[Note: a different version of this article ran in April in the wake of the national title. It has been modified to serve here as an introduction to our 2019-20 season preview.]
Back in April, right after the title game, I wrote:
What a feeling.
All of my pregame preview responsibilities, the X's and O's analysis, the opponent roster research, it's over for the season. Whereas from November to March/April, each game's completion has meant for me "on to the next," as Seattle and Aaron handle the recaps and postgame breakdowns. But now there is no "next game" about which to write. Oh, sure, I'll quickly pivot into "next season" or "next recruit" territory with my coverage, but for the moment the urgency is lessened.
Which means now I can breathe deep and process what... just... happened.
Now it's the next season, and with all those pregame responsibilities once again just around the corner, I still feel the same way. That's why this piece that ended my coverage of the last season seems like the best place to start our coverage of this season. [Ed. Note: I agree! -- Seattle Hoo]
I've been around two Final Fours previously, on two occasions when it just so happened to occur in a city where I lived: 2005 in St Louis and 2018 in San Antonio. In 2005, UVA was still hanging out in college basketball purgatory, and so I was able to enjoy the weekend just as a casual basketball fan. The influx of basketball celebrities, the concerts and fan fests, getting to interact as a local with all the out of town visitors. We had a blast just partying all weekend long. I had very different emotions being around the event last year, given the circumstances surrounding UVA's absence from the event. Don't get me wrong, I still wore V-Sabres on my hat and across my chest as I wandered the convention center and stood in the crowd at ESPN Gameday's taping. But it was at best a bittersweet event for me; sure the weather was nice and my (non-Hoo) wife and daughter gladly took in all the pomp and circumstance, but a big part of me ached.
You know who was having fun? The fan bases in attendance. They were having a ball.
Each time I was there, three of the four programs were more established (UNC, Louisville, and Michigan state in 2005 / Kansas, Villanova, and Michigan in 2018), while each had one upstart (Illinois in 2005, Loyola-Chicago in 2018). But the joy was constant. And boy was I jealous this most recent go-round. UVA had had so much recent success, the 30-win seasons, the 1- and 2-seeds, the ACC hardware, that it was impossible not to long for our own share of that Final Four joy that I felt the program had rightfully earned.
Of course it wasn't purely rational. I know logically that the NCAA Tournament is a crap shoot, that untimely injuries are unfair but real regardless, or that some weekends a team that was plain mediocre in the regular season could simply wake up at an opportune time to steal a Final Four berth from a deserving heavyweight. Every year that UVA wasn't involved, we watched and cheered David slaying Goliath. It's all fun and games until the team you love becomes that Goliath. It becomes unbearable when it happens year after year. It's impossible to handle when David becomes a 16-seed delivering the greatest upset in the history of the sport.
I was shellshocked in late March of 2018, as were many of you. My Hoos Place co-writer Seattle Hoo wrote a blog post entitled "I Am Not Ok." It took me a full 10 days to emerge from my hole. My therapy was to pour my pain into an 8,000 word essay on the loss and its aftermath, entitled "So What Now?" It was a fair bit of doom and gloom mixed with a small dose of perspective, ending with a giant question mark. What the next 12-ish months would bring was anybody's guess. How would the coaches and players respond? How would the fan base? How would recruits?
On the last point, we found out quickly. Tony Bennett, with four scholarships to use, went out and got four great players: transfer forward (and former Top 100 recruit) Braxton Key, Argentinian center Francisco Caffaro (a steal in hindsight after he blew up to 4-star status later that summer at the FIBA Americas U18 tournament), consensus four star 2019 guard Casey Morsell, and late bloomer and eventual 4-star big man Kadin Shedrick. He'd also get a commitment from a young shooting phenom in 2021 (since reclassed to 2020) Carson McCorkle. All before Labor Day. Maybe Tony was going to be okay after all.
Then the regular season began. We had tons of talent and experience, especially once Key's eligibility was granted, so of course we appeared as a Top 10 team from the get go. And of course we played like it, rolling through a challenging but manageable non-conference schedule, some mid-major blowouts but also some tight wins over the likes of Wisconsin and VCU. January arrived, and blowouts of FSU, VT, Clemson, and BC came with it. Virginia was America's last undefeated team.
Virginia fans had a wide array of takes on how to feel about this regular season. Many of us, myself included, were incredibly conflicted. On one hand, watching the team pile up another 16-2 ACC record was awesome, as was taking home our 6th straight holiday tournament trophy, maintaining our dominance over Maryland while keeping our B1G Challenge winning streak alive (5 in a row now), sweeping rivals VT and Louisville, welcoming GameDay back to JPJ, and scoring another win at the Dean Dome. The losses to Duke stung, but even those had a fluky feel to them, especially the JPJ game which was basically the only time all year Duke could hit 3's.
But there was also a consistent refrain from many that said, to some effect, "ultimately this season will be judged on March results."
Now, I want to be clear. I've said for years that seasons and programs should not be judged purely on what happens in the NCAA Tournament. Great regular seasons and conference hardware mean a lot, as do individual awards for the coaches and players. Sweet 16s and Elite 8s are remarkable accomplishments, and I don't want us to turn into the kind of entitled program where we're ungrateful for anything short of a Final Four, as some blue bloods have become. After every postseason from 2012 to 2017 ending sooner than I would've preferred, I was still at peace knowing that the team had accomplished more than enough up until that point.
But after UMBC, that was different. Once the program became a national whipping boy, the poster child for March flameouts, this regular season ceased to carry as much meaning for me. Logically, I could always admit that this feeling I had was remarkably unfair. But logic had nothing to do with this, our passion for UVA's athletics programs is anything but logical. And so I spent all season long, win after win, with an ever growing piece of me saying, "ok, but what about March?" And I just wanted to get to it. I didn't care a lick when FSU knocked us out of the ACC Tournament. Whatever, only the NCAAT mattered at that point. And as we zeroed in on and locked up a 1-seed, with the expectations that came with it, reaching the Final Four became even more of a must.
We know what then occurred over the next 3 weekends. I won't rehash it all here.
The win over Purdue was, to me, the most cathartic. The Final Four was my measuring stick. I wanted more, sure, but the Minneapolis appearance was what I needed to feel Tony was validated. Watching UVA beat Purdue cued the emotional release in me. I was alone on my couch, my wife and daughter asleep, only my dog around to witness me quietly losing my mind. They'd done it. They'd gotten over the hump. I was finally going to see UVA on college basketball's biggest stage, as I'd been just a little kid during the Ralph era, and I was sated. I was on Cloud Nine all week.
The Title just blew away my expectations, doubly so given the nail-biting nature in which they did so.
Which brings us full circle to the same question I asked in late March of 2018, only with an incredibly different connotation.
So What Now?
It's a whole lot more fun to ask that question today, isn't it?
Unlike last year, I don't have any need to do a tactical or strategic breakdown of what went wrong, or what needs to change. The retrospective takes an entirely different bent. Last year, my concluding thesis focused on two words of an offensive X's-and-O's stratgic nature: Spacing and Aggression. This year I'm coming back to two words of an intangible nature: Vindicated and Liberated.
"You can't win at Virginia" predates Tony Bennett, the Pack Line, the Sides Offense, and the Pacism. Adam Gottshalk ran a piece on The Medium last spring (link <---- read it, it's great!) that reflects on conversations he had with Pete Gillen some 15 years ago, conversations in which Gillen candidly admitted that getting ACC level talent to UVA was HARD. We don't offer easy majors (to say nothing of UNC's paper classes). We don't do cash handouts or give their family members a job. We don't sweep their off-court indiscretions under the rug. I hit on a lot of these themes as part of my recruiting thesis a couple winters ago (a follow up to that coming shortly as part of this year's preview), intending to paint a picture of the giant disadvantage Tony and all UVA coaches (football included) are at when it comes to building a competitive roster, long before the games are even played.
To paraphrase from Hoosiers, Tony won this one for all the "right way" schools that never had a chance to get here. To be fair, Villanova is also accepted as a "right way program," as was John Beilein's Michigan club which reached the title game twice this decade, and our championship game foe Texas Tech, so Tony is putting an exclamation point on things here. But putting this under our lens, which is the ACC lens, we have to compare ourselves to the rest of the ACC and its champions. UNC has three titles in the Roy Williams era, and that program was kept afloat for potentially decades with fake classes for fake student athletes. Duke's perennial parade of one-and-does has plenty of stink associated with it, even if the powers that be keep K just clean enough (Marvin Bagley went to a fake private high school, something ESPN refused to ever address). NC State and Miami were caught up in the Adidas Pay-for-Play scandals, Louisville's laundry list of transgressions needs no rehashing, and Jim Boeheim had over 100 wins from his career vacated by the NCAA. Virginia Tech's prized 2018 recruit got admitted on an allegedly bogus ACT score. The few obvious "stink"-free schools, Clemson and BC and Notre Dame, all finished outside of the NCAAT this past year. So for Tony to prove that you can win at Virginia, not just win enough to make the Dance, not just to win enough to hang ACC banners, but to be the last team of 353 standing, is what college basketball needed, and will be inspiration to every coach and player out there struggling with the notion of becoming, and staying, a winner without having to resort to bag drops, academic fraud, or tolerating off-court criminal behavior.
I by no means speak for all Hoo fans, only for myself. I alluded to this above... this past season, and to some degree the last few before it, weren't really entirely fun for me. I wanted this team to win too badly. I wanted this team to get over the proverbial hump and shed all the negative noise directed at them. I wanted every game to stop being an indictment of the program, an opportunity to nitpick and criticize Coach Bennett. Even in the wins, the criticisms would arrive as it related to how he won, or with whom. But now, while those voices will still exist in some corners (there will always be those who know no way other than to criticize... "I'm just being real," they'll say), those voices are now easily ignored. "Haha, okay, please direct your critiques to the national championship trophy," we'll retort.
And so every individual game will no longer be a referendum on the program, not even the postseason games. Villanova got knocked out in the 1st weekend in both 2017 and 2019; do you think Jay Wright caught any real flack for that? Do you think Villanova fans died all over again and suffered an offseason of handwringing? Of course not, they had their national championship trophies to keep them warm.
And boy, is this title going to keep me warm as a fan for quite some time.
It helps that I know Bennett didn't win this title as a fluke, helming a perennially mediocre program that simply caught fire from the Bubble once, a la Kevin Ollie at UConn. We know that at the end of every year, even years where the breaks aren't going our way, we'll still be a good team. Shoot, look at 2016-2017, where our down year meant we were "just" a 5-seed, a bid that tons of programs would be thrilled to achieve. So now I'm going to watch games next year and just be able to enjoy them the way I did before we were a contender, before there was the weight of expectations attached to every contest. I'll simply soak in 40 minutes of good basketball, smile when the Hoos win, and simply say "oh well, on to the next" when we don't.
In conclusion, I do want to underline one last time just what makes this title so special. It isn't just that our alma mater / childhood hometown team won a title. It's special because of who the people are that got it done. It's special because we're not just rooting for the uniform, or for the school's logo. Instead we're blessed with coaches and players that we can root for as individuals that we're immensely proud of, individuals who represent ideals that we respect and aspire to. The Five Pillars mean something not just to Tony Bennett, not just to his players, but to the UVA Community at large. Because they value the UVA degree the same way we do. Because they use their positions of celebrity and influence to lift up each other, Charlottesville, and beyond. This is a program we'd want our kids to play for, so rooting for them is just so natural and easy. It's why we didn't abandon ship 12 months ago, why despite the ignominy of the UMBC loss the fans came right back and sold out JPJ throughout this season. And it's why this championship is all the more fulfilling, because just as much as we wanted it for ourselves as fans, we also always wanted it for the coaches and young men who so clearly deserved the honor.
But make no mistake, this is sweet for us as fans. Circling back to the Finals Fours I hung around in past years, I think back to the joy I saw on the faces of the visiting fans, fans who knew their team had achieved something great, and nothing was going to deprive them of that joy. Yet I had no idea just how intense that joy would be now that I am in their shoes. I like it. And I think I'll stay this happy for a while.
Now let's get this title-defense started. Wahoowa.