CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Tony Bennett ripped a page from the Bobby Knight School of Basketball in reference to Virginia’s last-second loss to 14th-ranked VCU last Tuesday night.
Bennett’s 25th-ranked Cavaliers had the Rams exactly where they wanted them with UVa leading by seven with about seven minutes to play. John Paul Jones Arena was rockin’, and VCU had to be wondering if it could make a comeback.
What transpired down the stretch left Wahoo fans disappointed but encouraged about what lies ahead. There’s no shame in losing 59-56 to the nation’s No. 14 team on your home floor essentially on a buzzer-beater.
So, why are Virginia fans troubled with the loss? It’s not really the loss so much as how the Cavaliers lost.
In order to advance from being just another good team to a very good team, you have to win those games. Very good teams don’t lose their poise or their focus down the home stretch. Instead, their intensity, their killer instinct intensifies. If there was a lesson to be learned by UVa in that big-game atmosphere a few nights ago, that had to have been it: Never leave a wounded lion, or in that case, a wounded Ram.
Very good teams don’t miss 14 free throws and brick three of ‘em with the game on the line. Very good teams don’t force shots, kick the ball around and melt down under pressure at crunch time.
Back to Bobby Knight 101.
After the 59-56 loss to VCU, Bennett took it better than perhaps his supporters. Maybe it’s his NBA background that allows him to put a loss quickly behind him and move on. He knows there will be lots more basketball, bigger games.
Bennett just wanted his team to learn from their mistakes against VCU in this very early season matchup.
We’re guessing that much of his practice time since VCU’s Cheat-the-Reaper decision has been devoted to the mental side of the game, lessons on how to keep from coming apart at the seams.
“It’s a game for the mentally strong,” Bennett said after the game. “I've heard Coach Knight say it so many times, it’s a ‘neck-up’ game. You’ve got to have neck-up players. When they’re fatigued, they play with their mind. That’s where decisions, reactions, anticipations, knowing when to turn things down [are so important]. That’s what separates solid teams from really good teams.”
Right now, Virginia is a solid team but needs to become a really good one by the time ACC warfare rolls around in January. Of course, with games against Wisconsin and Tennessee coming up next month, Bennett’s Wahoos will be tested as well.
There’s outside pressure on this basketball team to succeed, to perhaps even exceed expectations because of the failures of UVa football. Cavalier fans are hungry for a winner and with most of the players returning from Bennett’s second of back-to-back 20-win teams, it’s only natural for Virginia fans to expect a lot.
A win over VCU would have fed the collective yearning for something positive. W’s over JMU, Davidson, Navy, Liberty, Hampton, etc., are nice, but that’s all they are.
Fans expect when their team has a game essentially won over a VCU or a Wisconsin or a Tennessee or an ACC team, that they finish the job.
So, perhaps that’s what Virginia needs to do this afternoon when the Cavaliers face Davidson at high noon in Charlotte’s Time-Warner Cable Arena, home of the NBA’s Charlotte Bobcats. The Cavs need to show some killer instinct. If they get Davidson down, they can’t afford to let up and fritter away a healthy lead. Instead, they need to pour it on like the ACC’s big boys, Duke and Carolina, often do. Show no mercy.
Davidson is 0-2 and coming off an 81-77 loss to Milwaukee (no, not the Bucks). The Wildcats, alma mater of former Virginia coach Terry Holland, were blown out by Duke in the opener (111-77) but rank 159th in the country in scoring, No. 276 in rebounding, and No. 208 in field goal percentage.
The Wildcats blew an 11-point, second-half lead to Milwaukee and lost. So, should UVa be fortunate enough to build a lead on Davidson, it should be a cardinal sin to play down to the level of the competition.
There’s no room for nice guys. As they say in Texas, “boys, this isn’t personal … this is bidness.”
Virginia needs to take care of bidness.
If the Cavaliers are to live up to the expectations as a top four team in the new ACC, with the likes of Blue Devils, Orangemen, Tar Heels, Irish and the rest, then they need to become confident that they belong. They need to be a little cocky.
Virginia needs swagger.
When the time comes today to let Davidson back into the game or to step on the Wildcats’ necks, the Cavaliers need to deliver the coup de’ grace.