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Anyways, I wanted to at least write something about this team before they try to earn a Final Four bid this weekend. In the Preseason Special of the Hard Hedge, I made a comment saying that while I expected this year's team to be successful, I was actually slightly more excited about the 2016-2017 team. Part of the reason I thought that was because next year's team will look completely different from the teams of the past couple of years. We will be bringing in a group of players that, in my opinion, have as impressive credentials as any incoming class. There will be size, athleticism, shooting, playmaking, defense, and just an overall diversity of talent that we haven't seen in Charlottesville for quite some time. Bottom line: there are plenty of reasons for being excited about next year's team and I don't necessarily regret what I said in that Preseason Special.
However, this team has turned out to be different than what I had anticipated going into the year. Before the season began, I thought that we were a team with a remarkably high floor, but also with a potentially limited ceiling. We weren't exactly bringing in a crop of fresh faces to shake things up. It was pretty much going to be the same guys as the previous year, and in the cases of Brogdon, Gill, Tobey, Perrantes, and Nolte, the same guys that have come to define this new era of Virginia basketball.
Now obviously, I knew that the team could still have a very special season and accomplish many new things, thanks to our coaching staff's record of player development. I still had very high expectations for this team coming into the year, even if I may have been a bit more excited about next year's version. I actually expected this season to be fairly similar the the uber-successful 2014-2015 campaign. I thought there would be a bit more adversity (in terms of the W/L record) but overall, I anticipated a fun regular season with many wins. The key was that I knew this team was going to be judged by what it did in March.
It's been said a million times now and I know it has become extremely annoying, but if you ask me ,it is and always has been a valid take. No, this doesn't mean that regular season accomplishments are worthless. That being said, the natural next step for this program is success in March, making regular deep runs in the NCAA Tournament. So when I thought about this team, I thought about it with March in mind. I knew that we had pretty much been dealt a terrible hand the prior year, both with the health of Justin Anderson as well as being paired with a grossly underseeded Michigan State for the second year in a row. However, I'd be lying if I said I didn't have concerns about whether this team would, or even could, buck what was starting to become a trend of March disappointments. People said our style wasn't suited for March, that we didn't have enough offensive firepower to rely on in big games, that we're always going to be vulnerable to being picked off by a lesser team in the early rounds, yada yada yada.
As I write this, whatever concerns of that nature that I had are long gone. Does that mean that I would be shocked if UVA was eliminated tonight at the hands of Georges Niang and Iowa State? Surprised? Sure. But not shocked. Insert whatever cliche you like best about March being a crazy time of year when no team can truly feel safe.
Having said that, I'm no longer concerned because I know how prepared this team is. Yes, it helps to have a National POY candidate to go along with an incredibly talented, veteran nucleus. But really, my confidence comes from what has happened throughout the season. Simply put, this team has been through a lot. It's really difficult to have a season with both the highs and lows that we experienced this year without just being a really inconsistent team. The non-conference slate was a blast. The GW loss stung, but it was easily forgotten after wins against Ohio State, California, Villanova, and West Virginia. After taking care of Notre Dame at JPJ to kick off ACC play, I wondered when (not if) this team would rise to #1 in the AP Poll.
However, like the NBA players in Space Jam who had their talent stolen from the Mon-Stars, we suddenly forgot how to play basketball.
Now obviously, it's really easy in hindsight to say that was a turning point. Plenty of fans sent out tweets more or less hoping that would be the case. But the key is that in reality, it's so much more complicated than that. It's not as if the team suddenly realized on account of that comeback/shot, "hey we've been playing pretty badly, let's start playing well." There were so many things wrong with the team at that point that I know that it must have taken an incredible amount of work and concentration to dig themselves out the hole and reestablish themselves as a legitimate national power.
That's what makes this team different. Obviously, it's tempting to draw comparisons to the 2013-2014 team that had a similar resurgence, but if you ask me this year was different. That team was still largely unproven and wanted to be good more than demanded it.. This team had no excuses. They had talent, experience, and even success that year in the non-conference. There was absolutely no reason why that stretch should have happened. It takes some serious guts to not just give in at that point. And not only did they not give in, but they demanded the same level of success that this program has started to become accustomed to. It's still crazy to me, given where we were in January how easily we seemed to earn another one seed. It's not like 2014, which peaked at literally the perfect time to snag the last one seed. But rather this team truly earned it, and while some thought another team may have deserved it more, absolutely no one questioned Virginia's claim to a one seed.
Anyways, as always, I have rambled a bit and gotten off topic. The main point I want to make here is that this team is ready. What has happened this seasons, along with the previous seasons, have prepared them for the challenges they will face tonight (and hopefully further into the future). I no longer ask if we are ready, or if we are built for success in March. Even if it doesn't happen this year, there is no doubt in my mind that it will happen in the near future.
However, the reason why I think it will happen this year has to do with the character of this team. In the past, I believe I have written things like "Joe Harris/Malcolm Brogdon will not let this team lose." It's an easy thing to say and everyone understands what you mean, but that's just not how it works. If a team loses, it's not fair to say it was because its leader "let it lose." For that reason, I'll say this instead. I know that Malcolm Brogdon, Anthony Gill, Mike Tobey, and Evan Nolte are on a mission. I have noticed something different about their approach, both throughout the season, but especially the past few weeks. They're not taking this run for granted. They know how hard it is to achieve what they are trying to achieve. I'm not trying to eulogize these guys, but I will say that whenever their career's do end, they'll be going out on a high note, regardless of the outcome of the games. For all of these reasons, I feel comfortable. I'll still be a nervous wreck tonight, but I know that those guys are ready and are going to put us in as good of a position to win as possible. Add in guys like London Perrantes, Isaiah Wilkins, Marial Shayok, Devon Hall, and Darius Thompson, and I'd put our squad up against any out there.
I'll close with a quote I love that I think sums up this team and what they are trying to accomplish this year. I have already tweeted about it a bunch but I think it's especially relevant now. I learned about its connection to the program in this piece by C.L. Brown at ESPN just before the first Carolina game. Apparently Coach Bennett writes ISAW on the whiteboard before each game. It is a reference to 1 Corinthians 9:24, which speaks about the way runners run a race. This is essentially what I am talking about when I refer to our approach this year and how we have gone about this season. The words themselves are very simple, but have a much deeper significance when you really think about them.
Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize.
There's a reason why Tony writes those four letters on the board before each game. They are a simple yet powerful way to describe what this program is all about.