Friday, March 25, 2016

Sweet 16 Thoughts

So I didn't want to go the entire season without writing a single blog post on this team. The working world has hit me like a Mack truck, so I haven't really had the time to come up with a thoughtful, well-researched post (no promises that this post will be thoughtful and well-researched). Also, I have covered much of what I would have been writing in my appearances on The Hard Hedge.

Check out the Sweet 16 preview for more in-depth analysis on the game:

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.

The reputation that Virginia basketball had built for itself seemed to be gone at the drop of a hat. I'm usually pretty even-keeled when I'm watching our games on TV, but that stretch in January was just so unbelievably frustrating. Those games were painful to watch, not because we were losing or playing poorly, but more-so because of the way we were doing it. Everyone knows it came to a head down in Winston-Salem. I could write a few thousand words about that game alone, but to spare you, let's just say that game marked a clear fork in the road. The team had two options: 1) celebrate a much needed win and go about their business or 2) treat it as a blessing and realize that such type of play was unacceptable and must end there.

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.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

That looked familiar

So some time during last night's National Championship game, I realized that the game was starting to remind me a lot of Virginia's huge game against Duke back in January in Charlottesville. When everything seemed to be going Wisconsin's way, I tweeted this:

A few minutes later, when Grayson Allen and Tyus Jones started to help Duke get back into the game and ultimately take the lead, I tweeted this:

Ultimately, the game ended up being a LOT like the Duke-Virginia game. Duke seized the game from Wisconsin the same way they seized the game from Virginia back in January.

Today, I wanted to go back and look at just how similar the two games were.

Well, it turns out that my hunch last night was pretty spot on. The two games were nearly identical. In both games, Duke started strong and built a decent lead in the first half. Against Virginia, Duke led 22-17 with 5:15 left in the half. Against the Badgers, Duke led 23-17 with 5:56 remaining. Then, both Virginia and Wisconsin closed the half strong and tightened the games.

Both UVA and Wisconsin carried the momentum they had built at the end of the first half into the second half, as each team built leads over the Blue Devils. The main difference is that Virginia led for longer (the Hoos led for 14:42 in the 2nd half) and by a larger margin (as large as 11 with 9:40 to play) than the Badgers did. Still, it's pretty remarkable how similar the two stretches were.

The biggest similarity between the two games, however, was how Duke finished. Each game featured a moment where it seemed like a light switch flipped on for the Blue Devils. In the Virginia game, that moment came with 5:08 left in the game, as Tyus Jones converted a 3 point play to cut the deficit from 9 to 6 points. This was immediately following Justise Winslow's infamous technical foul, which ultimately ended up being a 4 point play for the Hoos. Prior to Winslow's technical, Duke had cut the Virginia lead to 2, and seemed to be right back in the game. But UVA took Duke's punch, and punched right back (not literally, although almost literally, as Justin Anderson somehow resisted the urge to retaliate against Winslow for his bogus/potentially dangerous play). But then, as I said before, it was as if the lights switched on for Duke. Following the 4 point trip resulting from Winsolw's technical, Duke went on a 22-7 run, including scoring the game's last 11 points.

The "light-switch" moment in the Wisconsin game came a bit earlier than in the Virginia game. When Frank Kaminsky finished at the rim with 13:23 left, he gave the Badgers a 9 point lead, their biggest of the game. In response, Coach K called Duke's 3rd timeout. Coming out of the timeout, Duke freshman Grayson Allen nailed a three pointer and followed it up by diving on the floor for a near steal on the other end. On the next possession, Allen finished off an and-1 play and the Devils were right back in the game. But like Virginia, Wisconsin seemed to have an answer, as Nigel Hayes hit a clutch three to push the Badgers' lead back to 5.

However, from there on out, as well all now, it was all Duke. Once the Blue Devils regained the lead, it seemed pretty clear to all watching that they were not going to give it back.

Anyways, I am not really sure what my message is in this post other than that I thought it was interesting to see how similar the two games were. In the end, Duke won both games (in my opinion, their two biggest/gutsiest wins of the year), for two main reasons. First, they hit shots. No Virginia fan will ever forget what Duke's guards did at the end of the meeting in January. It was so unbelievable, that many if not most members of the media did not really treat Virginia's loss to Duke as a loss. It was pretty common to hear something like, "Yeah they lost to Duke, but it was kind of a fluke. Did you see the ending?!?" Well, maybe it wasn't a fluke after all.

The second reason they won these two big games? They made stops. A lot of people (including myself) liked to rag on this Duke team because they had some embarrassing losses. Well those happened because of their complete lack of identity on defense. If they ran into a team that could score, they were in big trouble. This is the main reason why I honestly doubted they could make a deep run in March. The team I saw all year had far too many holes on defense to win 6 games in 3 weeks against top notch competition. But this wasn't the team I saw all year. Duke's defense didn't just go from bad to serviceable in the tournament. It was legitimately good during the Final Four, and it's the main reason why they cut down the nets last night. Bottom line, Duke made stops, Wisconsin didn't.

For some reason, I haven't seen many Duke fans on my timeline the past few days complaining about how defense is ruining college basketball. I wonder why...

Friday, February 27, 2015

Senior Day Tribute to Darion Atkins

Around this time last year I wrote one of the most emotional pieces I have ever written on this site. It
was essentially a Senior Day tribute to Joe Harris, Akil Mitchell, and Thomas Rogers. To be honest, looking back on it, the post really wrote itself. Take Joe Harris, for instance. A coach's son from small-town Washington who decided to put his future in the hands of Tony Bennett by agreeing to follow him from Washington State to Virginia. Or Akil Mitchell, the recruit who has his scholarship offer from George Washington pulled, only to graduate college with the reputation as one of the best defenders in the country. Like I said, the stories pretty much wrote themselves. The only difficulty I had writing them was having to resist the temptation to write a 10,000 word post.

While both Joe and Akil's stories were incredible, they were somewhat predictable. As you watched them during their four years in Charlottesville, you began to realize that the progression of their careers nearly perfectly mirrored the progression of the program as a whole. As they grew and improved, so did the program (obviously, that is not a coincidence). Their final game seemed to be the culmination of everything. What better way to go out than to beat Syracuse to win the ACC in your final home game? In many ways, their stories were too perfect.

The same cannot be said about the story and career of Darion Atkins. Less than a year ago, after Virginia had just stumbled past Coastal Carolina to move on to the third round of the NCAA tournament, the frustration finally got to him. In a three month span in which everything seemed to be going right for the Virginia basketball program, the issue of Darion Atkins and his playing time was a kind of "elephant in the room." It was something that all fans were aware of, but few actually worried about, as the team was clearly finding ways to succeed despite whatever tension existed behind closed doors. Those that broached the topic did so mainly referring to its impact on next year, not this year. That changed in the locker room following the win over Coastal Carolina.

While others spoke about the game or the upcoming matchup with the Memphis Tigers, Atkins
vented about the decrease in his playing time to veteran Daily Press reporter Norm Wood:

“I can’t even express how frustrated I get sometimes. I feel like I want to talk a certain way to my coaches, or act a certain way, but I just have to keep it concealed. I mean, I don’t even really know what else to say. It’s really frustrating and I just have to stay positive.

“I feel like some guys mess up, and I don’t mess up. It just works on your head when you’re on the bench and you see people going in front of you and you just feel like you can not necessarily do better, but I just feel like I’m not really contributing.”

There was no more "elephant in the room." Fans stopped wondering about how Darion's lack of playing time would affect the team next year, and instead began to worry whether the issue could pose a threat to the current team's success. Other than a minor setback against Maryland, which most Virginia fans would probably say might have been a good thing, these comments represented the first sign of something going wrong with Virginia basketball in months. It became the topic of conversation in the media. That's not exactly a good thing for a team preparing to face a talented Memphis squad in less than 48 hours.

Looking back on the situation, it is clear that the comments had no impact on the team's results the rest of the way. Tony Bennett and the rest of the team understood that the words were simply the words of a frustrated kid who had more or less been dealt a bad hand, on more than one occasion. They were not indicative of some larger problem concerning Darion and the team. And yet, they did make outsiders wonder about his future at Virginia.

Some speculated that Atkins would graduate early and transfer to use his final year of eligibility at another school. Some wondered what next year's team would be like if he couldn't step up and be the leader that most seniors are expected to be. Many simply assumed that he would remain in Coach Bennett's "doghouse" and worried about the depth in the frontcourt.]

Few, if any, got it right.

Many "experts" will tell you that Justin Anderson is the most improved player in the country. While what Justin has done this year is incredible, I do not believe he is even the most improved player on his own team. That honor is reserved for Darion Atkins. I say this because it is one thing to work on your shot and offensive skillset in the offseason to try and prepare yourself to fill the shoes of Joe Harris. It was clear to Justin what he was working towards. The success of the team was going to depend greatly upon how much he improved, without question. It's another thing to put in all of that work when you're not even sure if you're going to play. It would have been so easy for Darion to just pack it in, not push himself in the offseason, and accept a small role coming of the bench on occasion. Thankfully, that wasn't good enough for him.

Instead, Darion DID put in the work, and then some. The first thing I noticed when the season began, and actually even earlier in the practice videos, was his physical transformation. He looked like he could have never been the skinny guy that he was just a short time ago. Then, you could tell that he had worked hard to become a contributor on offense. Just about every fan knew that Darion always had great potential, on both sides of the ball, but the question was whether that potential would ever become reliable production. We had seen him on the verge of making this step during the early part of his sophomore season. In the first few months of the 2012-2013 season, someone could have asked me, "Who has played the best basketball so far?" and my answer probably would have been Darion Atkins. He was sensational in a road upset of Wisconsin and a tough home win against Tennessee the following week. He was active on the glass on both ends and displayed tremendous improvement in his offensive ability. Many fans were extremely excited about the potential athleticism and versatility of a starting frontcourt of Atkins and Akil Mitchell. And then, Atkins got hurt.

I hate playing the "What if" game, but I will say that I do believe that both Virginia's 2012-2013 season and Darion's career would have turned out very differently had he not injured his shin. That was something that always bothered me. Losing him that year was frustrating, but that team still did some very nice things, and quite frankly, should have made the NCAA Tournament even in his absence. What really bothered me was that last year, when he made those controversial comments after the Coastal Carolina game, I realized that this could have all been avoided had he stayed healthy. He was on track to become on of Virginia's next great post players. I was so high on him that I really believed that he would be in the starting lineup at the beginning of the season last year, now that he was fully healthy. When his playing time decreased as the season went on, I really felt bad for him, and thought he got a raw deal. I didn't blame him for feeling frustrated. I got it.

I will, however, admit that I did not see this type of season from him coming. I thought that he would indeed step up and become a guy that could be relied upon as a solid contributor in the post, but when I thought of our frontcourt, I thought of Anthony Gill and Mike Tobey. While those players might have slightly more potential than Atkins, I really feel that Darion has been indispensable this year. I feel incredibly comfortable whenever he has the ball. He now shows the calmness and patience that you would expect from a senior.

This team would still be good even if Darion Atkins had decided to take the easy road and accepted a role coming off the bench in certain situations. He is not as absolutely essential to the team's success as guys like Malcolm Brogdon, Justin Anderson, or London Perrantes. But this team isn't just good; it is historically good. That sort of thing only happens when guys like Darion Atkins buy in, something that he is clearly done.

Whether right or wrong, Senior Day's are often tied up and associated with "legacies". Sometimes when you hear enough stories about guys like Joe Harris and Akil Mitchell, you forget that things don't always work out perfectly. The path to success isn't always linear, in fact, it rarely ever is. Few fans spent much time thinking about the legacies of Joe Harris and Akil Mitchell because everyone always knew how much they meant to the program, even before the incredible run last year.

I have always wondered what Darion's legacy will be. While he came to the school as part of recruiting class with Paul Jesperson and Malcolm Brogdon, he'll be the only scholarship senior honored tomorrow afternoon. I wonder what the reaction is going to be like. It will be near impossible to top last year's incredible ceremony. But I hope the fans realize what guys like Darion Atkins mean to a program. These days, more often than not, when a player struggles to find playing time, they look for it elsewhere instead of being patient and working to improve. UVA has seen at least one player transfer every year for I don't even know how many years. And yet, tomorrow we get the chance to honor a guy who was patient and chose to fight his frustration by working his butt off instead of looking for an easy way out. Before this season, it was common to see or hear Virginia fans say, "We'll be good this year, but we'll be GREAT the next year."

UVA is great this year, and for that, we can thank Darion Atkins.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Showdown in South Bend

When I went back to review last year's matchups between Virginia and Notre Dame, I realized something. Virginia's win in South Bend last year sort of set the tone for the rest of its season. What I mean by this is that we as fans started to look at that team differently after what they did to the Irish. It wasn't just that Virginia won, or even that they won by a wide margin, but rather it was the way they played. I think if you went and asked Virginia fans what game was the most fun to watch of the incredible 2013-2014 season, that road win against the Irish would be right up there with the wins against Syracuse, Duke, and Memphis. That says something. Against Syracuse, it was a Senior Day blowout to clinch the ACC regular season title. The win against Duke gave Virginia its first ACC tournament title since 1976. And the thrashing of Memphis allowed Wahoo fans to dance their way into the Sweet 16. It's easy to understand why fans would have fun during those games. But then you have that Notre Dame game. It was a game Virginia was expected to win, even on the road. The Irish still had plenty of weapons, even with the loss of their star player Jerian Grant. They proved that they could still be dangerous by beating a top 10 Duke team shortly after losing Grant for the season. But still, this was a game that if Virginia was as good as its fans believed they were, or could be, they should go into South Bend and leave with a win. That they did, but again the reason why I'm even discussing this game with the likes of the Syracuse, Duke, and Memphis games is because of how Virginia played.

If you need a refresher, check this out...

Or if you're short on time, this will suffice.

Basically, Virginia went into Purcell Pavilion and put on a clinic. I hate using a cliche like that, but honestly that's what it was. If you want to see how a team ought to play on both ends of the floor, just watch that game. It was incredible.

It started with the defense, as UVA employed the post trap early and often against Notre Dame's most bearded post player, Garrick Sherman (not to be confused with Jean Valjean).

Sherman really struggled against the double team and turned the ball over, leading to some easy transition buckets for Virginia, including Malcolm Brogdon's "Hollywood" slam.

The Cavs also played beautiful basketball on the offensive end. One of the main reasons the game was so much fun to watch, especially on TV was to hear Bob Knight and Digger Phelps gush over London Perrantes as if he was the second coming of Bob Cousy (Knight would later refer to him as the best point guard in the country). London gave them plenty to talk about, too, as this game effectively served as his coming out party.

Anyways, for a number of reasons, the game was incredibly and somewhat surprisingly enjoyable to watch. It was the first test of a BIG week for Virginia, as UVA would head to then #18 Pittsburgh for a Super Bowl Sunday showdown with the Panthers. It was a game that in the past, Virginia probably would have lost, killing the momentum they had built up by winning 6 of their last 7 games since the Tennessee debacle. But there was no letdown, and that is why I'm spending so much time discussing this game. I truly believe that what we were able to do that night in South Bend is a big reason where the program is where it is right now. Obviously, a lot of things happened in between that beautiful win and starting 14-0 and earning the #3 ranking, but that performance seemed foreshadow the success. It was, in a sense, the start of the incredible journey that continued into last season and still continues even today.

I say all of this because I think there's a decent chance that journey hits a bump in the road tonight. This year's Notre Dame team is very, very good. Sort of like Virginia, they do what they do, and they do it well, and what they do is play flawless offense. Any Mike Brey team is going to be a good passing and shooting team, but this one is possibly his best. They have guys that really know each other and understand how to play well together.

Obviously, it all starts with Jerian Grant. We all saw how valuable he was to that team last year when they nosedived to the bottom of the conference with his absence. Some fans will ask, "how are we going stop Jerian from scoring?" and while that is clearly an important question, it's not the one that concerns me the most. That would be, "how are we going to stop Jerian from distributing?" While Grant is a fantastic scorer, it's almost as if he scores just so he can make it easier to set up opportunities for his teammates. He's not a terrible three point shooter, but he knows that he's got guys like Pat Connaughton, Steve Vasturia, VJ Beachem, and Demetrious Jackson to kick it to, and since 3>2, he realizes that the best way for him to help his team is by attacking, breaking down the defense, and setting up clean looks for his hot-shooting teammates.

That's really what this matchup will be about: how deep will Jerian Grant be able to penetrate into the lane. If he gets into the paint often, UVA will be in serious trouble, as he'll not only be able to convert close to the basket, but he'll almost surely be setting up 1-2 WIDE open looks for his teammates. That's exactly what he did against the Tar Heels on Monday. He only made one shot from the field, but he won that game with his 8 assists. Good shooting teams are tough to stop as it is, but when you have an athlete like Grant that can break a defense down, that's when these types of teams become terrifying.

Thankfully, Virginia will be prepared for this. They know that the way for Notre Dame to win depends upon their ability to get the ball into the lane. As everyone already knows, Virginia's pack line is prevent this from happening. Yes, pack line teams will always be a bit more vulnerable from three, but that really only becomes an issue when teams can successfully break down the defense, forcing perimeter defenders to sag even further off their men.

So that's the main question of this game. If UVA and the pack line can stop Grant from getting into the lane, it should be able to limit Notre Dame's offensive opportunities. If this happens, Virginia will certainly win the game. That being said, another thing to keep an eye on is what's happening in the post. The Cavs have an enormous advantage in the post, in size, talent, depth, name it. Notre Dame's lone reliable post player is Zach Auguste. That's pretty much it. They have guys like Austin Torres and former UVA recruit Martin Geben who may see some time, but neither of those guys are anywhere near the level of Virginia's three headed monster of Anthony Gill, Mike Tobey, and Darion Atkins. Heck, personally I don't even think Auguste is any better than any of those three. So offensively, it will be important for Virginia to work inside out, getting those post players as many touches as possible. Look for Notre Dame to test out some post traps to try and limit the mismatch, but I'm not sure how effective that will be. If UVA can get some buckets down low early or even better, get Auguste into foul trouble, then they could get a firm grasp on this game.

And really, that's what it's all about. I think the team that wins this game is going to be the team that forces the opponent to adjust to them, and not the other way around. I know, "duhhh" but this game especially will depend upon which side feels like they are in control. For Virginia, this would happen by getting the ball inside and executing in the post on offense, and preventing penetration on defense. For Notre Dame, it would involve moving the ball across the court and forcing Virginia to play small to keep up. One of the main reasons why this program is rolling right now is because the team has been so darn good at establishing this type of control that I'm referring to. The past few games, however, we have seen Virginia show a remarkable lack of control. If UVA figures it out, I think this game could be a lot like the game in South Bend last year. If not, however, we might see out first loss since March. I'm not going to give any sort of prediction other than the only outcomes that would surprise me are a blowout loss and a close win. I think this is going to be one of those games where Virginia shows up and rolls (like they did against VCU) or continues to struggle a bit and comes up just short on the road.

My hunch is that we show up. I can't see this team playing poorly 4 games in a row. It still would not surprise me at all if Notre Dame won because they are a legitimately good team that could hurt us in a few ways, but I have a sneaking suspicion that this team isn't quite ready to lose. Not yet...

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Podcast Link

So Michael Pittman (@WahooBasketball) was nice enough to ask me to join his podcast with the famous (infamous?) Phony Bennett to recap the first week of the season. The plan is, according to Michael, is to record about every week or two so stay tuned for future shows.


Friday, November 14, 2014

Let the Games Begin

Nearly eight months ago, I was surrounded by hundreds of utterly dejected Virginia fans, staring at the TV screen of Mustang Harry's, a bar in Midtown Manhattan, just a block away from Madison Square Garden, I was in the exact same place about 6 hours earlier, as the bar was one of a few designated Virginia bars for the weekend. Obviously, the mood was quite different at 1 AM than it was around 7 PM. Before the game, everyone was just so incredibly excited. You could tell just by looking at the number of people wearing blue and orange in this one bar that UVA was going to be well represented in the stands of the newly renovated Garden. I don't even remember people talking all that much about the game beforehand. It just seemed like everyone was so thrilled to be a part of something so "big." Seven hours later, those same people were at a loss for words.

Most of the people who made the trip to MSG, especially those from outside of the city, came into the weekend with a similar plan, which was to essentially "make a weekend" out of the game. I even know plenty of people who made the trip even though they didn't have tickets (which ended up costing a few hundred dollars just to get in the door). So, while the game was obviously the main attraction, I got the feeling that everyone was excited to just experience New York while Virginia was in town. I think this is why I will always remember that weekend as one of the best weekends of my life. A few weeks later back in Charlottesville, I talked with Joe Harris about that weekend and he felt the same way. It was clear that the loss stung, but he too mentioned how amazing the overall experience was. I think the reason why we look back on that weekend positively, despite the pain of such a loss, is because of how big the stage was. It doesn't get much bigger than playing Michigan State in the first NCAA Tournament game at MSG in 60 years. When I left New York on Sunday morning, all I was thinking was, "Man, I want to do this again."

It's easy to think about the "what ifs." What if Anthony Gill didn't hurt his ankle? What if Joe had hit that open three when UVA was building a lead in the second half? What if the refs had called Keith Appling for pushing off of Teven Jones?

This brings me back to Mustang Harry's. We had been in the bar for about 5 minutes when the UVA-MSU highlights started playing on SportsCenter. Some fans walked away from the TVs, some ordered a round of drinks, and others simply prepared to relive their agony. When the Appling pushoff played on the screen, one fan screamed "$%(#" Normally, this is when you'd try and get as far away from the person yelling expletives, but in this context, he was just saying what we were all feeling.

So we, as Virginia fans, could have spent this entire offseason asking "what if." And usually, I'm the first to think about these "what ifs," but for whatever reason, I haven't spent much time dwelling on them at all. Instead, my focus has been on how can we get back to this stage. How can we get to within a few plays of the Final Four? How can we win a National Championship?

These are the questions we are now asking of this program and it's awesome. I can get used to reading articles UVA basketball and seeing the phrase "legitimate national title contender" pop up frequently.

Keys to the Game:

This preview will be short and sweet for a few reasons. First, what I love to do and what I think I'm really good at is analyzing film. Well, there just isn't any film to analyze, at least not of JMU. With the suspensions of Andre Nation and Matt Vodanovich, the Dukes are a completely different team. I don't even think they know what to expect tonight. They only really have two guys that are even somewhat proven. Ron Curry is their biggest threat. The 6'4 Guard from NJ scored 9 pts on 3-7 shooting last year. He's a balanced guard in that he has a decent shot and has enough athleticism to drive to the bucket. I think he could very well have some success against UVA tonight, but the Dukes will need much more than that. The only other returning player who played more than 20 mpg last year is 6'7 wing Jackson Kent. The Sophomore Kent had 4 points against the Hoos last year. He'll obviously be asked to play a bigger role tonight. Personally, I'm not sure he's ready for it. While I haven't seen him since last year's game, I'm going to assume he's still quite skinny. That's a problem against guys like Malcolm Brogdon, Justin Anderson, and Marial Shayok. I have a feeling Kent will struggle unless he heats up from deep. Outside of those two, the other name to be familiar with is Yohanny Dalembert. The half-brother of Samuel Dalembert showed flashes of potential in last year's game. He's a 6'8 PF/C with solid athleticism and decent strength for a sophomore. I remember noticing him doing some nice things defensively and altering some shots. Still, he wasn't able to make any sort of an impact on the offensive end of the floor.

This brings me to my main point regarding this game. Look for Virginia to pound the ball inside. UVA has size, strength, and ability in the post that JMU just cannot match up with. Last year, Anthony Gill went 5-5 and never really broke a sweat. In fact, Virginia's three returning big men, GIll, Mike Tobey, and Darion Atkins, combined for 31 of the team's 61 points. None of JMU's returning post players scored a point. I expect all three of Gill, Tobey, and Atkins to have big games tonight. Also, JMU still has Malcolm Brogdon to deal with as well. I have read that Matt Brady has been tweaking his defenses often in the offseason. If players aren't certain what they're supposed to be doing on that end, you can be sure that Malcolm will take advantage of it.

The biggest area of concern for Virginia is clearly three point shooting. With London Perrantes and Evan Nolte sidelined, who is going to step up and knock down shots? Well, I'm sure Tony Bennett would like the answer to that question to be "No one, because we'll be able to score at will from close range." But if we struggle early and fail to knock down our shots, this one could be closer than it should be.

Still, Virginia just has too much talent, experience, size, and discipline to let the Dukes hang around for too long. This game will be a good experience for a team looking to replace two SR leaders. Opening with a road game in what should be a somewhat hostile arena will prepare the team for its biggest non-conference tests: trips to Maryland and VCU.

I'm looking forward to watching basketball again. I'm excited to see what Devon Hall can do as starting PG,  how Marial Shayok will factor into the rotation, whether guys like Mike Tobey and Justin Anderson have improved their games, and how we play as a team compared to what we looked like last March.

This was a fairly basic preview. As we learn more about the team and the opponents, I'll go into greater detail. Still, I'm excited to be writing about Virginia basketball again. It should be another incredible year.

I've got the Hoos winning 67-45.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014


Once again, I set big goals for myself in the offseason and life got in the way. No worries. I will make sure to make up for it in the coming weeks. I probably wrote half a dozen drafts of posts trying to wrap up last season and transition it into this year, but honestly, nothing worked quite the way I wanted it to. It either ended up simplifying the emotions of last year or was just wayyyyyyy too long to read. So, I have decided to move forward into this season. In a way, I feel that this is kind of symbolic Last year was last year, this year is this year. Why try and segue one into the other?

Maybe I'm just making excuses, but whatever. I'll make sure to have some good content relating to the 2014-15 version of Virginia Basketball. Obviously, last year was special. Some moments were especially memorable. I'm not just thinking about the expressions on the faces of Coach Bennett's family members as the Syracuse game came to a close. Nor am I simply thinking about my amazing experience with my Dad in Greensboro, which included nearly breaking my ankle after jumping on my seat as Joe hit the ACC Championship sealing three pointer against Duke.

What really stands out in my memory from last season is my gut feeling after the heartbreaking loss at Cameron Indoor Stadium in January. I was understandably upset following the conclusion of that game. Yet, I was anything but discouraged. While on the whole, Virginia had played a pretty terrible game, I was just so utterly encouraged by the way they fought back at the end of the game and nearly stole a road win at probably the most difficult place to win in the country. Something in me (perhaps it was the beer) made me go out on a limb and say that we would win the ACC.

This is where I'd like to write, "I TOLD YOU SO," but I can't do that in good conscience. Yes, what I saw in that game made me feel confident that we had what it took to win the ACC. But what actually happened was so, so much better than I ever could have envisioned. That night, I looked at the scheduled analytically, and determined that Virginia had a good chance to take advantage of a favorable draw and win the ACC. But that's not what happened. I didn't think we could dominate the conference like we did. I didn't think we could beat a team like Syracuse by 19. I didn't think we could win the ACC Tournament in Greensboro. And I DEFINITELY didn't think we could earn a #1 Seed in the NCAA Tournament. Even as soon as a week before the Selection Sunday, I would have told you that Virginia earning a #1 seed was nothing more than a fantasy.

So, basically, what I learned from last year is to not use the past to limit the present and the future. My gut told me that we were really good, but history told me that "really good" meant being about the 20th best team in the country. I have since learned that, under Tony Bennett, in this system, if I get a gut feeling about a team...just go with it.