In college basketball, your reputation is your reputation until you do something in March to change it. This is the task at hand for Tony Bennett and Virginia.
“If he loses this one, they’ll kill him.”
The words were so jarring that they demanded everyone in the area search for what had prompted them. A small television sitting on top of an out of place stool in the middle of the sporting goods store revealed the source.
Kentucky, the biggest, baddest team in college basketball, was jogging into the locker room leading lowly 16 seed San Jose State by a mere six points at halftime. It was the first game of what would ultimately become one of the most dominant NCAA Tournament runs the sport has ever seen. At this moment, though, it was something else.
The sporting good store employee standing next to the one who had served up the murder prediction laughed.
“I’m not joking. If they choke again, and they do it like this, they will kill him before he makes it back to Lexington.”
In 1996, this was Rick Pitino’s reputation to a healthy contingent of folks within the state of Kentucky, and to a decent amount of others outside the Commonwealth. Never mind that the man had resurrected one of college basketball’s most storied programs from the lowest point in its history. It mattered little that the overwhelming favorite to win the national championship had started the decade hampered by three years of probation, a two-year postseason ban, and a one-year ban from playing any games on television.
In the minds of Kentucky fans, step one for Pitino was clearing those hurdles. Barreling through them was ok too. Step two was returning the program to its rightful spot atop the college basketball world. Patience with the timeframe attached to step two was wearing thin.
In Kentucky’s first trip to the NCAA Tournament since its brush with the death penalty, it was on the wrong end of a regional final classic against Duke that many still believe is the greatest college basketball game ever played. A year later, UK dropped a Final Four heartbreaker to Chris Webber and the rest of Michigan’s Fab Five. In 1994, Pitino’s team — a No. 3 seed — was upset by Marquette in the second round of the Big Dance. Twelve months later, the top-seeded Wildcats won their first three tournament games by 22 points or more before being dealt an embarrassing 74-61 loss by North Carolina in the Elite Eight.
The succeeding two decades would see Pitino establish a reputation for himself as, among many other things, one of the greatest NCAA tournament coaches in history. In 1996, he was simply the high-profile coach who couldn’t win the big one.
This is not a career arc specific to Rick Pitino.
When Christian Laettner hit the shot that broke Kentucky’s heart in 1992 and sent Duke to the Final Four, Mike Krzyzewski was less than a year removed from carrying around the same stigma that would dog Pitino in the mid-’90s.
Coach K, the man now commonly referred to as “the modern day John Wooden,” was once Coach K, annual choke artist. A quick Google search of “Mike Krzyzewski” “the big one” and “1991” simultaneously confirms this fact and sends the searcher into a bizarro world.
Nearly every story written about Duke’s 1991 national championship game triumph over Kansas — which came two days after the Blue Devils stunned overwhelming favorite UNLV — features some reference to Krzyzewski’s entrenched reputation for not being able to get the job done on the biggest stage. The very first question posed to Coach K during the postgame press conference following his team’s 72-65 triumph over Kansas was about “having the monkey off your back.” YouTube videos featuring pregame and postgame coverage of Duke’s wins over both UNLV and Kansas that year confirm that Krzyzewski’s failures in four previous Final Four trips was the unrivaled focus of the college basketball world’s attention in 1991.
For an entire generation of sports fans, this is something of a revelation. Krzyzewski is now as compatible with success of the highest degree as Bill Belichick, Nick Saban or Phil Jackson. Among countless other accomplishments, his resume is comprised of five national championships, 12 Final Four appearances, and three Olympic gold medals as the coach of USA Basketball.
When Krzyzewski finally broke through in 1991, the man he deprived of a first championship was Roy Williams. This would prove to be the first chapter of Williams’ own “can’t win the big one” story, one which would wind up being even lengthier and more well-known than Coach K’s. He ultimately broke through in 2005, and currently sitting just five wins away from his third straight trip to the national championship game, has a viable claim to the title of hottest current coach in the sport.
Every coach who is now synonymous with college basketball success of the highest degree — Krzyzewski, Williams, John Calipari, Bill Self, Jay Wright — was once synonymous with something else.
The narrative is always the narrative until it becomes something else, and that something else is almost always something that bears no resemblance to its past form.
By any rational line of thinking, Virginia basketball is one of the top six or seven programs in college basketball right now.
The Cavaliers have been a No. 1 seed in three of the last five NCAA tournaments, and a top five seed in the other two. They won the regular season titles in what is widely believe to be the toughest conference in the country in 2014, 2015 and 2018, and captured that league’s tournament title in 2014 and 2018. No major conference program has won more games over that span than UVA has.
When March Madness begins in earnest on Thursday afternoon, Virginia will be the tournament’s No. 1 overall seed. They won’t be the betting favorite in Las Vegas to win it all. They also almost certainly won’t be the team picked to win the championship most often in the millions of brackets filled out across the country. The explanation for this rests primarily in the recent past.
In 2014, Virginia dominated the ACC in a manner that bears an eerily resemblance to what they accomplished this season. The Cavaliers earned a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, but it suffered an unexpected Sweet 16 loss to Michigan State. The Spartans played the part of UVA’s foil again a year later, knocking off the second-seed and repeat ACC regular-season champs in the second round.
For a brief hour or so in late March of 2016, it seemed like “getting over the hump” was a phrase head coach Tony Bennett would be mercifully rid of forever. Then his latest top-seeded team completely unraveled in the final two minutes of a stunning 68-62 loss to No. 10 seed Syracuse in the Midwest Regional final. Virginia’s most recent appearance in the dance ended with an embarrassing 65-39 loss to No. 4 seed Florida in the second round.
In theory, these four performances in an unforgiving single elimination tournament should have no effect on how this Virginia team is inspected. This Virginia team, as evidenced by its seeding, has given us fewer reasons to doubt its merits than any other squad in America. The Cavaliers are the best defensive team in the country, they also have a more complete offensive attack than Bennett’s past units, and their only two losses this season were both competitive games against single-digit NCAA tournament teams.
This is one side of the story. A Twitter search of the words “Virginia” and “choke” tells the other.
In the college basketball world, despite stockpiles of evidence which should serve as a deterrent, the anecdotal tends to trump the tangible. There is no gradual stigma shed in this sport. Your reputation is your reputation until you do something that turns it inside out and morphs it into its antithesis. The razor thin margin between two extremes seems wholly unfair, but it’s also a direct reflection of the NCAA tournament and the unabated power it wields.
Two years ago, Jay Wright and Villanova could never make it out of the tournament’s first weekend despite their lofty seeding. Last year, Mark Few and Gonzaga always choked in March and didn’t deserve to be considered a power program. This year, the Zags are a trendy pick to upset top-seeded Xavier and make it back to the season’s final weekend, and ‘Nova is widely considered to be the No. 1 seed that is the safest bet to make the Final Four.
Virginia will never be able to translate its regular season success into the postseason. Until it can.