As excited as I am for the season to start today, it's hard to believe that just over seven months ago I wasn't even sure I could stand to watch college basketball anymore. That loss hit me hard, as hard as any sporting event has - and as a Virginia and New York Giants fan for 40 years or so, that's saying a lot! But a funny thing happened: thinking about Tony and the men and how they didn't have the option of walking away led me to get over it. And once I had made the decision to be here for them, it didn't take long to start focusing on the future - and then to enjoy and appreciate all of the great moments of the season, because there were so many.
The Hoos dominated the ACC. There were close games, there were games they trailed, and there was even one loss, but for the most part, that team was in control. Then they went to New York and cruised to a tournament title. The program that couldn't win one for over 30 years had now won two of them in five years.
And even with all of that, perhaps the coolest moment of the whole season was winning in Cameron. The last time we won there was a great game. One of our best teams ever came from 23 points down in the second half to win in double overtime. It was done so methodically, grinding them down possession-by-possession with tough defense and efficient offense. But that was against the worst Duke team since the mid-80s. This time it was a battle of top 5 teams. We went down there to take on a top 5 Duke team - and we were the better team. Unprecedented. And, oh was victory sweet.
So many great moments.
And then it unravelled.
First we heard about De'Andre Hunter. Then the game started, and UMBC played defense like they had no fear of being beaten to the goal. They pressed up all over the floor on everbody and completely disrupted our patters. The offense broke down and our guys looked like they didn't know what to do. Defense worked for a half, but that team came out of the locker room knowing they had their opponent in disarray and victory was theirs for the taking. A couple crazy shots went down and they were in their flow.
We were all in stunned disbelief. Abject despair. I had Final Four tickets, a ticket to Dallas and rental car reservation, and a hotel reservation. Dreams of Finally accomplishing that one thing UVA had never done in basketball lay in shards under our feet while the bitter realization that we had just done the one thing nobody ever wanted to do and would have to deal with it being rubbed in our faces forever stuffed our nostrils and burned our eyes. How the fuck do you bounce back from this?
Then a funny thing happened. He laughed. Tony Bennett laughed about it.
And he made it ok. Not that what had happened was ok, but that life was ok, we would be ok. They would go back to playing basketball and we would go back to rooting for them. And all of us would just deal with the haterz.
In that press conference he showed us the way. He showed his players the way, but he also showed us the way. Accept it, chuckle at it, recognize all the great things that were accomplished, enjoy the great moments, and then get on with basketball. There are national championships to be won.
"I look at things differently now, actually better, from what I’ve experienced," Coach said in a later interview. "I think if you know you can handle … the worst thing that can happen and still find joy in the game, at some point you realize, ‘Yeah it stings but it’s OK and I made it through it.’ I think that’s worth everything, and I think it does allow you to go after it harder."
And they're going after it harder. It burns. Not a skin-blistering forest fire of shame - but a molten core of passion for the game. "It kind of sparked something in me," Bennett said. "I desperately want Virginia and this team that I coach to have a chance to one day play for a national championship, to win a national championship, go to the Final Four. That has inspired me in a way maybe only a loss like that can.
"And that’s important that I have that. But it did something else that I think’s as important, or more important: It made me realize if that doesn’t happen, I’m still OK. That’s almost freed me up to go after my coaching this season and with this team in a better way and the right way."
Coach and his players have gone back to work. They are going after it the right way. Working on their games. Trying to improve. Learning lessons. Led by their Coach. "He’ll watch more film, or he’ll have extra meetings with me about what I think about this offensive set or how can we add this to our game?" Ty Jerome said. Jason Williford added that Bennett has responded with "more attention to detail, some changes maybe X-and-O wise — I can’t give away all our secrets — but just certain things we may have to do when we’re struggling in certain areas, specifically offense."
And we got back to work, too.
It Was a Great And Terrible Season. It was a great season with so many great moments - and a terrible ending. But we learned from it. And a funny thing happened: quality players who were also quality people with quality families wanted to be part of this team, this program. They saw Tony Bennett, and Ty Jerome and Kyle Guy, go up there and man up. Those that already wanted to come to Virginia saw their desire deepen. They were no more shaken than was Bennett. Others were inspired by his response and his resolve. And in the immediate aftermath of the disaster, after almost two years of top prospects turning away, a succession of tremendous players turned toward Bennett and his program. Casey Morsell. Francisco Caffaro. Kadin Shedrick. Carson McCorkle. Four tremendous players and team leaders.
The manure of that disastrous game and the ashes of our hopes for that season had fertilized the soil from which our future will grow.
Today that future begins. Today is the present. Today our Hoos will take the floor and play basketball again. I am as excited and eager as I have ever been at the start of a season. I can't wait. It's not redemption or revenge or March or getting to the Final Four that I anticipate, it's tonight's game. Then the next night's game. Then the next. Every time we get to watch a Tony Bennett team play is special. That's what has me excited: another season of being inspired by the men in this program. This year I'm all about the journey. Where it ends? I don't care. Each game is a gift and I intend to fully enjoy every second of it.
For Jack Salt, this is The Last Campaign. He will write Chapter Four of his Virginia Basketball story.