The conversation will focus on defense, as it should, because the two teams that made it to the final Monday of the college basketball season offer no ambiguity about their identity.
Virginia and Texas Tech stand on common ground in that regard. They play tough, relentless, suffocating defense. Both earned a spot in the national championship game by treating opposing offenses like a dog treats a chew toy.
But there must be a starting point in any journey, or in their case, a pivot point that feels defining in nature. For Virginia, the moment occurred last year in a tearful locker room in Charlotte, N.C. For Texas Tech, it happened at an off-campus townhome in mid-January.
One team dealing with the fallout of a crushing loss, the other trying to figure out how a bunch of new pieces fit together — important markers off the court in timelines that end Monday night at U.S. Bank Stadium.
Virginia’s road map began following a historic loss in last year’s NCAA tournament. The top-seeded Cavaliers had just become the first team to lose to a No. 16 seed, Maryland-Baltimore County. They would be branded forever with that dubious distinction.
Cavs coach Tony Bennett opted not to bring seniors to the postgame news conference to face the media firing squad. He chose sophomores Kyle Guy and Ty Jerome instead, because how the program responded would be in their hands.
“I knew it was going to be such an important time in our lives no matter how it played out,” Bennett said.
Bennett’s players received death threats over social media. They became a national punchline, labeled chokers or worse. They heard about UMBC everywhere they went.
Guy retreated into what he described as a “dark place” as he dealt with anxiety issues.
“It was a lot to handle,” Guy said. “First time in history is always hard for whoever is on the wrong side of it. Obviously when you’re vulnerable, you start letting that [negative] stuff in. There was a reconstruction stage that we all went through.”
Bennett refused to run from it, and he didn’t allow his players to avoid it, either. He handled never-ending UMBC questions with patience and self-reflection, never anger. His team became stronger and closer because of that loss, using it as a galvanizing force rather than an anchor of self-doubt and pity.
“In a way, it’s a painful gift,” Bennett said.
Guy found a picture from that game that showed himself doubled over, hands on his knees, as UMBC players celebrated in the background. He taped the picture to his bedroom wall and made it his Twitter avatar and the background on his iPhone.
“That picture stings every time I look at it,” he said. “That’s how you keep the fire churning. That was one of the best things that has ever happened to me. I became a better man and a better basketball player because of it.”
Texas Tech didn’t experience anything as serious as death threats, but the Red Raiders’ season was in danger of drifting away after three consecutive conference losses left them 4-3 in the Big 12.
“We weren’t well in those three games,” senior center Norense Odiase said.
Matt Mooney, a graduate transfer guard from South Dakota, invited all the players to his house for a meeting. Davide Moretti, a sophomore guard from Italy, handled the cooking, treating teammates to carbonara.
“That’s my specialty,” he said. “I was trying to do a little thing for everybody to get us together.”
Every player had a chance to speak. The conversation was mostly positive, but the main message was clear: We’re better than this.
“We did some soul-searching and figured out everybody’s roles,” said sophomore guard Jarrett Culver, the Big 12 Player of the Year. “We got real serious. We weren’t going to let that losing streak be our story. We came together and decided that we could do something special.”
The Red Raiders have lost only two games since, a stretch that included a nine-game winning streak and the first Big 12 championship and first Final Four appearance in school history.
“That [meeting] was probably the turning point for our season,” Mooney said. “Things could either fall apart or you can turn it around.”
Few would have predicted a turnaround of this magnitude. The Red Raiders advanced to the Elite Eight last season, but they were picked to finish seventh in the Big 12 this season after losing six of their top eight starters.
Coach Chris Beard replenished the roster with two graduate transfers (Mooney and forward Tariq Owens from St. John’s) and a group of freshmen in what amounted to a science experiment that needed time to come together.
Beard saw enough talent and potential in the roster makeup that he gathered his players after a summer workout and told them to think big.
“He said, ‘We have enough in this gym, in this locker room right here to play on the final Monday night,’ ” Mooney recalled. “He might be psychic, because here we are on the final Monday night.”
Their season motto became “secret is in the dirt.” Translation: Anything worth pursuing requires hard work and digging below the surface.
Beard watched his players dig all the way to Minneapolis, which is why he took exception when a reporter noted that Texas Tech playing for a national title is an “unlikely” development.
“Why do you think it’s unlikely?” Beard replied. “I respect the question, but why not us?”
This is the first national championship game since 1979, with Indiana State and Michigan State — the historic Bird vs. Magic duel — in which both teams are making their first appearance.
As Beard said, why not?
“It’s either going to be heartbreak or overwhelming joy,” Virginia’s Guy said.
Guy finally plans to change his avatar after the game. The new picture will tell the story.