Virginia’s Tony Bennett motivated by highs — and lows — in Cavs’ title-defending season

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Virginia coach Tony Bennett has endured both the highest high and lowest low in college basketball over the past two seasons. His mindset, however, remains unwavered as the 2019-20 season approaches.

His Cavaliers cut down the nets in April after beating Texas Tech in the national championship game. The title arrived just a year after they became the first-ever No. 1 seed to lose in the first round of the NCAA Tournament — both pivotal moments that he hopes will affect his team in its title defense.

“We’re very thankful for (the title run). We’ll grow from it,” Bennett said Tuesday at the ACC’s Operation Basketball media day in Charlotte, N.C. “We celebrated it and have enjoyed it, but we won’t obsess about it, nor will we just sweep it under the rug and say that was then.”

The rare feat of winning the national championship was intensified after the adversity the Cavaliers faced the year prior. Virginia’s title hopes entering the 2018 NCAA Tournament were dashed by 16-seed UMBC, a 20.5-point underdog that dealt Virginia a stunning 74-54 blowout.

“I’m just glad that they have this memory … of winning a championship from last year, but I think because of how we lost the year before, it made us value it even more,” Bennett said.

He also acknowledged his team can learn from both experiences and maintain a level-headed focus heading into the new season.

“I think you don’t overdo either of (the past two seasons),” Bennett said, “and you learn from them and you’re thankful for what both extremes teach you.”

Expectations have hardly diminished for the Cavaliers entering this season, though Bennett’s squad will have a noticeably different roster than the one that notched the program’s first championship. Virginia’s top three scorers from last season — Kyle Guy, De’Andre Hunter and Ty Jerome — all left school early in the spring for the NBA Draft. It’s unknown territory for a program that prides itself on leadership and experience.

“There will be some growing pains. I know that,” Bennett said. “We’ve already experienced that in practice, and I’ve been on these guys pretty hard and pushing them.”

The Cavaliers will be led by Mamadi Diakite and guard Braxton Key, seniors who had a significant impact on Virginia’s title run.

Diakite hit the buzzer-beater to send Virginia’s Elite Eight matchup against Purdue into overtime and had a pivotal defensive presence during the NCAA Tournament, averaging 5.5 defensive rebounds and nearly three blocks per game. Key, meanwhile, had a modest role last season but tallied six points and 10 rebounds in the 85-77 championship victory over Texas Tech.

Although most of the key contributors from the upset and championship teams have moved on, Bennett remains focused on using those impactful moments — good and bad — to continue guiding his team.

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