MINNEAPOLIS — Uncomfortable had to be embraced. Beauty had to be redefined. Ego had to evaporate.
Virginia and Texas Tech couldn’t attract the nation’s top recruits. Domination could only be achieved through frustration. Hands confronting faces. Elbows meeting ribs. Hips hugging hips. Forced turnovers were to feel better than deep 3s. Shot-clock violations were to be celebrated like slam dunks.
What Tony Bennett and Chris Beard taught was true.
Defense has brought the top-seeded Cavaliers and third-seeded Red Raiders to Monday night’s national championship game, the first featuring a pair of first-time participants since Magic Johnson and Larry Bird squared off four decades ago. A once-unheralded group will be crowned college basketball’s best at U.S. Bank Stadium, marking the first first-time national champion in 13 years.
“I think it’s a testament to both programs,” Virginia’s Kyle Guy said. “They take their time developing. They’re not afraid to go against the trend of one-and-dones. … I think both teams have the same sense of it’s not about you. It’s about everyone on the team. I think that’s great for the sport.”
While the rest of the sport is sprinting and spacing and shooting as quickly as catching it, Virginia (34-3) plays at the country’s slowest pace, acting as if a point is earned with each second bled from the clock.
Appearing in their first Final Four in 35 years, the Cavaliers would become the first top-scoring defense (55.5 points) in six decades to win the national title, just one year after the embarrassment of its historic loss to 16-seed UMBC.
“I knew it was going to be a significant year in all of our lives,” Bennett said. “You have a vision and you hope, but you never truly know. You just keep knocking. You never know when sometimes the door gets slammed in your face, but sometimes you get your foot in the door and then your shoulder, and then you can bust through.”
Texas Tech’s (31-6) defense may be even more fearsome, featuring a faster and longer lineup, ranked the most efficient in the nation. The Red Raiders have held opponents in the NCAA Tournament to fewer than 56 points per game while winning by an average of 14 points, and could become the first team in two decades to win the national title in its first Final Four trip.
“Sometimes it comes off as a little bit of arrogance, but I’ve been telling people my whole life, I think we can win championships and play on the last night of the season,” Beard, Texas Tech’s third-year coach, said. “When you have the courage and the backbone to tell people what you think you can do, then that’s when great things can happen.
“One thing I always tell the guys is, ‘Man, you’ve got to thank the haters, too.’ … Don’t pick us again in this game, and we’ll see what happens.”
The scoreboard won’t receive more than a light workout. Saturday’s semifinals marked the first time since the shot clock was introduced (1986) that no team surpassed 65 points.
“They’re really unique,” Virginia’s Ty Jerome said. “It would be false confidence to say they’ve never seen an offense like ours before … because they’ve been successful with every one they’ve seen.”
The first one to 50 won’t win. It’ll be the first one to flinch.
“They’re mentally tough. Their guys don’t get rattled,” Texas Tech’s Norense Odiase said. “They’re a system group that just stays together.”
Each side has a soon-to-be lottery pick (Virginia’s De’Andre Hunter, Tech’s Jarrett Culver). Each side has multiple perimeter threats.
But the constant is what their once-unproven coaches said would bring a title.
“We take pride in defense,” Guy said. “It would mean a lot for the program and Coach Bennett to show future recruits, and show anyone who has ever doubted us that this system does work.”
It has led to the biggest game of their lives. It is why they are this year’s only teams with that honor.
“They say casual fans don’t like it, but real basketball people like defense,” Odiase said. “It’s just pride, like in the park, one-on-one, going against a guy, if he can’t score on you it makes you feel better and better and better every time you frustrate him and suffocate him and keep him out of what he wants to do. It brings a smile to my face.”