Postseason Mailbag

Posted on March 31, 2018, in The Team by Karl Hess.

For UVA basketball, the postseason began when the clock hit all zeroes at the conclusion of the first round. At HOOS Place, we took a few moments to recover from the shock and shifted to postseason mode as well. Over the course of the last ten days or so we traded emails and ended up creating a HOOS Place generated mailbag. Participants were Kendall, guest contributor Robert Elder, Seattle Hoo, StLouHoo, and myself.

Karl Hess:  Did UMBC ruin the 2018-2019 regular season for you? (as in, was the loss to UMBC so egregious that the next regular season is moot, all that will matter is if we respond with a deep run in the 2019 tournament)

Kendall:  Yep. It totally and completely ruined the season for me. I won't sugar coat it, nor will I belabor it. I want to be able to say that I thought Forde's use of the term "towering fraud" was way too strong... but... I can't. Personally, right now I'm just hoping that collateral damage from the 16-1 upset doesn't include my ability to enjoy future NCAA Tournaments and future seasons of Virginia Basketball. The jury is out. I have quite a bit of healing to do before I'll know for sure. 

Seattle Hoo:  No.  It took me in a different direction, or rather nudged me further along a direction I took this year.  I spent much of the season immersed in each game as it happened and spent little time worrying about what it meant to the NCAA Tournament or some evaluation of the season.  I really, really enjoyed this season and I will carry that forward with me.  It had the most horrible ending a season could have, and I know that it will be difficult to handle the constant mentions and narratives and how people will interpret it, but it would be unwise to allow that ending to wipe away the great memories that came before it.  I know it is difficult, just as the ending of a deep relationship can make it difficult to enjoy the great memories that relationship created.

But as relates to next year, this ending and the impossibility of predicting how any NCAA Tournament will end makes me more determined to simply focus on the journey and enjoying the journey without thinking about the destination or how the stops along the way will impact that destination. I love the game, and I love the team, and I want to enjoy those passions.  I am going to take them as they are.

I’ve also over the course of the last month decided that I just am not going to concern myself with what the media says, arguing with fans, respect, rankings, legacy, any of that.  I just don’t give a fuck anymore.  It’s all just noise.  What matters are the games and the effort.

All that said, I don’t see myself getting excited about the season or having any expectations.  I’m sure I will hold myself somewhat aloof from it all, because being excited about possibilities or having expectations just doesn’t often lead to happiness for a Virginia fan, and this year really kicked me in the face with that reality. A special team, probably the best team we’ve had under Bennett, and we had the worst ending of any Virginia team.  So I will watch the games, I will enjoy them, I will appreciate them, but I won’t really react much to accomplishments or build any hopes or expectations.

Robert Elder:  I'm probably like most other UVa fans, picking the team to win it all in the office pool. No matter if or when the hoos lost, I was going down with the ship. I just had no idea the ship would sink so soon. So right now, it's easy to put on those championship goggles and think that all that matters next year is a Final Four berth. But the bottom line is I love this team -- and the school -- too much to say one game changes my entire perspective of the program because I know as soon as we hit November, I'm going to be longing for basketball season to start.

Sure, the loss was frustrating as hell, especially when you consider just how truly special this team was and how hard it is to even get opportunities to compete for championships, much less win them. But what makes next season different than this season? Hasn't Bennett been criticized since the Elite Eight Cuse loss as having NCAA tourney struggles? We all collectively bit our tongues for proclaiming all season this was the team to break through, and it hurts. But at a high level, no new information emerged that we didn't already know. Virginia sports are still as enjoyable as ever, and I'll ride that ship for as long as it sails.

StLouHoo:  "Ruined" is a strong word. Can I go with "tempered my feelings about"? Given the wasteland we inhabited between 1996 and 2013, I'm not going to take any success for granted, even if it comes with a NCAA tournament disappointment as the punctuation. Anytime the boys can put together a big OOC win, earn a spot in an AP poll, or score a win over Tobacco Road rivals, I'm always going to enjoy it. What it's done, if anything, is temper my hopes for March. I'm now going to go into any NCAA Tournament expecting disappointment, and allowing myself to be pleasantly surprised by any success. Gone are the days where I allow myself to start day dreaming about what life would be like with a new Final Four banner hanging in JPJ... until things change significantly, I'm going to assume that's a hurdle we're not clearing. But I'll still find a way to enjoy a nice regular season run. In short, once the ACC Tournament ends, I'm going to treat the basketball team the same way I treat the football team going into Thanksgiving weekend each year.

Karl Hess:  I asked this question, in a way, to assuage my own fears. Because, quite frankly, I'm afraid that that I'll end up more in the same place as Kendall than the rest of you. At least, that's my current mindset. I'm also a Washington Nationals fan and the aftermath of the UMBC game had me in the same mental space that a Nats fan ends up in when the team yet again fails to do anything in the postseason. Celebrating the individual accomplishments of players like a Ryan Zimmerman or a Max Scherzer is still fun, but the regular season is a grind where the game by game results don't bring particular joy.

Again, I'm afraid that I'll end up in that spot with the Hoos but I don't want to. I have a feeling I'll get sucked back in as we get close to November. In large part it will be because that's what we do as fans. But a very real component of it will be Ty Jerome. Ty is quickly rocketing up my list of all time favorite UVA basketball players, flirting with the rarefied air currently reserved for only Harold Deane and Bryant Stith.

Kendall:  Would you rather have the season we just had, or a season like the one Florida State and Syracuse are having (~.500 in ACC play, off of the bubble into the Tournament, early exit from the ACC Tournament, but playing on the second weekend with a chance to advance to the Elite Eight, Final Four, etc.)

Karl Hess:  I'll still take our season ten times out of ten. FSU ended their run blowing the game against Michigan in the Elite 8, and with an egregious coaching decision not to foul at the end by Leonard Hamilton to boot. And Syracuse was eliminated by Duke which is about as bad as it gets in my world. So, with the FSU and Cuse examples you get that lackluster regular season and still a shitty end in the postseason. No thanks!

To add, FSU and Syracuse are two teams I don't enjoy watching. I can't imagine an entire season of undisciplined basketball like you'd get with the Seminoles, hero ball like you get at Syracuse, and all that 2-3 zone...nope, couldn't do it.

Seattle Hoo:  Florida State - no, not at all.  They do not belong in the tournament.  They were a terrible basketball team and it would have pained me to watch their no-defense, just run around and throw the ball at the basket game all season.  I doubt I would still be watching by now.  Their tournament success this year is inexplicable to me and the one thing about this tournament that makes me question whether there is anything to all our analysis about style or game plan or anything, because if Florida State can get to the Elite Eight, it truly is just random, so fuck it.

Syracuse - I might rather have Syracuse’s season, because I think they have done remarkably well with their personnel.  I like watching them play.  I like watching the results of Boeheim’s coaching.  I think he is one of the true tactical masters in the game.  Given the lack of depth and versatility on their roster, I would be very pleased with their regular season, and this NCAA Tournament is all bonus.  It reminds me of 1993-94, which was one of my favorite seasons.

Robert Elder:  The season we just had, no question. Give me that ten times out of ten (although maybe nine times if we can win a fluke championship in the exception). 

Look, the loss to UMBC stings, no doubt. And credit both FSU and SU too, but they're both gimmicks. Just like UMBC and K-State emerging from Virginia's bracket in the Elite Eight. March Madness captures people who don't give a shit about basketball for the other 49 weeks of the year because you throw out all the rules of how you determine a championship in literally every other sport -- throw the top 36 teams and 32 random others into the arena and let them have at it. If you don't think Virginia is better than the Elite Eight teams on the left side of the bracket (besides maybe Michigan), I'll gladly call you crazy.  And with the exception of Syracuse, most of these fluke teams will regress below the mean and back into irrelevancy until they make another magical run in 20 years.

I hate that UVa lost and the team's reputation for continuing to do so, but give me the known commodity over the fluke any day of the week.

StLouHoo:  Ultimately, I'd rather have the season we had. Because I like to think of myself as a smart basketball fan, one who pays attention year 'round, not just in March, I know that so much of March is fool's gold. Mark Gottfried won in March at NC State. But god he was a bad coach who rolled out inconsistent teams through the other 4 months of the year. If I was a Florida State fan or a Cuse fan, watching us lose to the likes of Wake Forest, I'd go crazy.

Kendall:  Florida State or Syracuse for me. I'd gladly trade ten or so regular season wins for two or three wins in the NCAA Tournament. Playing on the second weekend was so important for this team, this season. Validation on that national stage would have meant so much. Alas.

Robert Elder:  In light of some recent lackluster recruiting classes, if you were a high school top-100 prospect, would you want to play for UVa?

Seattle Hoo:  Before I can answer the question it is important to define what top-100 prospect I am.  If I am a top 20 prospect who can be reasonably certain he is going pro after one year, then no, I would not want to play for UVA.  I’m simply not going to gain enough to be worth the effort.  I don’t need development.  I just need to show what I can do and wait for my eligibility.

Otherwise, yes, absolutely, I would want to play for UVA.  I know I’m probably going to be in college for four years, and almost definitely a minimum of two.  It’s a great school with a great campus surrounded by an area with a lot to do.  I loved hiking and driving around, I loved the local coffee shops, restaurants and bars.  Richmond and D.C. are within two hours. Beaches and mountains are also within easy driving distance.  And there is not a better coaching staff in the country at developing players for professional life.  I know the work will be hard and I will have to earn everything, but with what I learn there I am going to be better prepared to enter a professional career than at any other school.  I also know that NBA front offices have the highest respect for Coach Bennett and his player development and that as one of his players I will definitely get a chance to prove myself.  The tournament thing doesn’t really bother me because at least they had the chance and I know I’m probably going to get that chance.  But in the end, the education, the experience and the development I will get from the coaching staff are far more important.

StLouHoo:  This obviously makes assumptions about a player being a character / program fit. So after that, it comes down to two factors: Position and expectations.

First, depends what position I play and what my strengths and weaknesses at that position are. Our systems are still strong fits for certain skillsets. Crafty points, big guards, catch-and-shoot wings, and versatile bigs who can defend in space are all going to be useful to us and have the potential to excel much as we've seen a lot of guys do in the past. But pick-and-roll guards? Not the way we play offense. Finesse wings? Sorry, Marial and Darius proved the system is a poor fit for that. Slower seven footers? Better to stick them in the middle of a 2-3 zone.

Second, are my expectations to showcase for the NBA and/or get into a feature role in a hurry? Or am I more willing to grind to get there? We obviously only appeal to the latter, and that's going to be more likely in the back half of the Top 100.

Karl Hess:  I'm a total homer for UVA, especially the school itself. UVA was the only school I wanted to attend and I would have been crushed if that didn't happen. So I can't really set aside that and answer the question objectively. I'm committing as soon as the offer hits and not having a second thought.

I'm also a firm believer that the NBA finds talent no matter where it resides. The international scouting is just too good in 2018 to hide. And if they can find you in Latvia or Slovenia, they sure as hell can find you at Virginia.

If I'm a player picking a college, it's about relationships with the coaching staff, how I get along with my future teammates, and overall comfort with the institution. Playing in the NBA is simply about talent, work ethic, character/attitude, and professional team fit. A NBA "unfriendly" system like UVA's has produced a first round pick in Justin Anderson, the reigning NBA Rookie of the Year in Malcom Brogdon, and rock solid NBA players in Mike Scott and Joe Harris. If you can play, the pros will find you.

Kendall:  Yes, but only because I want to win and become a better NBA prospect by learning the game from a master at developing talent. The chance to guide Virginia to elusive Tournament success is enticing to me.

Robert Elder:  I'm on the fence here. Every logical bone in my body says yes for all the reasons that make everyone (including non-student-athletes) come to Charlottesville. UVa seemingly has it all -- a great town, a great education, a great community. For basketball, add in one of the game's best coaching staffs, top-tier facilities, and a fan base that will go to war for you. Anyone who knows me personally knows that graduating from UVa was one of the proudest things I've ever done.

But there's the other half of me, the devil's advocate, that makes me question why we aren't bringing in more top-100 guys of late, and I think the reason goes deeper than simply that other schools are cheating (which certainly doesn't help us). The biggest thing that sits my head is Ty Jerome having to answer Doug Doughty's stupid question about if he knew UVa was the first No. 1 seed to lose to a No. 16 seed. It was a microcosm of how this team is always on the defensive with the media. Why do you play so slow? Why are you boring? Why can't you score more points? Why do you redshirt players?  Why can't you win in March?

Players get tired of that (Ty Jerome sure as hell wasn't happy about Doughty's question). And I'm guessing prospects don't want to be on the defensive about their college choice either (UVa was an easy decision for me personally since I became a third-generation grad, but what if I didn't have that family support and I had outsiders questioning my choice?). The bottom line is I get it both ways, and I'll never be angry, per se, for players not choosing Virginia. But I think this recruiting question is one that we must continue to evaluate and one that will likely persist until we ultimately make a Final Four.

Kendall:  The five pillars -- Humility, Passion, Unity, Servanthood, Thankfulness -- serve to produce a program of which we can all be very proud. That being said, and in light of the 16-1 upset and the objective failure to live up to expectations in the NCAA Tournament, if you had the chance to add two more pillars to the list, what would they be and why?

Karl Hess:  I'm adding boldness and spacing. I'll tackle spacing first since it's not really a pillar type concept but it's my response so I can make it up as I go. And I just watched Villanova thrash Kansas with exquisite spacing on offense. In its purest form, basketball is a game of movement, creativity, and scoring. Good spacing on offense makes all of those easier and better spacing on offense, especially in the paint area, would do a world of wonders for UVA.

On boldness, fortune favors the bold. At least that's what the proverb that traces its root back to Latin and the Romans says. UVA's defense has a certain swagger and the players defend with confidence. They are usually sure of themselves and rarely hesitate out of fear of making a mistake. When UVA struggles, it's typically on the offensive end. Things bog down and become stagnant. Players become tentative and defer. Bad shots at the end of shot clocks manifest themselves. An approach on offense that stresses bold, initiative taking action would mitigate a lot of those issues. The good news for Hoo fans is that Ty Jerome, Kyle Guy, and Dre Hunter are all in that mold, so they almost bring along bold as an unofficial sixth pillar already.

StLouHoo:  Flexibility - the ability to adapt, within a given framework or within established tolerances, to meet the needs of the challenge.

Courage - The will to run toward the challenge, to turn into the wind, without fear or hesitation.

Robert Elder:  Resolve. That has to be the first. When you've been punched in the gut -- play perfect defense yet watch the opponent's threes rain, create open shots for your best scorers that just don't fall -- what are you going to do? The team caved on themselves in the second half against UMBC -- guys were forcing shots and the defense was as porous as a sponge. We watched the exact same thing unfold two years ago against Syracuse. Virginia is a gritty team, but it doesn't have that mean I'll-bite-your-leg-off-before-I-go-down mentality. That can be said about basically every Virginia sports team in my lifetime, but we've seen it pronounced in the basketball team when the most is on the line far too many times.

Joy. I think this comes back to the offense again. Where is the fun? As much as some people hate the packline defense, the players get excited about a steal, a shot-clock violation, a desperate heave. The joy is there on defense, but I'm not sure it is on offense. The offense is like a 9-to-5 job -- you clock in; maybe something good happens during the day, maybe it doesn't; and you clock out; again and again and again. Maybe you'll bore the defense to death in the regular season, but you won't in March. I don't care too much about great fundamentals or the screens Jack Salt is setting -- give the players something that is fun, something joyous. I just think that spirit is missing from that end of the court.

Seattle Hoo:  Confidence and Initiative. What I perceive as a culture of deference concerns me.  Some degree of deference is fine, but players need to be confident to push themselves to the fore, to not settle, and to be willing to take risks.  I think sometimes we are too risk-averse, too intent on not making mistakes, and we do not react as well in chaotic scramble situations as we could.

Kendall:  Resiliency -- The capacity to recover quickly from difficulties, general toughness, the ability to spring back into shape, elasticity. We could have used some of that against UMBC. We could use it any upcoming NCAA Tournament.

Creativity -- We have THE SYSTEM, and that's a terrific foundation. Now it's time to add some flair and changes and really make it a special, one of a kind work of art.

Seattle Hoo:  Do you think something about Tony Bennett’s coaching makes NCAA Tournament success less likely, and what makes you think what you do?

Robert Elder:  Yes and no. So much hate and criticism is thrown at our pace of play, and most of the national media say you can't win the way we play, focusing on the pack line defense. To me, defense isn't the problem -- the offense is.

The mover blocker system is too one-dimensional. In general, and especially without a scoring big-man, it's entirely dependent on perfect passing and shots falling. But what happens when the defense gets in your face and cheats on screens? What about when the shots just aren't falling? There isn't enough room for creativity in the system, and in games against Syracuse and UMBC when Virginia loses control of momentum, the offense freezes. 

UVa's current roster is as talented offensively as Bennett has ever had, yet the team clings to an antiquated offensive system that doesn't allow players to create plays themselves, which is necessary to win these NCAA games. If I'm Bennett, I'm going after a more offensive-minded assistant (no, not Sean Singletary) to replace Ron Sanchez. Even if it's just a few tweaks -- allowing for pick and pop, iso's for Dre, etc. -- the team should hopefully have more ability to play through slumps when it matters most.

Kendall:  Everything is too rigid and inflexible, and there is no Plan B. In the Tournament, and especially against inferior competition, an inflexible system can be like an anchor that drags you down. (I know there's some ancient saying about the tallest tree being too rigid to weather the most severe storm, while the sapling can bend and sway in the wind.)

Karl Hess: I'm going to take a different tack and ignore the systems in place. That's more a grand strategy question and not one necessarily related to Tony's coaching, per se. I mentioned previously that basketball was a game of motion, creativity, and scoring. In a similar vein, it's also a game of teamwork where five individuals playing together can accomplish great things, often greater things than a team playing for individual goals or recognition. In that way, Tony does an excellent job and his ability to get his team to nearly always play together is a good thing but doesn't negatively impact NCAA Tournament success.

Hand in hand with the first part of my answer is that Tony's teams typically play excellent fundamental basketball. That's a sign of good coaching and one that resonates with me as my best basketball coach growing up was a stickler for the fundamentals. We spent a ton of practice time in rec league drilling on the fundamentals of defensive position, sliding your feet on defense, finishing with the correct hand at the basket, boxing out, and so forth. Certainly, stressing the fundamentals in basketball doesn't negatively impact our NCAA Tournament success.

What I do think is an issue, and points more towards coaching than strategy or tactics, is that we rarely have a viable Plan B when the shit hits the fan. That's been a common theme among certain circles of UVA fans since the UMBC loss when the Hoos' usual approach appeared impotent versus the Retrievers. Doing something, anything, out of the ordinary could have salvaged the game before it got out of hand. We've seen Tony make this move before and it's led to good results. The game at FSU this past season and the first round NCAA Tournament game against UNCW in 2017 are perfect examples of when Tony did have a Plan B to go to and it worked like charm.

StLouHoo:  I think there are two concerns. One is that the offensive system is too predicated on jumpers and it only takes one cold-shooting night to end a post season run; the system does not encourage aggressive down-hill guard play, which you need to win in March. The second is that the team maxxes out early in the year, peaking early, riding its starters too hard in the pursuit of winning every December/January game with little regard for developing the end of the bench or experimenting with system tweaks as that might jeopardize regular season success.



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2018 Review