Three years of being a top seed in the NCAA Tournament has taught coach Tony Bennett and Virginia something as they prepare to play as a No. 5 seed in a rebuilding year: It’s always about winning, but expectations change.
The Cavaliers (22-10) have been a No. 1 or No. 2 seed the last three years, and this year, they face a UNC-Wilmington team that is 29-5 and a popular choice to send the Cavaliers home.
It’s a different feeling, especially for London Perrantes, the lone senior on the team. He’s part of just the second team in Virginia history — think Ralph Sampson — to make the NCAA Tournament four years in a row.
“We earned the ones and two seeds as well, but obviously, trials and tribulations make the success that much sweeter,” said Perrantes, a point guard from Los Angeles. “We talk about that all the time. We’re going to have those low valleys, but we’re going to be at the top of the mountain sometimes, too. You have to find a way to stay even keel throughout all of it and obviously it’s something different that I haven’t been experienced to, being that five seed, but once you get on the floor, the seeds go out the window. It’s just basketball.”
More than in previous seasons, the Cavaliers struggled this year, experiencing their first four-game losing streak since coach Bennett’s first year at the school and finishing in the middle of the pack in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
They head into the tournament feeling more vulnerable than in Perrantes’ three previous years.
“Last night, I woke up in the middle of the night, couldn’t sleep for a while, just my mind racing thinking about maybe that the end is near,” Perrantes said Monday. “I’m not saying that it’s close. It may be a couple weeks from now. It could be the next game. I obviously don’t want it to be that, but you obviously have to have that nervousness around you. I’m trying to push it out of my mind as best I can.”
Bennett, in his eighth year at Virginia, has a very young team that can be great — it held No. 5 North Carolina to 43 points, half their average — but saw Perrantes and freshman Kyle Guy, its two most explosive scorers, go a combined 1 for 17 from the field in a 71-58 loss to Notre Dame in the ACC quarterfinals.
Admittedly, Bennett said, this year is different.
“We’re a good team when we’re right, but yeah, it’s a different feel,” he said. “I wouldn’t be being completely honest. When you are that 1 or 2 seed, you try to keep it the same. But this group, with all that happened throughout the year, the ups and downs, the battling, the less experience that we have, I think it’s an exciting opportunity. You are always excited whether you are a one seed, a five seed or a 16 seed.”
The Seahawks, champions of the Colonial Athletic Association, offer what Bennett hopes will be the first of several challenges in the tournament, which would indicate the young Cavaliers are figuring things out.
“When we’re right, we can really play well and be effective,” he said. “When we’re not right, we’re very susceptible, and there’s no secret to that and I think a lot of teams — not all teams — are like that.”
At a time when Bennett is making Virginia an NCAA Tournament regular, this year will be different.
“There’s a little more news-ness to this,” he said, “and uncertainty.”
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