Having fallen just two points short, the Virginia Cavaliers can point to any number of moments in Friday’s East Regional semifinal against Michigan State as to why they lost 61-59. Virginia played their trademark defense and hit some big shots, but in the end, perhaps just didn’t have the players that Michigan State does. While Tony Bennett is on the path to being one of the nation’s great coaches, Spartans head coach Tom Izzo is already there, and that makes a difference in big games too.
But in terms of the players, you get the feeling that there won’t be many teams down the road that will have better and more well-drilled players in winning basketball than Virginia. The Cavaliers, having finished 30-7 and as ACC regular-season and tournament champions, may not be a team that targets your top “one-and-done” talent like a Kentucky or Duke, but the nation has seen how good Virginia can be and what Bennett can do. Virginia has improved during every season of Bennett’s five-year tenure, to the point where they took a potential national powerhouse in Michigan State right down to the very last tenth of a second, when Justin Anderson‘s three-quarters court desperation heave for the win fell about four feet short.
Yes, seniors Joe Harris and Akil Mitchell (along with little used senior Thomas Rogers) will leave the program, having been the central figures in one of the best turnarounds in the country. While some programs bounce in and out of the national scene (think Baylor and Indiana in recent years), Bennett’s defensive philosophy is something that should carry over regardless of the talent. Friday’s loss will be a crusher for a long time, and rightfully so. It’s always difficult to come so close to the Elite Eight and be turned away.
But there’s no shame in losing to Michigan State, who has, at times this season, looked like the best team in the country and may yet prove that to be the case with three more wins. The Spartans face Connecticut in Sunday’s regional final. Virginia regroups around a core of young players, likely led by rising junior Malcolm Brogdon. Brogdon tied with Harris to lead the Cavaliers with 17 points Friday. The main improvement Brogdon can make in his game is a determination to drive the lane more often, finish and draw fouls. Brogdon was Virginia’s leading free-throw shooter, and Virginia surged to the lead in the second half Friday when Brogdon went to the basket and drew fouls. If he adds a bit of weight, he’ll finish more often and create more three-point plays. Virginia missed some chances at the rim Friday that could have turned the game in their direction.
Post man Mike Tobey will also be a key to next year. He could also stand to add a little bulk. He has some good moves down low and you have to like any inside player who can consistently hit turnaround, fade-away jumpers. But with some bulk, Tobey will be more comfortable going toward the rim and should be more dangerous. Rising sophomore point guard London Perrantes played with a poise and calm far beyond his years this season, and should anchor the Virginia offense for the next three years.
If Bennett can recruit with the same ability as he coaches, Virginia stands to be one of the nation’s top-20 teams for a long time to come, despite not quite being able to get over the hump on Friday night. The loss of Harris and Mitchell will be big, but Virginia’s success this season was about more than just them and while 30 wins next season might be asking a little much (depending on how the freshmen contribute), but there’s no reason to think the Cavaliers will be fading from national relevance any time soon.