Speaking to the news media Saturday, Virginia coach Tony Bennett put a sharp point on the Atlantic Coast Conference’s dominance in the NCAA Tournament over the past two seasons.
“This isn’t a tiptoe league,” Bennett said. “It’s a big-boy league.”
Duke won the national championship last year, and two other ACC teams – Syracuse and North Carolina – will make up half of this year’s Final Four.
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That kind of ACC dominance may become the norm for the next few seasons. With a kaleidoscope of talent – from elite recruits to juniors, seniors and postgraduates, the ACC has served notice that it is built for the short and long run.
“There’s so many kinds of systems and styles and the talent and the depth,” Bennett said of the conference. “It battle-tests you. It can break you a little bit at times, but you see a lot, and it does toughen you up.”
Virginia was one of four ACC teams competing for the last two Final Four spots. But this year, the conference also became the first league to place six teams in the round of 16, and the first in NCAA Tournament history to have at least five in the final 16 in consecutive years.
Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim, whose program was a pillar of the Big East and is no stranger to the NCAA Tournament, said that with a more favorable approach to scheduling – for example, by not having lower-ranked ACC programs routinely play the conference’s top teams twice a season – the ACC might have put 10 teams in the tournament.
At this rate, would anyone really be surprised if one year soon it put together the first single-conference Final Four?
Bennett was 16 in 1985, when the old Big East nearly accomplished that feat by sending three teams – St. John’s, Georgetown and Villanova – to the Final Four. The final was a classic, with Villanova improbably edging Georgetown.
Villanova is back in the Final Four this year, but the Big East is in rebuilding mode after being decimated by the defections of several members during the recent wave of football-driven realignment. Two former Big East members – Syracuse and Notre Dame – played under the ACC flag on Sunday.
That was more than symbolic. A large part of the ACC’s success has been the result of an infusion of new blood from the old Big East: Boston College, Pittsburgh, Louisville, Notre Dame and Syracuse have joined in recent years. Another onetime Big East pillar, Connecticut, probably wishes it could join them.
(Louisville could have been the ACC’s eighth team in the tournament had it not imposed a postseason ban on itself.)
I asked Boeheim, who was the Syracuse coach in 1985, whether this ACC is as strong the Big East was that year.
“You know, they want me to say that, but you know I can’t say that,” he said, smiling. “I was in that league 30 years. If I’m in this league 30 years, then I might say that.”
What’s encouraging about the approach to building programs at several ACC universities – especially Virginia – is an emphasis on recruiting players who will remain in the program for three to four seasons. I care less about the basketball than I do about ending the obscene practice of having players on campus for a total of five months.
Over the last seven years, Bennett has become a much-needed antidote to the one-and-done model espoused by John Calipari and Kentucky. Bennett preaches building upon pillars, recruiting players just below the radar and then keeping them, helping them improve and – ideally – reaping the reward. On Sunday, it almost worked – until Syracuse ended the Cavaliers’ run with a 68-62 win in the Midwest Regional final.
Virginia is an older team, starting two seniors, a junior and two sophomores.
Syracuse was an even match, starting three seniors, a junior and a freshman.
“We haven’t ever been in a spot where we could recruit one-and-done players,” Bennett said. “I so enjoy watching these guys develop, and that’s made our team strong. I think if you’re going to get one-and-done players, you’d better be able to back that up and do it year after year.”
Bennett’s approach seems to be working: Virginia has won consecutive ACC regular-season titles. The ideal player for Bennett is a player like Malcolm Brogdon, a 6-foot-5 senior who persevered through a foot injury to play a fifth year at Virginia.
Asked what had led him to come back, Brogdon said that he had spoken with Bennett and that “it really struck me when he said I could have it all – I could finish my legacy here, I could do something special with my teammates the last year, and I could also get my master’s degree and just finish what I started.”
Brogdon added: “I’m a guy that’s all about not trying to take the easy way out or get out of things too early. I want to finish out.”
After five years of watching major programs try to match Calipari’s one-and-done circus, it’s reassuring to see a university, perhaps even a conference, adopt and dominate with another approach: Stay the course, enjoy slow and steady growth and, with luck, reap the rewards in March.
At NRG Stadium; Houston
Saturday, April 2
- Villanova (33-5) vs. Oklahoma (29-7), 6:09 p.m.
- North Carolina (32-6) vs. Syracuse (23-13), 8:49 p.m.
Monday, April 4
- Semifinal winners