V is for Victory but also how Virginia handled defeat

Congratulations to all the shining moments of the NCAA Tournament’s first weekend--none involving commissioners named Larry or schools in Bill Walton's "Conference of Water Polo Champions." March mayhem left us with a South region that looks like the updated lyrics to "Route 66" but thank goodness Loyola-Chicago has a Rambler to navigate us through bracket terrain that includes Lexington, Reno and Manhattan, Kansas.

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The entire remaining field of 16, in fact, is a travel metaphor more scrambled than Charles Barkely’s last train of thought.

Look what ended up out West?

Staples Center in Los Angeles, accustomed to hosting star-studded events like the Grammys, is now setting up chairs for Florida State, Gonzaga, Michigan and Texas A&M.

There was talk Monday morning of moving the entire event to the Pomona Fair Grounds.

Sweet Sister Jean, though, that was a lot of fun. There’s nothing like a good Jesuit story on live TV to pair with a Nevada coach dropping F-bombs after one win and then, after another, stripping down to his waist.

And that TBS graphic of a nun hearing confessions had some of us Catholics rolling in the vestibules.

Winning does bring out the crazy in people: I saw Coach Mark Few do a locker room handstands after Gonzaga won. I saw a Michigan freshman, Jordan Poole, hit the game-winner against Houston and then run around the court like a school kid trying not to get “tagged” during recess.

Where else but the NCAA can you get Custer’s last shot in the same tournament where Clemson goes Little Big Horn on Auburn?

What a fine mess it all left.

The total Sweet Sixteen seeding number of 85 ties the 85 recorded in 2000. The record is 89 in the Tournament of 1986, when Cleveland State (14), LSU (11) and DePaul (12) raised the cholesterol level.

Two No. 1 seeds failed to reach the second weekend for the first time since 2004 and the South Region (Kansas State, Kentucky, Loyola-Chicago, Nevada) lost its entire front line of No.1 Virginia, No. 2 Cincinnati, No. 3 Tennessee and No.4 Arizona.

Instead of 10, the South’s total seeding number stands at 32.

If UCLA fans weren't worried before about Kentucky winning its ninth NCAA championship, and pulling within two of Westwood's 11, you should be now.

The weekend was so crazy that, by the time it was over, Arizona’s embarrassing loss to Buffalo almost looked like a quality defeat. It certainly held up better than Virginia's collapse and two schools in one city (Cincinnati and Xavier) blowing a 34-point combined lead against Nevada and Florida State.

Yet, the most impressive thing I saw in all the madness was not UMBC’s win over top-ranked Virginia.

It was the way Virginia Coach Tony Bennett handled that staggering, stunning, stupefying, unprecedented defeat. His post-game interview should be required viewing for junior high gym teachers.

This is a loss Bennett will take to his grave. It was, arguably, the worst defeat in the history of sports. Think about it. Since the tournament expanded in 1985, the record of No.1 vs. No. 16 is 135-1. And Virginia is the One.

I’ve always been more fascinated, though, with how people response to losing. Virginia is never, ever going to live this loss down. And Bennett knows it. Social media, in psychopath times like these, is a vile, vulgar sewer poisoned by anonymous, amorphous, lifeless trolls.

Yet, Bennett just authored the book on how to deal with the real losers.[membership level="0"] The rest of this article is available to subscribers only - to become a subscriber click here.[/membership] [membership]

“So, that’s life,” Bennett said calmly after the game. “We talk about it all the time. The adulation, the praise it comes and we got a lot of that this year. Then on the other side, they’ll be blame and people point that out. That can’t, in the end, you know, define these guys and our team, or us, because it was a remarkable season but we got thoroughly outplayed. That’s the reality of it.”

That won’t win him many points with the win-above-all-else movement, but I’ll take his class and character any day over Bob Knight’s post-defeat tantrums and hectoring.

Forget about Knight’s treatment of sports writers: we’re paid to take it. But I’ll never forgive his bullying, boorish treatment of NCAA staff, many of them volunteers, after hard defeats.

I witnessed, first-hand, Knight on a post-loss bender. At the 1997 NCAA Tournament, in Winston-Salem, I covered Indiana’s 18-point, first-round loss to Chancey Billups-led Colorado..

After the game, Knight huffed out of the post-game presser, refused to get on the Indiana team bus and stormed off into the night.

“He’s crazy,” a security guard told me.

Knight, furious after the loss, decided to walk the two-plus miles back to the team hotel. Security debated over whether to chase him down.

“Let him go,” the other guard said, which was exactly what I was thinking.

I got in my rental car and found Knight, in the pouring rain, walking down the center of the road. I made a pass by and turned the car around and drove in his direction. I swear to you Knight would not have moved off the center-lane divider had I drove into him.

I understand Knight is a great coach and fierce competitor…but really?

To me, Bennett’s graciousness in defeat trumps anything to be learned from Knight after any outcome.

If this was war, fine, then you maybe want the General leading your troops.

But basketball is not war--something Bob Knight always failed to consider.

Once upon a time, James Naismith took a peach basket and nailed it to the wall of a YMCA and invented…a game.

I can only hope parents of small children, and AAU coaches, made note of Bennett’s post-game decorum.

“This is not the end of the world, Ok?” he said. “This is not—there are a lot worse things that can happen.”

I hope Bennett gets the chance to lead Virginia back to another NCAA Tournament. I think he’s a very good coach who is capable of taking a school to the Final Four. The NCAA has always been a single-elimination crap shoot in which 31-win seasons in the ACC can be toppled on any given night.

“You’ll remember this,” Bennett said. “It will sting. Maybe a 1 seed will get beat again, maybe not. Maybe we’ll be the only No.1 seed to ever lose. It’s life. It goes on. We’ll have to get past that. For some reason this is what we’ve got to deal with, and my job now will be to say ‘how do we bounce back?’ But a life lesson is sitting there, about defining yourself by maybe not what the world says, but there’s other things that matter.”

Life isn’t fair.

I hope Tony Bennett wins a national championship someday. But nothing he might say then, to me, will be more important than what he said last Friday.[/membership]

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