COLUMBIA, S.C. — On the campus of Mr. Jefferson’s university in Charlottesville, Va., it is said that ghost dogs stalk the old football field. The dogs were named Seal and Beta, and they were campus mascots 20 years apart. Beta was the dog of the walk in the 1930s, until he got hit by a car, and then they gave him a funeral procession through the campus. In the 1950s, there was Seal, who died from somewhat more natural causes but also was widely mourned. The two of them are buried just outside the fenceline of the university’s cemetery, but it is said that both of them can be seen wandering the grounds of old Lambeth Field. The spirits of canines past walk among us, or so the legend goes.
This is a cheap way to point out that the University of Virginia’s basketball team enters this year’s NCAA tournament also haunted by dark visions of dogs it has encountered—specifically, the Retrievers of the University of Maryland-Baltimore County who, a year ago, made the Cavaliers the first and only No. 1 seed to lose to a No. 16 seed. And not only did Virginia lose, it crashed and burned and scattered its own ashes, getting outscored by 20 points in the second half by a team that had lost 10 games playing in the America East conference. It was not just an upset. It was an upset’s upset by an underdog’s underdog, a loss that will haunt Virginia until it beats someone—anyone!—in a tournament game. The Cavaliers get their first chance to lay the ghost on Friday, against Gardner-Webb, a school whose only previous impact in this tournament was that Artis Gilmore had played there before moving on to Jacksonville and, ultimately, the 1970 national title game. Gardner-Webb is a No. 16 seed. Virginia is a No. 1 seed. Again. The dogs of memory howl, because they understand.
“That loss doesn't define us,” said Kyle Guy, the guard who led Virginia with 15 points against UMBC. “We watched a TED Talk, and he said something along the lines of, if you use it right, it can buy you a ticket to a place you couldn't have gone any other way. So that’s been the motto. Losses happen. We knew it was going to happen eventually. Just ready for this year.
“Yeah, I would say in practice, whenever somebody's tired or you're trying to fight through a rep or take a play off or something, I always think back to that. And then when I'm on the court, I don't even think about it. I'm focused on what's in front of me because, if you're too focused on the past, you're not going to be able to move forward. So, yeah, it's a chip on our shoulder, but it doesn't define us. We're just trying to move past it and let the inspiration and motivation behind it take us somewhere we haven't been.”
Time was, when college basketball coaching was a haven for martinets who couldn’t cut it as middle-school administrators, a loss like the one UMBC hung on Virginia last March would have been the occasion for an offseason full of suicide drills and sprints up various hillsides. Instead, as Guy pointed out, coach Tony Bennett had his team get that message in the most 2019 of ways—a TED talk. He brought in a guy called Joe The Storyteller.
“He had gone through or witnessed something, a hard thing,” Bennett said. “At the start of the year, we showed it. It was powerful. It was a unique, I thought, TED Talk that really spoke to the situation at hand, and it's really just there's so many things guys take from it, but the ability to learn to use things that happen in your life in the right way because there's just a quote—and I think I shared it at ACC Media Day—that if you learn to use it right, it can buy you a ticket to a place that you couldn't have gone any other way, talking about a hard experience. That was kind of the idea about that.
“You know, that's the reality of the talk and the guys, and we've used that and shared that and said, in anything, what can we learn from this? Are we thankful for what we learned? Whether it's a tough loss, a great win, or a situation like last year, the ability to grow from that and respond in the right way.”
On the surface, there seems to have been no prolonged emotional trauma from last year’s unprecedented collapse. Virginia finished the year 29-3 and 16-2 in a muscled-up Atlantic Coast Conference that placed three of its teams as top seeds in the tournament, the first time that’s happened since the Big East did it in 1985. “You've got to step in the moment and play,” Bennett said. “And with the guys' consistency—a conference season or a season is about the consistency of your team on the road, at home, over 2.5 months or 18 games in the ACC. That's a different kind of challenge than the NCAA tournament. The NCAA tournament or the ACC is the one-and-done, but I've marvelled that how they found ways, they rallied, and they were at a very consistent level for the most part. That doesn't always happen when you're in a league—any league, really—because usually there's some drop-offs or dips, and certainly that's possible.
“But how they did that—what was our record in conference? What were we, 16-2, right? Yes, I had to go back. To be able to do that over that consistent time, that impressed me. And they really played together. I think their versatility was important, and they all improved in the offseason. So that always stands out to me that, over that course of time, I think that's kind of what you're asking, where I step back and say, that’s hard to do, and they did it and well done.”
The most intriguing Virginia player in this year’s tournament, especially in the context of last year’s tournament, is sophomore guard De’Andre Hunter. Last year, Hunter broke his wrist in the ACC tournament and missed the UMBC game. He did not experience what Guy and the rest of his teammates experienced. He heard the ghosts only through hearsay.
“I’m just excited for myself and more for the team just to get back to this stage and have the same opportunity as last year to play against the 16 seed and possibly erase what happened last year, “ Hunter says. “People are going to still remember, but we have another opportunity to do something really special in this tournament.”
For Bennett, the year between the loss and whatever comes next has softened itself into philosophy. Consider: This Virginia team not only spent the year with the UMBC loss hung around its neck like a dead raccoon, but it spent all season answering questions and enduring speculation that no other college basketball team ever experienced. The players who returned know they are unique in the history of this overblown hootenanny, and their coach seems to have accepted that fact without having it burden him.
“I always challenge our guys, what's your secret of contentment? What’s your secret of contentment? There’s going to be times, it talks about you're going to be well fed and living in plenty, and there's going to be times when you're going to be starving and living in want,” Bennett said. “What's your secret of handling that?
“That I know, without a doubt, those of us who have parents or kids, that love you give them unconditionally or if your faith is there, that has to buoy you, and that has to be your center, and you dwell on what is good because there is a bigger picture in all of this, and I believe I understand that. So going through those refining moments, they're tough, but you look back at them, and in a way, they’re sometimes painful gifts that draw you near to what truly matters.”
Rightly or wrongly, the questions will remain the same however long Virginia survives in this year’s tournament. The ghosts of the Retrievers will dog their heels. It is not a matter of redemption. It’s a matter of living with the history that fate hands you—doggedly, if it comes to that.