Tony Bennett on road to Final Four

Sometimes Virginia coach Tony Bennett can only spread his arms wide in amazement at how hard it is to get to the Final Four and then win the national championship.

MINNEAPOLIS

Now that the gang’s all here — Tony, Tom, Bruce and Chris — the coaches in the Final Four can stop thinking about how they arrived and begin to focus on how to stay.

Each is one game away from playing for the national championship.

Tom Izzo, Michigan State’s coach, has been here seven times before.

That’s an impressive accomplishment. Izzo, being a coach, isn’t thinking about that. He’s thinking of the six that got away and the one, in his eighth Final Four appearance, he now has a chance to grab.

“I’m going to disclose one thing,” Izzo said. “I’m going to try to win this time. I don’t know if I’ve done a good job of that.”

It’s not that Izzo wasn’t trying. He wonders if he tried too hard.

“Everybody sometimes gets too tight in the Final Four,” Izzo said. “Sometimes even as a coach, you’re just happy to be here. And sometimes I’m trying to look at what I can do better than I did. I might talk to guys like Jay Wright [Villanova] who have done it and figure out different approaches. Did you grind it? Did you let them just go loose?”

Izzo would seem to be the last person in this Final Four to need advice. His seven previous appearances haven’t been all he hoped. Michigan State won the national championship in 2000, but he’s already done seven times what hundreds of coaches dream of doing just once.

Virginia is the only No. 1 seed left in the tournament. Technically, that makes the Cavaliers the favorite. But to get here, Michigan State had to do something Virginia failed to do twice this season — beat Duke.

Maybe that makes Michigan State the favorite. Experience should count for something.

But first-time teams have won the championship.

Auburn, led by the coaching of Bruce Pearl, beat Kentucky in the Midwest Region final, an upstart knocking off a college basketball blue blood.

Texas Tech is not going to win the Final Four beauty pageant with its play. The Red Raiders play defense so hard games practically turn into masonry contests because so many bricks are tossed at the basket.

But Red Raiders’ coach Chris Beard does have plenty of Final Four experience.

“I’ve gone to the Final Four every year for my career,” Beard said. “I just never coached there.”

Well, they also serve who only stand and wait.

“But in all seriousness . . . If a coach’s job was put into one sentence, it would be to do everything he can to help his team win,” Beard said. “It’s not just X’s and O’s. It’s the Final Four . . . and I’m just trying to give my guys all the information they need.”

Izzo’s demeanor during games leaves the impression that he is driven to win, sometimes beyond reason. His interaction with players who have made mental mistakes is unrestrained.

And yet, he believes the players should think about more than basketball this week and weekend. He was in Minneapolis in 2001 with Michigan State.

“It was snowing a little bit, and we were out by the airport, 20-25 minutes from downtown,” Izzo said.

And not an Uber or Lyft in sight.

“The NCAA has done a great job of getting us all downtown,” Izzo said. “I think that’s one of the neater things that has happened. You’re working a lot of hours during the Final Four, but if your players can get a little of the feel . . . The Final Four is bigger than a player, a coach, a program.”

Virginia last appeared in the Final Four in 1984. Terry Holland was the coach. Ricky Stokes (Highland Springs High School) and Othell Wilson were the “waterbug” guards. Jim Miller, now the Cavaliers’ radio analyst, was a starting forward and Rick Carlisle, who played all or parts of five seasons in the NBA and has been an NBA head coach for 17 seasons — now with Dallas — was the team’s second-leading scorer.

That doesn’t mean anything now.

“You get your rest, Bennett said. “You prepare well, and when you have a thankful heart and strong desire to do well, that’s a good combination.”

Tony, Tom, Bruce and Chris hope all that is a winning combination.

(804) 649-6444

@World_of_Woody

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