We as fans have gone into a lot of new seasons over the years (decades), and our emotions surrounding the new season always carry some residual feelings from the year prior. Sometimes those feelings have reflected the frustration of a losing season or a post-season crash-and-burn. Other years those feelings are buoyed by a surprising run of success. We’ve gotten used to entering seasons as the defending ACC champion, but entering the year as the defending national champion is something entirely uncharted. We wanted to hear from our writers how the new banner hanging from the rafters changes their usual October vibe, what’s different in their heart and head as the hoops team gears up for a new campaign.
It’s honestly going to be very weird for me. I am a Virginia sports, Dallas Cowboys, and Atlanta Braves fan, so before the national championship, my teams hadn’t won anything significant since I was little, when I couldn’t really appreciate the titles. Also, the Braves are not on the same level of fandom for me as UVa and Dallas, and really, none of these teams won anything of significance until the Virginia men won the ACC tournament title in 2014, with the Braves and Cowboys having not even been to a league/conference championship series/game since 2001.
In a strange way, I think I might miss the tenseness of being an underdog of sorts and trying to prove everyone wrong. Sure, the Virginia men’s basketball team has rarely been an underdog in the true sense of the word recently, but in the grand scheme of the sport, the Cavaliers were a little brother trying to sit at the big kids’ table and getting denied time and time again. They were still an underdog program. And now, they are at the big table and are a recognized big dog.
With that said, it’s going to be a fun year. The expectations since about the 2014-15 season and especially after the 2015-16 Syracuse Elite Eight debacle have been Final Four or bust – that the program was capable of winning a national title, but it needed to at least get to a Final Four to prove its legitimacy. For a half decade, the team couldn’t even get to the Final Four, and now, not only did it do that, it went … all the way. I think the lack of overarching EXPECTATIONS will loosen up Virginia fans and players. I think it is going to be really interesting to just see this particular team come together, develop chemistry, and get better. Bennett gets to flex his coaching muscles in a different way this year and may even feel refreshed in an odd way, to have to kind of build something again. I think fans are in for some surprises. But Bennett is super competitive and going to push his guys to be their very best. As he always says, he wants each team to max out its potential, and whatever the result of that, he can live with it. The difference is, with a national championship in the back pocket, and with the loss of so many key contributors, Virginia fans should understand and be satisfied with say, a top-four ACC finish and appearance in the Sweet 16. When this season ends, likely without a national title, fans can savor once again how great and tough last year’s accomplishment was, and put on the Texas Tech game highlights.
How has winning the title changed my perspective? It hasn’t. Not one bit.
By the same token, the UMBC debacle didn’t change my perspective, either.
I certainly thrilled to the run to the championship, as did every other member of Cavalier Nation. The sub-50 Oregon slugfest, the Dia-Kihei miracle, Kyle Guy’s trey from the line, and Braxton Key’s block on Jarrett Culver. These are all etched in my memory. Just as is the nightmare that was UMBC. Look, I was literally fetal after that game. I started smoking again. It was awful.
But neither event changed my perspective because Coach Tony Bennett changed my perspective five years ago.
I got to the University in the fall of 1982 and I would enjoy Ralph Sampson’s last year. With Ralph in hand, Virginia did win three straight regular season titles, but the lone ACC Tournament title, from 1976 and courtesy of Wally Walker, was a fast-fading memory. We wouldn’t win another ACC tourney until 2014, Tony Bennett’s fifth year here. And we did it in style, doing the Double, as they would say in European soccer, by winning both the ACC regular season and tournament titles the same year. We did it again four years later.
This is almost par for the course for the Dukes and North Carolinas of the world — they’ve each done the Double three times this century — but for a school with a more marginal grasp on hoops immortality, this is huge. I grew up a child of the ACC and my friends and I in high school argued endlessly about which was the better conference: the ACC or the Big East. All I’ve ever wanted was to be the best in the ACC because to do so would be a greater achievement since we’re the only conference with two true Blue Bloods.
During what StLouHoo calls the peak Bennett era, we ARE the team to beat in the ACC. We have winning head-head matchups with every school not named Duke. We’ve won four of the past six regular season titles displaying the kind of dominance usually reserved for a Kansas or a UNC.
And we’re doing it as honorably and ethically as is possible in a cash-soaked and educationally vacant landscape imaginable. Bennett turned down a raise this year, asking that the money go to assistants. He contributed $500,000 to the athletics master plan. He has been scrupulously honest and conspicuously optimistic since he first stepped foot on Grounds.
UMBC didn’t bother me after that next morning because I knew it was an eventuality that some 1 seed would lose to a 16 seed. Just like some team had to be the first to lose to the expansion Tampa Bay Buccaneers, we just happened to be the team that lost to UMBC. By the same token… the national championship… meh. There’s nothing unique about winning a championship. We crown a champ every year. In every sport. Last year it was just our turn.
Tony Bennett is the blueprint for who I would want growing and nurturing and maturing the young men who come to Mr Jefferson’s Academical Village. That we’ve won a lot of games in the past, and that we’re going to win a lot in the future, well, that’s just gravy.
Big game are stressful. It’s the nature of the beast. There’s the combination of excitement, anticipation, feeling helpless in that you cannot impact the outcome, the chance we may lose, and so on. It’s part of what makes being a fan so fun!
Back when the baseball Hoos were chasing a CWS title, I would live and die with every single pitch. And then we won it all. It was a calming experience because we reached the mountain top and grabbed the flag. The 2016 and 2017 postseasons were completely stress free.
I’m expecting a similar transformation this season and into the 2019-2020 postseason.
I have to be honest: winning that championship last April left me burned out on basketball and wanting to devote myself to other interests. For the previous three years I had spent every free hour on Hoos Place, either writing code, or fixing problems for people, or making videos, or contributing content, or producing publications, all of it driven partly by a sense of mission. I’ve always considered myself a bit of a renaissance man with varied interests, and with the national championship won, my brain said, “Mission accomplished” and wanted to get to other interests for a while. I’ve wanted to do so many things. One thing I had not done in years was play a computer game. I stopped myself from trying to find one so many times because with a full-time job, Hoos Place and maintaining a healthy relationship with a woman (they actually expect you to spend time with them where you pay attention to them, go figure), I knew I could not afford the time-suck that was a computer game I get into.
Dammit, we just won the national championship, Hoos Place can take a back seat for a while. So I went on a sabbatical. Kind of stepped as far away from basketball as possible (which, apparently, is not very far). Have not watched any of the tournament games again. Nope, I found myself a really good computer game (Endless Legend), and then another by the same company (Endless Stars 2). I started binge watching a couple of shows with my girlfriend.
It was slow going getting back into Hoos Place, but now the season is upon us, and I find myself identifying with Michael Corleone…
Practice videos and articles from Jeff White articles and the new Daily Progress guy have brought that familiar thought to mind, that thought that brings feelings and has me becoming passionate and excited for the season to start because I am ready to ride-or-die with this team: “Man, what a great bunch of kids!”
And so I find myself in the same place as every October, ready to enjoy and support my Hoos as they start the season. In that sense, the championship changes nothing. Now it’s all about our seniors on their last tour: Mamadi and Braxton; our role players stepping into the spotlight: Jay and Kihei; our bench guys getting a chance to earn a spot on the floor: Kody; and our new guys start their UVA careers, whether a redshirt who did his part last season in practice, or the freshmen, or even our very first JUCO under Bennett. It would be unfair to them to simply float on a cloud of satisfaction and be apathetic to their pursuit of their own excellence.
This time six years ago, Virginia was coming off an NIT season with some very real hopes to get back into the NCAA Tournament. We’d been a 10 seed just a year prior, which felt good to get the first Dance invite of the Bennett era, but had falled short without Mike Scott to lean on. But there were reasons for optimism that offseason, with everyone except Jontel Evans returning, and that NIT squad being joined by a healed-up Brogdon, a now-eligible Gill, and a couple of freshman point guards. No reason to think that team couldn’t land in the top half of a now-expanded ACC and earn a Tourney bid.
And that was dreaming big for us back then. Pete Gillen had only made one NCAAT in his tenure. So had Dave Leitao. So the thought that Tony Bennett might make a second? Wow, just who does this coach think he is?
We know how that season went, and each subsequent offseason was met with now heightened ambitions. Not just win but compete for the ACC title. Not just make the NCAAT but make a Final Four run. As the ACC titles accumulated and class after class of Hoo greats moved on to the NBA, the Final Four eluded UVA. With the loss to UMBC, making the Final Four moved from a hope to an expectation to a need. Tony needed to make a Final Four, as did the players and fans and school to both validate the run of regular season success and overwrite the stain of the UMBC loss.
Going into last season, we knew UVA was going to be great. Hall, Wilkins, and Nigel Johnson were gone, but with the return of the Big 3 plus other key supporting cast, and bolstered by new additions, we still knew the Hoos would be a top-ranked team. But what should’ve been the usual excitement was tempered by the frustrations of postseasons past. Some readers may have been immune to those feelings, and never ever doubted the inevitable Final Four run, were totally patient until it arrived, and weren’t at all fazed by the media chorus crowing about the March disappointments. But for many of us, maybe even most of us, that chorus affected our ability to maximize our joy towards the program.
Well now that monkey’s off our collective backs. Most importantly, of course, it’s off the back of the team: coaches and players alike. But it’s also off our backs as well, and now we can approach a season with a new perspective. We’re not approaching it as jaded fans of a mediocre program as were were 10+ years ago. We’re not approaching it as the grateful but still hungry fan base of the last five years. Now we’re sated, and we get to approach it with peace.
This team will lose some games this year. I mean, obviously, as no program goes undefeated anymore, even Tony’s greatest teams have lost a handful each season. But given the large scale of the roster rebuild, it’s not unreasonable to think we might lose more than we’ve lately been accustomed to. But what’s great is that this coming season’s highs and lows won’t each be a referendum on the program or its coach. Instead, we’ll be able to just enjoy watching our guys play, watching our CHAMPS play. And at the end of every game, win or lose, we’ll be able to lift our eyes to the championship banner now hanging in the rafters content in the knowledge that big picture, we know this program is right where we’ve always dreamed it would be.