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 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. 


Monday, March 12, 2018

My Trip to the ACC Tournament

As some of you know, I attended the ACC Tournament in Brooklyn last week, arriving home yesterday afternoon after a triumphant performance by my beloved Wahoos, who capped off a 17-1 romp through the league schedule (9-0 away from home) with a victory over the UNC Tar Heels in the tournament final. This was the first time I attended the ACC Tournament since I was in college (1983-87) and to be honest, while the location was convenient (I had driven up to Newport RI for business, and so I had to drive south to get home), I had some trepidation about holding the tournament there. My trepidation was unwarranted.

I stayed at a fantastic little hotel about a fifteen minute walk from Barclay's Center in Park Slope called Hotel Le Bleu. I was joined by my homie Jeff Stewart, the fellow who wore the Cavalier mascot suit when we were in college. Jeff was there as part of an extended group of other folks--mostly from Savannah GA--who were associated with another friend of ours--Tad Sanders. This Savannah group of about 20 was comprised of a bunch of folks who attended the ACC tournament every year, following their various favorites. There were Tar Heels, Demon Deacons, Wahoos, Tigers, members of the Wolfpack, and others in the group, but thankfully no Blue Devils.

The expansion of the ACC over the years to bring in teams from North of the Mason/Dixon line was something I did not care for. Syracuse, Boston College, Pitt, and Notre Dame belong in other conferences, but my vote was not counted and so we have this monstrously geographically dispersed group of schools from Miami to Boston to near the southern border of Michigan. This larger group of schools appears to have driven league Brahmin to sign a contract to bring the ACC Basketball Tournament to Brooklyn last year and this year (it is in Charlotte next year, which makes sense to me). What interested me the most about the location was how utterly it swallowed up the event. When the tourney is held in Greensboro, NC, the whole city pretty much stops for it. Not so in New York. In fact, while the ACC held their tournament in Brooklyn, the Big East was holding theirs at the Garden. You could walk around Brooklyn and not know there was an ACC tournament going on, save for the old white people in their college hats and sweatshirts.

Park Slope is Ground Zero for Hipsterism, at least that is what I have read for a few years. When I realized that my hotel was in this neighborhood, the Jane Goodall in me was excited at the prospect of observing Hipsters in their natural habitat. Images of ridiculous beards, craft beers, and flannel shirts danced in my mind. The truth was--perhaps predictably--somewhat different. I found the area delightful, full of awesome little restaurants and bars. It was young--there's no doubt about that--but there were a ton of young families out walking around, kids playing in the parks I saw as I walked here and there, and tiny little two-wheeled bicycles stored on tight balconies everywhere. I got a superb Italian meal, great Bar-B-Q, and the best Chinese dumplings I've ever tasted. The people I met were unfailingly polite, and if it weren't so damn cold, I'd have spent more time outdoors.

Barclay's Center is a great place to watch basketball. UVA's first game was the first of four games played on Thursday; Jeffrey and I watched us beat Louisville, then watched Clemson beat BC and Duke beat ND. The final game of the day (UNC v Miami) started after nine, and as I had gotten up at 0400 to make my way to Brooklyn, I decided to go to my hotel to watch it (or at least half of it) in bed.

The semi's on Friday night had UVA v. Clemson and the classic UNC v. Duke matchup. We dispatched Clemson with a workman like effort leading almost the whole game, and then UNC took Duke out in the nightcap. I was hoping UNC would win--I'm a longtime UNC fan, I hate Duke with the heat of 10,000 Suns, and I think UVA matches up with them less well than they do with UNC. The final on Saturday night validated my suspicions, as the Wahoos held off UNC in a good game to watch.

So now I find myself following a team that won the toughest league in America that finished the season with half the number of losses of the next best teams (351 teams in D1 ball, 350 of them had four or more losses. UVA had 2). They are the #1 seed in the South Regional, the #1 seed overall, and are being mentioned as a Final Four team, although it seems that most analysts continue to resist making them the favorite to win. I understand their reticence--it is hard for me to process that they are this good, but the bottom line is the bottom line. They have been dominant this year, they play stifling defense and are a very efficient offensive team.

I won't be able to attend the first and second rounds in Charlotte, but if the Hoos win their first two, I'll be in Atlanta for the Regionals and if they get to the final four in San Antonio--I'll be there too. This has been a magical year thus far, and I'm gonna try to be a tiny little part of as much of it as I can.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

The Conservative Wahoo Bracket Challenge 2018

Hey folks--  go over to:

And join my bracket challenge. First prize? Adulation and esteem.

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Sunday Potpourri

I am not a fan of the month of March, outside of the greatness of college basketball. There are no good holidays (St. Patricks Day is not a holiday), the weather absolutely blows, and I spend a good deal of time thinking about sitting down to do my taxes. Did I mention the weather absolutely blows? I've had enough of winter by now, and March likes to finish things off with (as my friend Kurt Schick wrote in college) "A Case of the Winds". A big blow has lurked off the coast for days now, and it finally seems to be abating. Cold plus wind equals misery. Additionally, my travel schedule this week takes me North (Newport RI, Brooklyn NY), which only compounds the weather misery. As a younger man, I prattled on about defined seasons and crisp winter air. Now I just want a condo in Boca.

Returning to the month of March, a few words about college basketball, specifically, my beloved Wahoos.  There is a lot of talk this year about there being no "great teams" in the game, mostly because Duke, UNC, Kansas, Arizona, Michigan State, and Villanova--have dropped games during the season that those in know think they should have won. Yet my Hoos just finished a 28-2 regular season with a 17-1 record in the ACC, which is generally considered to be a very talented group of basketball teams. They've been #1 for (what tomorrow will be) four straight polls. They have 10 wins over KenPom Top 50 Teams. Their average margin of victory is nearly 15 pts per game, while scoring only 67.5 ppg.

At the start of the season, they were not ranked in the Top 25 and they were picked by ACC sports writers to finish 6 or 7 in the ACC, a league they won by 4 games.

As I said, I have some travel this week, and one of the places I'll be is in Brooklyn NY at noon Thursday to watch the Hoos in their first ACC tournament game. And each game in the tournament after that. I'm trying to adjust my March/April schedule in a manner that leaves me the option of GOING TO as many NCAA Tournament games as I can. I'm gonna roll with this team as long as they'll have me this year. Enough hoops.

I'm enjoying watching America spin up over the President's plan to raise tariffs on foreign steel and aluminum, especially those "Trump Whisperers" within the Republican Party whose self-appointed job is to translate Trumpian glandularism for the rest of us--and who for two years now have tried to tell us that he is a free-trader and not a protectionist. This has of course, been bullshit all along, and now we have irrefutable evidence of it. You can't be a "free-trader" and then impose blanket tariffs on an import IRRESPECTIVE OF WHAT COUNTRY PRODUCES IT.  I keep waiting for the "this is the last straw" moment to hit Republican apologists who used to know better--and perhaps this is the moment.

I've begun reading again. I mean serious, habitual reading. I've become concerned about the loss of long-term focus that comes from smartphone addiction/use, and so I've banned the phone from my bedroom and kitchen (where important people I should be communicating with seem to be) and I've made a point of sitting down and reading again. I remember twenty years ago being able to veg on the couch for 12 hours reading a book without much other than an occasional break. I fear that skill has declined, and so I'm trying to recapture it. I've dispatched American Warlords and Leonardo da Vinci in the past week, and I think I'll turn my attention on another biography of US Grant later today.

Have a good week.

Friday, March 2, 2018

Guns and Trade: My Trump Schadenfreude Runneth Over

It has been a while since I last posted here at the Wahoo, a time in which I've been devoting a good bit of personal energy to breaking up with my phone and reducing social media. Yesterday dealt an epic blow to those efforts--mostly due to a UVA basketball created Twitter activity associated with last-night's epic comeback against Louisville (in Louisville). Truth be told--I lost faith in my Hoos and I am ashamed of myself, especially after the gutsy comeback. But that is grist for another piece. And while I'm here to engage in self aggrandizing schadenfreude, it is not about UVA Basketball, but about our ridiculous President.

There has been an incredible amount of on the fly revisionism within the Republican Party as President Trump has lurched from one glandular impulse to another in office. We are told not to worry about what he says, but to watch what he does--an interesting line from a Party for whom prudence, judgment, and morality once made a difference. We are advised to be happy because of inspired judicial picks and because of (necessary) deregulation. We are told to admire the strength of the men he has surrounded himself with on national security matters without a hint of irony at the threats to our national security from this man's impulses that make their service essential. Mostly, we are assured by self-appointed Trump Whisperers that this is actually just a very bland middle of the road Republican Administration -- when one chooses to ignore the Clockwork Orange circus that has pitched its tent on Pennsylvania Avenue.

Many us who lived our lives as bland, middle of the road Republicans viewed the candidacy of Donald Trump with great suspicion. He wasn't one of us. He had the impulses of a Queens social climber attempting to curry favor with his betters on the Upper West Side. He spent most of his life as an urbanist, anti-gun, pro-choice, isolationist, protectionist, big government Democrat who thought that because he waded through construction site lunch gatherings now and then, he was a man attuned to the "little guy". And to the extent that these little guys were the foot soldiers of  organized crime influenced construction unions with whom he was cozy, I suppose he could make such a claim.

But--our country--in a generalized snit of self-pity--elected this man at the head of one of its great (and formerly conservative) political parties, President of the United States. There was no mystery as to who he was--some loved it, and some hated his opponent so much that they felt they had to vote for him. But to the extent that he actually believed in anything, those beliefs were of a man of the center left. And so--we come to the events of this last week.

We are presented with a man who has no respect for the Constitution--whether one ponders its amendment protecting the right to bear arms or its protections of due process. His preference for restrictions on speech already well-known, we are left with a man un-dedicated to the document he swore to defend.

Moving on now to trade policy, he has the instincts of George Meany, or any other socialist/labor union organizer of fifty years ago--and his grandstanding ridiculosity on steel and aluminum tariffs reinforce this. Free trading people on the right must reject this, as they must reject the stupidity of the "he's a free trader, but it has to be fair trade" crowd.  Ben Shapiro has had a few tweets today that I find worth reviewing:

I sit here this morning typing this post two years to the day after which Eliot Cohen and I published our "Open Letter on Trump from GOP National Security Leaders" in which we sought to point out to anyone interested the utter unfitness for office of Donald Trump. As I read through it again, I find myself utterly satisfied that we measured the man appropriately. Sleep well, America.
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