Sunday, March 18, 2018

In Which I Confront UVA's Latest Epic Collapse

I'm not sure I'm completely ready to do this yet, the agony having only occurred a day and a half ago. Avoiding most media yesterday was helpful, as was spending the day with a good book. The Kitten and I had a wonderful dinner in St. Michaels last night, and then a quiet evening watching Netflix re-runs of "Cheers", a show that coincided with my college years and the first four in the Navy, a time where TV watching wasn't high on my list. I have not watched a single second of basketball since the loss, and I suppose that might be the case for the remainder of the tournament.

The loss to UMBC the other night was devastating. Putting aside the fact that #1 seeds had been 135-0 before the game, the character of the loss should be remembered. We were horsewhipped. And worse, the UVA tournament choking narrative received a colossal shot of energy, just when it looked as if there were finally a group of players who could put it to bed.

I have been a UVA basketball fan for 37 years; Ralph Sampson's 3rd and 4th years there mapped with my junior and senior years in high school, and exposure to that phenomenon brought UVA onto my radar screen which led to my application. These earlier salad days of UVA hoops--it must be remembered--included 0 ACC titles and 0 NCAA titles. Riding on the back of the three-time college player of the year, the best UVA could do was one Final Four appearance. My first year there (Ralph's first in the NBA) brought a Cinderella performance in the tournament leading to the Final Four. But most of the 37 years have been frustrating. Solid, but frustrating.

Then came Coach Tony Bennett in 2009, and since the 2011 season, UVA has steadily emerged as an ACC powerhouse, with six NCAA appearances and 3 ACC regular season titles, two of which also included ACC tournament victories.  But success in the NCAA tournament has proven elusive for Bennett's teams. Actually, that's not a comprehensive way to describe it. Bennett's teams have under-performed in the NCAA Tournament, so much so that a narrative has emerged in the college basketball world. And that narrative is that UVA simply cannot get it done in the Tournament. Worse--they choke there. I won't recount the past wounds, the present one occupying such a prominent place in the pit of my stomach. But Google it.

This narrative would be bad enough to deal with if Virginia played like other teams. But it doesn't. It plays a unique style of basketball that thrills its adherents (including me, mostly), frustrates its opponents, and for much of the Bennett era--bores the basketball writers to the extent that many openly criticize UVA's approach as "bad for bastketball". When UVA has lost in the NCAA's, these writers cluck and tut in a "we told you so manner" while teams UVA beat earlier in the season (UNC, Duke, Villanova) go on to win national titles. Am I painting a picture yet of the frustration?

This year seemed different. First of all, no one expected UVA to be very good. We lost our leading scorer, three guys transferred, and not one of the starting five scored in double figures last year. Writers picked us to finish 6th in the ACC, and based on what the five in front of them were bringing back from last year, I couldn't argue with them.

But then the games began, and Virginia began to build momentum. The first big win was over Carolina at home, and then we went to Duke and beat them there. As time went on, writers began to publicly acknowledge their mistake in overlooking UVA, and the team earned greater respect. But always....always....there was the narrative. They'll choke at the big dance. They can't score fast enough to beat a hot shooting team. Everyone plays high-level defense during the tournament. Perhaps worst of all--this narrative was alive....in my own head.

When they became the #1 team in the country after terrible, flat loss to Virginia Tech (game film of which surely was consumed by the UMBC coaching staff who essentially mimicked the gameplan), I scratched my head--but then again, the other possible #1's had bad weekends too. They stayed there for a month and then dominated the ACC tournament. This team looked like it was the one to finally break the narrative. And then began the unraveling, in a manner familiar to UVA fans who've seen late season injury and illness (Justin Anderson, Isiah Wilkins) before.

ACC Sixth Man of the Year and likely someday NBA first rounder De'Andre Hunter broke his wrist in the ACC Tournament, and the announcement was received by UVA fans with a collective gasp of horror. The narrative....the curse.....was alive. At least it felt that way. Sure, some did a good job of trying to mathematically prove how we could still score and defend enough to make a deep run....but I think deep in the heart of all but the most over-the-top Homers--there it was. We were snakebit.

Not that this meant what happened Friday night. I suppose many of us thought that were we to lose, it would be in the round of 16 or the round of 8--a game effort without the "glue guy" who really helped us to the 31-2 record. But Friday night. Friday night was different. It is a nasty gaping wound in the collective psyche of UVA basketball fans. Not getting to the Final Four in 2018 can fairly be attributed to the loss of a key part of the team. Losing to a 16 seed in the first round cannot. So then--what can it be attributed to? What can account for this team's recent gaudy runs through league play only to lose frustratingly in the NCAA's?

Coaching. I'm sorry, but there it is. Coaching. Preparation. "The System".

Let's get a few things out of the way. I love Coach Tony Bennett. I think he is a very, very good basketball coach. He is also--from all accounts--a superb human being. UVA fans are fortunate to have him, and I wouldn't trade him for any other coach in the country. We are consistently winning in the best league in the country with a clean program and guys who graduate.

But--and here is the big finish--you cannot logically and coherently attribute UVA's regular season and ACC tournament success since 2011 to the creation and sustainment of a "system" and then look the other way when the team consistently under-performs in the NCAA tournament. Pointing this out DOES NOT MEAN THAT TONY BENNETT ISN'T A GREAT COACH OF THAT I WANT ANYONE ELSE TO BE OUR COACH. It simply means that for this program to reach the next level, the coach and the system are going to have to improve, to change. Do I know what that means in implementation? No. Of course not. I'm a fan, not a coach. After the game, Bennett said of UMBC that they ran an offense against which UVA has been susceptible this year. Ok--then don't be susceptible.

Writer John Feinstein had two Tweets this morning that speak directly to what I am writing here, so I'll include both so that I can respond.




And then,




My point here is that if anyone believes Coaches Smith, K, and Wooden DID NOT MAKE CHANGES or improve as system architects over those years--they are kidding themselves. We can--as fans--simultaneously hold in our minds the two separate ideas: that we are fortunate to have Bennett as our coach AND that there is some serious work to be done by the coach for the team to reach the next level and for him to be considered in the class of the coaches just named. 

Wahoowa.



2 comments:

"The Hammer" said...

I agree, Coach didn't have them prepared. The first game is always the most dangerous, especially for high seeds. The lower seeds have the luxury of a successful year already achieved, so anything else is gravy.
But to your other point, teams have characteristics regardless of who's coaching. NCSU has a habit of losing when we're supposed to win, winning when we're supposed to lose, and extremely consistent mediocrity in-between. It's been like that since we beat #2 South Carolina in the 1970 ACC final precipitating their departure from the league (a move I and they REGRET TO THIS VERY DAY).
The book on UVA is they choke in the tournament, a fact I assure you UMBC was aware of and used by the coaching staff to motivate their players. Bennett should have treated the NCAA opener like the tournament final, but I'll bet you 50 bucks to a donut hole after the ACC tournament they all high-fived each other and took a mental victory lap. Bennett should have made last weeks practices hell on earth.
In every area of human endeavor and I don't care what it is, complacency is a killer. More sweat in training, less blood in combat.

"The Hammer" said...

“the UVA tournament choking narrative received a colossal shot of energy,”
A shot of energy you say? “CHOKER” should be carved into Jefferson’s forehead on Mt. Rushmore!

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