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No. 1 Seed Cavs open NCAA Tournament play

Men's basketball faces Big South champ Chanticleers in Raleigh

The Virginia men’s basketball team won an ACC regular season title, an ACC Tournament title and locked up a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament Sunday. With all these achievements behind them, the Cavaliers have a little time to rest on their laurels — right? Senior forward Akil Mitchell summed up the reality in five words: “You don’t know Coach Bennett.”

For Tony Bennett, Virginia’s buttoned-down head coach, seeding is “overrated” — and if you ask him about celebrating the Cavaliers’ victories so far, he will give you a polite answer and refer back to the first “pillar” of his coaching philosophy: humility. Heading into an opening-round game with No. 16 seed Coastal Carolina, Bennett made sure at the very start to keep his players from getting ahead of themselves.

“After we watched the selection show, I just reminded the guys, I said ‘Remember last year when we watched the selection show?’” Bennett said. “’Remember us sitting there hoping that we were going to get in? Thinking we were on the bubble maybe, and that feeling of not being quite there? Be thankful of what you just experienced, but don’t lose sight of that and how fortunate you are and how hungry we’ve got to remain.’”

If Bennett has to keep his team humble, it is because they enter the NCAA tournament on a staggering run. The Cavaliers have lost just two games in the 2014 calendar year, and they are coming off what is possibly their most complete performance of the season — a convincing 72-63 win against No. 3 seed Duke in the ACC Tournament final.

“I think it came together at a pretty high level against Duke,” Bennett said. “Sure, there’s always things — you could make more free throws and do certain things. But I think when you have all the guys, which is close to what had, playing at that level — that’s when we’re at our best.”

The Duke win helped drive out doubts Virginia was an imposter in the national title hunt, and the Cavaliers have seen their exploits played back on ESPN and throughout the national media. The players understand, though, that media coverage can turn quickly.

“It’s cool to see your school in primetime,” Mitchell said. “But at the end of the day, how much longer are they going to keep talking about us if we lose? We have to stay grounded, we have to stay humble. And I think every guy on this team is. We’re ready to get back to work.”

Bennett is certainly not spending too much time watching ESPN. By Monday afternoon’s press conference, less than 24 hours after the ACC title game, Bennett had already taken looks at the Coastal Carolina game film. He said he finds as much pleasure in good preparation as he does in victories.

“‘Enjoying the process’ — that’s a quote that Coach Bennett often repeats to us, which means enjoy every day, enjoy the special moments like beating a team like Duke in the ACC championship, but also enjoy every practice, work as hard as you can every day and try to get better every day,” redshirt sophomore guard Malcolm Brogdon said.

That process means preparing a whole new group of Cavaliers for their first NCAA tournament appearance. Only Mitchell, senior guard Joe Harris, junior forward Darion Atkins and Brogdon — who was injured — were at Virginia for the team’s 2012 NCAA opening round loss to Florida. Mitchell said he is trying to impart as much wisdom as he can to the younger players.

“I mean, you’ve just got to stay composed,” Mitchell said. “I think it’s natural the first couple minutes to be jittery and be excited, because it’s your first NCAA tournament game — I’ve only played one. You’ve got to stay composed and just stick to the basics, and we should be fine.”

Virginia’s opening round opponent, Coastal Carolina, may come into the game a severe underdog, but Chanticleer coach Cliff Ellis brings a wealth of experience. The head coach at Coastal Carolina since 2007, Ellis brings his fourth team to the NCAA tournament, having previously coached South Alabama, Clemson and Auburn to the postseason.

“Obviously, he’s been a successful coach — his team has won at Coastal Carolina,” Bennett said. “He knows how to win, he’s built that team. Good guards, they defend well. [We] certainly have the respect for them.”

Bennett is firmly focused on Coastal Carolina this week, but he knows that if the Cavaliers advance, he will have little time to prepare for a prospective matchup against either No. 8 seed Memphis or No. 9 seed George Washington. Regardless of the matchup, Bennett prefers to focus on his own team.

“You’ve got to prepare, but it’s about you and how you’re playing,” Bennett said. “You’ve got to know what you need to know and understand that, but you can’t get so worried about your opponent that you forget what got you there.”