Fin.

You only get a finite amount of time to root for your favorite college basketball players. Everyone that takes to the hardwood for every team eventually checks out for the last time, hugs their coaches and teammates, and moves on to the next stage of their lives. I’m aware of this, and I know how almost every career ends with a loss, but knowing didn’t make it any easier to see London Perrantes — the avatar for winning basketball under Tony Bennett — go out this way. If a national championship wasn’t in the cards — and it wasn’t, not this year — then I imagined him going out in a battle to the end with a higher seed, dropping stinky threes and propelling us to the brink of improbable victory. It would have been a fitting end to a career like none other at UVa — a more fitting exit than the one he received.

This piece originally ran on CavsCorner.com.

I was really pleased with the first 10 minutes or so. With Isaiah Wilkins out, Mamadi Diakite received the first start of his career, and he and Jack Salt combined for eight points and seven rebounds as we went up 13–11 early. The duo (and some Darius Thompson perkiness) were the lone highlights of what turned into a dreadful game; Diakite was hedging and recovering, Salt was bodying everyone in the lane, and they combined to score 17 points and grab 16 rebounds.

There were warning signs — some difficulty finding clean looks and even more difficulty actually making them — but the thought was that we could muddy the waters enough to make this a defensive struggle. It’s something we’ve seen before.

It didn’t last. Florida used their speed in the backcourt to jump our curls and their length and springiness on the wings (6'8'’ Devin Robinson and Justin Leon) to contest our jumpers. Darius Thompson stole a pass and streaked in for a layup to put us down 17–15 with 8:26 to go in the half. Over the next 11:11, we would make one of 13 shots and turn the ball over four times, with London going 0–4 and accounting for three of the turnovers. When Mamadi Diakite lifted the clouds with a three-point play, it felt like too little, too late: Florida had gone on a 23–2 run in the interim and led 40–17. That was the game. From then on, we would have benefitted from a running clock.

The Gators bothered us with their athleticism and tenacity. With looks coming off the curls being tightly contested all night, Perrantes, Hall, and Shayok countered by trying to create off the dribble, only to drive into help from one of Florida’s 6'8'’ wings or a contest by Kevarrius Hayes (who didn’t block a shot but affected approximately 37). Those three combined to shoot four for 24 and score 13 points, and Ty Jerome and Kyle Guy received a rough welcome to the NCAAs, missing all eight of their attempts from the floor and finishing shut out of the scoring column. The three-pointer — such a weapon of late when it appeared we were beginning to figure out an offensive identity — deserted us, as we made just one of 15, missing our last 13 over the last 33 minutes of the game.

I watched this game at the bachelor party of a high school friend that attended Virginia Tech. The assembled Hokies were gentle on a night where they easily could have chosen not to be, but watching it with them provided an interesting perspective: they would question every long two or contested drive we took, bemoaning how we seem unable to get good, efficient shots. They also planted a bottle of Goldschlager in my hand late in the second half and told me to numb the pain, which actually I’m not sure was friendly or not in hindsight.

Virginia was ranked all season (starting in the top 10 and finishing in the twenties) and boasted the most efficient defense in the country. Whenever those things were brought up, Tony Bennett liked to remind people how thin the margin is for his team; how even in times of success, disaster is a couple of dry spells on one end of the court or another away from derailing it.

We’ve caught flack from people all season for how our offense is an unwatchable eyesore and a pox on all humanity, flack that quickly veered past a learned, nuanced approach into an indictment of Tony Bennett’s entire style. It’s as though people forget that, just a year ago, this team scored more than 70 points per game and had the eighth-most efficient offense in the country while running the same system — it was not only very watchable, it was often fun.

The point is this: Tony Bennett is a system coach, but that system doesn’t work without a full compliment of personnel — big, dynamic guards and bigs that are a threat off the catch. We were already set for a rebuilding year when Malcolm Brogdon, Anthony Gill, and Mike Tobey took their talents to the next level; the rebuilding had to happen again on the fly with the dismissal of Austin Nichols. Finally, with Isaiah Wilkins — an indispensable part on both ends — limited and then unavailable, a final mini-rebuild had to happen. One doesn’t just shake off that kind of instability.

The 2017 Cavaliers had the talent and depth to beat anyone, but without the proper pieces to run Bennett’s blocker/mover, they had to rely instead on London Perrantes and the first year guards potentially getting hot from long range and then hoping for contributions from one or two guys from the skilled but mercurial junior class. It won us some games and gave us some real highs when it worked, but it wasn’t reliable. Still, don’t forget the 23 wins, an 11–7 ACC mark, and an appearance in the second round of the NCAAs. We just got as far in a rebuilding year as Dave Leitao did in his best one. This season — between the aforementioned marks and the flashes of future brilliance from the rookies — was not a failure. Tony Bennett agrees:

“ I told this team a few nights ago they’re one of my favorite teams. I might have to rethink — no, I’m just kidding. I still feel that way about them because we lost a lot. There was a lot of expectations, but they did a lot. Take this game away — and you can’t take it away completely, but to finish 11–7, to win 23 games, to make the Tournament, to advance with the inexperience and to stay together. We went through some of the losses. I admired that about them, and I’ll always admire that.”

Bennett also opined after the game that he has “got to go back to the drawing board and figure out where we can tighten things up and be better.” I assume that means some tweaks to the offense, something I trust him to do with a diverse cast of returnees and the arrival to the active roster of Jay Huff, DeAndre Hunter, and Marco Anthony. If this year’s first years make some strides physically over the summer, 2018 could be a lot of fun. There’s always hope.

The player that Bennett won’t have is Perrantes. London played this entire season miscast as a primary option and his last game was not the Hollywood ending the UVa faithful would have chosen for him, but once the sting of this game fades from memory, an entire fanbase will be forever grateful to him for steering the ship to 108 wins and this program to heights we hadn’t seen in decades. No matter what happened last night, he’ll always be remembered as a winner.