CHARLOTTE, NC — Tony Bennett wasn’t watching … or at least until one of his Virginia men’s basketball staff told him: “Hey, turn the game on. I think we can have company.
The game in question? No. 1 seed Purdue and No. 16 seed Fairleigh Dickinson, in the first round of the 2023 NCAA Tournament.
Bennett’s staff was on to something. When the Virginia coach clicked on the TV, five years after the top-seeded Cavaliers lost to No. 16 seed UMBC — the first 16-over upset in March Madness history — he saw Matt Painter’s Boilermakers in the same situation at No. 16. – Race Fairlie Dickinson. “It was the weirdest feeling, because I just started pulling for Purdue,” Bennett said at ACC tipoff on Wednesday. I’m like, oh, don’t, no.” And as if Bennett needed more rooting, consider this: It was his 2019 Virginia side — which redeemed that humiliating loss by winning the national title — that beat Purdue in overtime in a thrilling Elite Eight game, preventing Painter from reaching his first Final Four.
Bennett is saying something for Purdue’s affiliation with FDU. Purdue’s 63-58 loss came hours after Bennett’s Cavaliers suffered another NCAA tournament upset, this time against No. 13 Furman, a No. 4 seed, after a last-second turnover. (Incredibly, Virginia point guard Kei Clark — who saved the Knights’ season against Purdue in the 2019 Elite Eight — made the mistake.) As the final minutes of the Purdue game ticked away, someone around Bennett asked him, “Don’t you want some company?”
“No,” he answered emphatically. “I respect (painter). He did a fantastic job. I think he’s one of the best coaches in our game.”
Moments after the final whistle — welcoming the Boilermakers to a two-team club no one wants to join — Bennett fired off a text with some words of encouragement. “I can’t even remember what I said, but I thought it was the right thing to do,” Bennett said. “And, again, if something wants to take me down… but it doesn’t need to. He is very good.” Part of Bennett’s message is about the difference between a good program and a good season, Painter told The Athletic this spring. “We’ve built a good program. You can’t lose that,” Painter said in April. But I know I’d be a fool if I didn’t think I needed to make some subtle changes.
Basically, one loss does not define you or your program.
That said, though, “when it hits you,” Painter said in September, “it’s a huge hole in your stomach.”
In some ways, Bennett’s advice was a good deed paid forward. When Virginia lost to UMBC, he heard from his coaching peers: Mike Krzyzewski, Tom Izzo, Jim Boeheim and others. None, obviously, experienced the dreaded 16-over-1 embarrassment, but all were fired up from various NCAA tournaments against the No. 2 and 3 seeds.
As Painter said in September: “Misery loves company, doesn’t it?”
What comes next will play a key role in shaping Painter’s legacy, but also the direction of Purdue’s future. While Fairleigh Dickinson’s loss stands alone as an insult, that loss represents the Boilermakers’ third straight loss to teams seeded 13 or higher in the NCAA Tournament (No. 13 North Texas in the 1st round in 2021, No. 15 St. Peter’s in the Sweet 16 in 2022). Naturally, an artist is aware of the perception that comes from those missteps and the fact that there is only one way to undo it.
Ideally, duplicating Virginia’s worst-to-first effort.
“It’s almost easy for me,” Bennett said. “We beat him the next year, and you never know if that’s going to happen — even if it’s a great team. They’re special. They could be, and if that happens, that’s going to be amazing, you know?”
If there are reasons for cautious optimism, it’s the similarities between Virginia’s 2019 championship and Purdue teams this season. Both had a player who made little impact in a historic loss (De’Andre Hunter to Virginia, Trey Cowman-Rein to Purdue), and would have played a big role next season. (That would be Hunter, and Kaufman-Ren, a redshirt sophomore is borderline cosmic coincidence.) Both of those teams return cores; Kyle Guy and Ty Jerome in Virginia’s case, and national player of the year Zach Idey and the rookie backcourt at Purdue. And like Painter, Bennett was a highly respected coach among the nation’s best, with a failure to reach the Final Four still on his resume.
Until Bennett, it wasn’t.
Now is Painter and Purdue’s chance to do the same.
“It handles, and it’s built to handle that,” Bennett said. “I wish that didn’t happen, but it did — and I think they’re going to use it the right way, just like our guys did when it came against us.”
(Tony Bennett photo by ACC tipoff: Jim Dedmon / USA Today)