Virginia reaches 2011-12 Chick-fil-A Bowl, "Big Dance"
Coaches Mike London and Tony Bennett enjoy breakout season in 2011-12
Nothing about the start of the Virginia careers for football coach Mike London or basketball coach Tony Bennett portended a breakout season entering the 2011 school year. London’s team finished just 4-8 in his first season as head coach in 2010, while Bennett’s squad had managed a combined 12-20 record in conference play since he took over in 2009.
It had been 11 years since Virginia qualified for a bowl berth and NCAA Tournament appearance in the same year. The Cavalier football team had two unproven quarterbacks competing for the starting job under center, while the basketball squad was counting on a 23-year old injured forward to carry the scoring load. Both teams were picked to finish in the bottom half of the ACC standings in preseason coaches’ polls.
Neither team roared out of the gate, but by the end of two whirlwind seasons, both found themselves playing on a stage that at one point seemed unattainable. London’s second season culminated in a New Year’s Eve matchup in front of 72,919 fans at the Georgia Dome in the Chick-fil-A bowl. Bennett, meanwhile, led Virginia to the Big Dance for the first time since 2007 while winning 22 games overall — the most in 29 years.
Although both teams flopped in their biggest games of the season — London’s squad lost 43-24 to Auburn in their bowl game and Bennett’s team fell 71-45 against Florida in the first round of the NCAA Tournament — the breakout seasons cemented both coaches’ position at the University and showed their ability to overcome adversity. From the transfers of then-sophomore guard K.T. Harrell and then-redshirt freshman forward James Johnson, to the injury and later suspension of then-senior center Assane Sene, Bennett was forced to piece together a shallow rotation.
London kept his team together through an early-season quarterback controversy and a devastating Sept. 24 loss to Southern Mississippi to win six of seven games before a deflating 38-0 loss to rival Virginia Tech in the regular season finale. Additionally, both teams began to garner national recognition with an impressive win against a nationally ranked opponent.
For the football team, that came as a 24-21 Oct. 15 victory against then-undefeated No. 12 Georgia Tech.
“You win a game like this against a very good team, a nationally ranked team … it’s contagious,” London said after that game. “We hope it gets contagious enough where these guys start craving to win like some of these programs around the country.”
For Bennett’s team, a Nov. 29 victory against then-No. 14 Michigan in the Big Ten-ACC challenge in front of 10,500 fans — a crowd that included former Cavalier great Ralph Sampson — ignited the team’s best stretch of the season. Sampson watched as senior forward Mike Scott, one of the most dominant Cavalier big men since his own reign from 1979 to ‘83, continued his superb play with an 18-point, 11-rebound performance.
Like London, Bennett also spoke about his high expectations in his postgame remarks.
“I kept telling them, our principles are humility and passion,” Bennett said. “Humility … Know your identity out there. And play your heart out — passion … I think that’s going to be the key for our team.”
Although humility and passion may have been key ingredients to one of the program’s most successful seasons since Sampson’s time, Scott’s ability was the main course night after night. The 6-foot-8 forward averaged 18.0 points and 8.3 rebounds to finish second in the ACC Player of the Year vote and his play led hordes of Cavalier fans to campaign online for Scott to earn National Player of the Year consideration. Scott scored a third of his team’s season-low 45 points against the Gators in his final game as a Cavalier, the 26-point NCAA Tournament loss.
“I know I have an ‘X’ on my shirt, every post player or every forward is out to shut me down, but I like that challenge and I step up to it,” Scott said after scoring 23 points in a Jan. 31 win against Clemson.
While Scott became the star on the court with his flawless midrange jumper and crowd-pleasing athleticism, then-sophomore Michael Rocco quietly became a leader on the gridiron. Without an overpowering arm or game-changing speed, the sophomore passed for 2,671 yards that season, fourth most in team history. He started all 13 games, completing 60.7 percent of his passes and throwing 13 touchdown passes.
“Whenever your guys see you playing the game and doing well and leading the team, it kind of is like a ripple effect,” Rocco said after a Sept. 17 loss to North Carolina.
But Rocco’s breakout 2011 season did not translate into continued success in 2012. Following a 4-8 season that saw Rocco cede his starting job to sophomore transfer Phillip Sims, the team announced Dec. 2 that Rocco would transfer. His departure, along with those of offensive coordinator Bill Lazor and defensive coordinator Jim Reid, leaves the team in a state of unease entering the 2013 season.
Scott graduated following the 2012 season and was drafted in the second round of the NBA draft by the Atlanta Hawks. Despite low expectations for the Cavaliers in the 2012-13 season, out of Scott’s shadow stepped juniors guard Joe Harris and forward Akil Mitchell. That duo, along with a strong class of freshmen, helped the Cavaliers reach the 20-win plateau in consecutive seasons for the first time in 20 years, helping to build optimism heading into the 2013-14 season.
“Those guys who were on the team last year got a taste of what it was like to get to the NCAA Tournament,” sophomore guard Paul Jesperson, who is transferring this season from the University, said before the 2012-13 season. “I think we’re all hungry to get back there. That’s a goal of ours now.”