SAN ANTONIO (AP) — Virginia coach Tony Bennett isn’t going to waver from his foundation, whether it’s the philosophy that built the Cavaliers into a contender or the big-picture perspective that helps him handle the sting of a historically improbable loss.
Both ends of that approach are fully on display now as he is named The Associated Press men’s college basketball coach of the year.
Bennett won the honor Thursday after his Cavaliers set a program single-season record for wins, dominated the Atlantic Coast Conference and reached No. 1 in the AP Top 25 for the first time since the Ralph Sampson era. Yet that wildly successful season ended abruptly in the most unexpected way: with the Cavaliers falling to UMBC to become the first No. 1 seed to lose to a 16-seed in NCAA Tournament history.
“They experienced things a lot of guys don’t,” Bennett said in an interview with the AP. “That kind of success? Oh my gosh. And then that kind of loss? … But again, their body of work deserves to be celebrated.
“And then so much of what society looks at — it begs the question — is it just about how you do in March? Or is it about the whole thing? It’s a fair debate (on) what matters. But I told them: I wouldn’t trade this team for anything. Even the experiences, as hard as they are, this is part of the process.”
Bennett was the runaway winner for the award, which was presented at the Final Four. He earned 50 of 65 votes from AP Top 25 writers with ballots submitted before the start of the NCAA Tournament.
Tennessee’s Rick Barnes was second with five votes after leading the Volunteers to 26 wins and an NCAA bid despite being picked to finish 13th in the 14-team Southeastern Conference. First-year Ohio State coach Chris Holtmann was third with four votes.
This marks the second time Bennett has won the award, the other coming in 2007 when he was at Washington State.
In Bennett’s ninth season, the Cavaliers (31-3) went from being picked to finish sixth in the ACC to winning the regular-season race by four games — the first to win the ACC by that wide a margin since 2000. It then won the ACC Tournament to complete a 20-1 run against league opponents.
Virginia also reached No. 1 in the AP Top 25 for the first time since December 1982 and stayed there the final five weeks of the regular season, the last two unanimously .
And yet, the 48-year-old coach knows much of the focus will be on how things ended: that 74-54 loss to the Retrievers while playing without ACC sixth man of the year De’Andre Hunter.
Dealing with a roster of players in pained disbelief , Bennett said he has told them that they have “an unbelievable captive audience” waiting to see how they would handle it.
“I said how you respond to this will matter to your mom and dads, to your brothers, your sisters, your friends,” Bennett said. “If they see that you’re not fake about it, that yeah, of course you’re going to be discouraged and down after a loss like that, but that you’re OK. You can live with it.
“I said: you don’t know the power that that’s going to have in their life and in your life.”
Bennett said he appreciated other coaches offering support, which included Syracuse Hall of Famer Jim Boeheim noting: “If I could hire a coach in this country and I could get Tony Bennett, there would be nobody in second place.”
He said he’s still reviewing what worked and what didn’t, but “certainly you don’t overreact” by changing everything that had brought the Cavaliers to this point.
This is, after all, a program that has been a 1-seed three times in the past five seasons with three ACC regular-season titles.
And Bennett won’t be deterred from chasing more, even if it means stumbling a few more times on the way to reaching his goals.
“You better have something beyond the opinion of man or just how you feel, because this stuff is fleeting,” Bennett said.
“So that’s where obviously my faith is everything to me. You hear people talk about their faith in the lord and the relationship with the people that they care about, their family and their trusted friends. Those things stand the test of time. And that’s what you have to draw from. And then you move on.”