LOUISVILLE, Ky. – In a dim arena tunnel, with his hood pulled tight around his head and a small bandage on the bridge of his recently broken nose, London Perrantes considered the implausibility of Virginia losing the game it had just lost.
The No. 2 team in the nation absorbed body blow after body blow from Louisville. It waded through the venomous froth of 22,788 charged-up fans. It put itself in position to win with one defensive stop, which is more or less the fundamental tenet of Tony Bennett’s program, a principle probably chiseled into a stone tablet somewhere. On that one possession, the Cavaliers wedged their hosts into a corner, clamping down on every suitable option. Finally, the ball squirted over to Mangok Mathiang, a player who had made exactly one field goal since Jan. 31; a player who was, in the words of his coach, “the 64th option” on the sequence.
“When I saw the ball getting bounced to him, I was like, all right, let’s make him shoot the ball and see what happens from there,” Perrantes said. “And you all saw what happened.”
The shot went down, against all reason. A nine-game Virginia win streak skidded into a 59-57 loss. Everyone was properly glum about it. But if we cast aside that melancholy for a second, if we properly categorize Saturday’s improbable moment of Mangok, we find it to be as much a credit to the Cavaliers as anything: An unshakable, unrelenting club, once again without one of its top players, was going to win another game. It took an act of supreme benevolence or mischief from the basketball gods to ensure that Virginia did not.
There was no revelation at the KFC Yum! Center, nor was there in Rupp Arena earlier in the afternoon. On Saturday, separated by 70 miles of snow-lined Bluegrass State highway, the top-ranked basketball teams in the country played games. In-person viewings confirmed that Kentucky and Virginia are bloodless, unyielding outfits that seem more prone to lose by accident than by merit. The Wildcats came out of the day unblemished, historically 31-0. The Cavaliers emerged undamaged. And they entered the postseason brandishing selflessness like a broadsword. The best teams in the country this season—and yes, Wisconsin, we will get to you Sunday—view a championship run as a shared burden.
By now, John Calipari’s impeccable ability to answer questions he is not asked is supremely entertaining. And after his team beat Florida 67-50 to clinch that 31-0 regular season, the Kentucky coach created so many straw-men doubters and cynics, it was a wonder there was any space in the interview area for the hangers-on lining the walls. (Perhaps this is why Ashley Judd was relegated to a seat on the floor.) But it was nearly impossible to argue with Calipari when he assessed the greater meaning of this season.
“It’s not winning every game,” he said. “It’s that they shared. Instead of me, me, me, it’s us, us, us. When you do that, we all benefit. That’s how it’s supposed to work – we do this together, everyone benefits.”
It’s calculated, like everything Calipari says. That doesn’t make it less true.
Carve up Kentucky’s methods of talent acquisition all you want. How a flotilla of five-star recruits and future lottery picks has subjugated agendas and egos has been nothing shy of incredible. Especially considering that, only last year, with only slightly less marquee talent, it was a daily battle just to achieve the same result. “It was so hard,” center Willie Cauley-Stein said the day before the Florida game, “to get people to play hard all the time.”
Meanwhile, in the game that made Kentucky the first major-conference team to finish a regular season unbeaten since Indiana in 1975-76, no one logged more than 28 minutes. No one took more than 12 shots. Karl-Anthony Towns collected 13 points, nine rebounds, six blocks and three assists in 27 minutes. Were Towns producing at that level, any other coach in America who gave his minutes to another player might be fired on the spot for gross dereliction of duty.
In Lexington, that’s another Saturday. Seven Wildcats have usage percentages between 17.9 and 24.4. To say nothing of the motivation required to be most efficient defensive team in the nation (85.1 points per 100 possessions, per kenpom.com). “A lot of teams, if they had these players, wouldn’t be able to say they share the ball,” forward Trey Lyles said. “But we have a lot of great guys on the team that share with one another. That’s what makes us good.”
There is nothing as remarkable about Virginia’s egalitarian approach, if only because it is bedrock for what Bennett built. If there is a focus on the individual for the Cavaliers, it is a bit more literal than philosophical: Everyone is waiting upon the return of forward Justin Anderson, the team’s second-leading scorer at 13.4 points per game, out since Jan. 31 first with a broken finger and now an appendectomy that took place this past Thursday. Bennett couldn’t handicap when the junior will be next available, other than to say “hopefully sooner than later.”
It is a commentary on his team’s resolve and interdependence that it didn’t matter until Saturday. Virginia hadn’t lost a game after Anderson was sidelined. It didn’t let slip a grip on a No. 1 seed. Anderson was perhaps only noticeable in his absence when Virginia threw a long, last-gasp inbounds pass out of bounds with 2.7 seconds left; in normal circumstances, Anderson is the triggerman for that play.
There has been no discernible issue replacing Anderson, leading scorer Malcolm Brogdon said, because there is an active mission to dissolve the line between starter and role player. “We give people that come off the bench a lot of confidence,” Brodgon said. “We make them feel like they’re a part of the starting lineup.”
“It’s not just Justin, it’s not just Malcolm (Brogdon),” Perrantes said. “We have a bunch of other guys that play really well and score really well. We definitely could have used him tonight, obviously, We could have used him this whole season. We’ll be glad when he gets back. But we should have won that game. There’s no question.”
Had Virginia not been felled by Mathiang’s second successful field goal attempt since mid-winter, the concern over operating without Anderson in the postseason would have been dulled. Miracle shot or no miracle shot, the Cavaliers have a hazier outlook than the team that finished a perfect season hours before, just up the road.
Winning a championship will require individual talent, so there is a premium on a return of a player of Anderson’s caliber.
But as Kentucky and Virginia have demonstrated all year, and showed again on the final weekend of the regular season, individual talent is one thing. Ability without agenda can really be something else.