Becoming a Goliath

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The East Region's top seed from a season ago, the Virginia Cavaliers, received the No. 8 national ranking in the USA Today preseason poll released last Thursday. That seemingly insignificant fact is utterly jaw-dropping in light of recent history.

Perhaps no team in the country has been more overlooked, undervalued and wrongly cast aside than the Cavaliers under Tony Bennett. Even as the win totals have increased in each of Bennett's five years in Charlottesville, from 15 his first season in 2009-10 to a program-record 30 last winter, expectations have lagged behind reality.

Last season's conference title marked the sixth-straight season Virginia has matched or bettered its predicted finish in the conference standings — all five of Bennett's seasons and the final year under former coach Dave Leitao. Coaches and pundits have time and time again underestimated the Cavaliers, only to return a season later to predict a regression to the mean that has never come.

Virginia has answered skepticism with excellence at every turn. Not enough offense. No go-to scorers. No one to replace Mike Scott, Jontel Evans and now Joe Harris. None of it has mattered. The characters have changed but the results have not. Bennett has found a winning formula which has made each of his teams greater than the sum of its parts.

The key has been convincing players they are better off viewing themselves as David rather than Goliath. The Cavaliers built their success off the premise that they needs to outwork other teams, that they cannot enter games as a Goliath because they carry with them only a slingshot. They may not be the most athletic or flashy team, but their weapons of choice, their stifling defense and methodical offense, can be plenty lethal if deployed correctly.

Their approach to the game requires a humble patience to be effective. It requires them to eschew plays that might land them on SportsCenter's Top 10. They have been able to consciously sacrifice flair in favor of fundamentals only because they have convinced themselves that is the only way they can win consistently.

The plaudits that are likely to come flooding in this preseason — beginning with the USA Today poll — will thus pose a somewhat new conundrum for Bennett and company: how does a team that is finally regarded as a juggernaut maintain the attitude and approach of an underdog? How do you blend the confidence of a proven winner with the desperation that was needed to get there in the first place?

Those questions may seem too abstract to concern most fans in October. But the players seemed to recognize the challenge they posed last year when the Cavaliers suffered some growing pains in non-conference play. The team entered the season ranked No. 24 in the nation and was equipped with its most talented roster in recent memory with the additions of transfer Anthony Gill, freshman London Perrantes and a healthy Malcolm Brogdon along with Harris and senior Akil Mitchell.

Before winning 13 straight conference games and moving up the national rankings, Virginia was a bubble team struggling to meet lofty expectations. In losses to unranked Tennessee and Green Bay, the Cavaliers allowed an average of 81 points and appeared unsure of their identity. After that Dec. 30 loss against Tennessee, Bennett rhetorically posed the question that he has undoubtedly asked his players many times before. “That's what we got to determine: Who are we?”

“If we're not playing collectively together defensively, if we're not taking good shots and being stingy on defense, the way we've had some success, then it's going to be very hard for us,” Bennett said. “Those are the non-negotiables."

From that point forward, the team's mindset seemed altered. They embraced the non-negotiables and put individual accolades on the back burner. No team topped the 70-point mark in a regulation game the rest of the season. Though the Cavalier offense scored fewer than 80 points in each of the 24 remaining games, they went 21-3 and made their furthest NCAA Tournament run in Bennett's tenure. They finally appeared at ease with their unflashy style.

Even after earning a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, Virginia did not let the recognition alter its approach to the game. In the Tournament opener against Coastal Carolina, it wasn't always clear that the Cavaliers were the heavy favorites. They did not overpower the Chanticleers with superior skill and athleticism. Instead they returned from a halftime deficit unfazed, hunkered down on defense and scored just enough points to escape with the win.

Optimism for this season dwarf even the lofty expectations last year. But if Virginia can begin this season by continuing last year's second-half mindset — understanding that nothing is handed to the favorite, that their style of play in particular requires humility not flair and that they will go only as far as their team defense takes them — they should have no trouble once again maximizing their potential.

With Bennett at the helm, ACC coaches and media members should expect Virginia to do just that. Otherwise, they run the risk of repeating the same mistake they made in 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009 and 2008: underestimating the Virginia Cavaliers.

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