignity and rededicating themselves each season with the same acumen they've mastered coach Tony Bennett's Pack-Line defense. And while the program and its fans wish they had less experience with disappointing March endings, Bennett's players are grateful for his grounded approach.

It didn't make becoming the first No. 1 seed to lose to a No. 16 seed any easier, and didn't take the sting out of U.Va.'s 20-point loss to unheralded University of Maryland-Baltimore County. But, from their coach, they had a blueprint for handling the pain in a way that neither minimized it nor blew it out of proportion.

"It isn't the end of the world," senior forward Isaiah Wilkins said that Friday in Charlotte, all the while wearing the crestfallen face of a man whose world had just ended. "The sun's going to come up tomorrow, even though it doesn't feel like it."

Moving forward, moving on to the next challenge, is always Bennett's message — after wins or losses. And since he's so consistent with it, it makes it easy to believe when he delivers it to his players at their lowest points.

"There's not really a whole lot that can prepare you for this kind of feeling," Guy said in the immediate aftermath of the loss. "He has instilled a lot of humility and unity throughout our team. So it will be easy for us to bounce back, but there's not really any answer to make you feel better in this situation."

Bennett's players saw his almost aw-shucks smiles after the Elite Eight loss to Syracuse in 2016, when the Cavaliers' faltered in the final nine minutes, frittering away a chance to reach the Final Four. Outsiders could have mistaken Bennett's demeanor for being aloof or disengaged.

His players and staff saw it for what it is and for what he is. He's the rare big-time college coach who understands that, in athletic competition, the outcome can be as unpredictable as it is final, and yet, can live with it.

"If you play this game and you step into the arena, this stuff can happen," Bennett, whose father coached Wisconsin to a Final Four, said. "And those who haven't been in the arena or in the competition, maybe they don't understand that. There's chances for wonderful things to happen, but when you're in the arena, stuff like this can happen, and all those who compete take that on. And so we'll accept it."

Accept it and move forward. Virginia loses three seniors — Wilkins, Devon Hall and Nigel Johnson — from this year's 31-3 team, a squad that won both the ACC's regular-season and tournament championships. During his final weekly radio show of the season, Bennett said the team is open to adding a graduate transfer, especially if it can find a perimeter player.

He said he's spent the days since the tournament loss recruiting and looking for a replacement for longtime assistant Ron Sanchez, who left to take the head coaching job at Charlotte.

"There's not a lot of downtime," Bennett said to show host Dave Koehn. "Once the season ends, you take a couple days and then, bang, you're into, 'How can we add someone and improve?'"

For now, Bennett said director of basketball operations Orlando Vandross has been promoted to temporary assistant status, so that he can be on the road recruiting. Bennett said he'd received "300 texts and hundreds of emails and phone calls" from candidates eager to join his staff.

Sanchez isn't the only person Bennett has to worry about replacing.

U.Va. will need someone to take Wilkins' spot as the back-end defensive stopper, joining the line of players such as Akil Mitchell, Darion Atkins and Anthony Gill. Junior center Jack Salt or sophomore forward Mamadi Diakite could develop into that type of player.

The Cavaliers will have to find a guard to fill the versatile role Hall played — both as a rugged scorer and physical defender. Freshman Marco Anthony could have the size and skill to do that.

Redshirt freshman De'Andre Hunter, whose season-ending wrist injury in the ACC tournament may have been as responsible as anything for U.Va.'s stunning early NCAA exit, should be back healthy and take another stop in what may end up being an NBA-bound career.

Virginia also brings back Guy — named a third-team All-American on Tuesday — and Jerome, meaning the pieces are in place for Bennett's club to be very good again.

Bennett told the radio show audience that when he returned to his Charlotte hotel room after the late-night loss to UMBC, his father was waiting for him.

"He said, 'I just want to make sure you're OK,' " Bennett said.

And of course, Bennett was. He was ready to move on to next season.

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March 29, 2018


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