A brewing storm

Has Virginia become too good for court-storming?

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Coach Tony Bennett’s No. 12 Cavaliers are having a ball of late.


Feb. 28, 2013. Virginia has just ousted No. 3 Duke, 73-68, but something other than the game’s outcome is grinding Blue Devils coach Mike Krzyzewski’s gears. Explaining to media why he lashed out at a few Virginia fans storming the John Paul Jones Arena court, he sounds didactic, like a father explaining to his son that he yelled to impart essential wisdom.

“We deserve that type of protection,” he says.

A noble sentiment. Still, JPJ’s security team was ironclad, and you could tell Coach K was miffed about something else. In the ensuing days, many chalked up his lapse of composure to frustration at a close loss. They are right, probably, but there’s something else I suspect fueled contempt for the court-storming, a source for his disdain entrenched in pride.

Victory is an obligation for Duke. For us in Charlottesville on that magical night, it felt more like an answered prayer.

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This Saturday, 366 days after they toppled Duke, the Cavaliers have another chance to knock off a top-five team and perennial juggernaut when No. 4 Syracuse invades JPJ. Should they win — no matter how Wednesday’s tilt with Miami unfolds — their fans will likely respond in a similar fashion.

The circumstances surrounding this one, however, are radically different. Whereas 2013 Virginia pounced on the Duke game as an opportunity to crawl into contention for an NCAA Tournament at-large bid, the 2014 iteration clinches an ACC regular-season title and solidifies itself as a Final Four contender with a victory against the Orange. Last year’s Cavaliers entered the game believing they could triumph; this year’s team expects, or should expect, to win. For that Virginia, the prospect of court-storming made sense; for this one, it seems akin to Ali’s fans deeming him a Cinderella story after outlasting Frazier.

Have we gotten too good to storm the court?

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It all makes for one of those diverting but ultimately inessential debates, the kind of thing that outrages the Skip Baylesses of the world but matters little to the rest of us. For me, at least, it has provided a fascinating framework in which to reflect on this Virginia season.

In many respects, the Cavaliers have arrived as a bona fide powerhouse. With 10 of its school-record 14 conference victories eclipsing double-digit margins, Virginia is thrashing ACC foes by a league-leading 12.9 points per game. Were it not for the dark magic of Cameron Indoor’s rims, the team would be undefeated in conference play and a fringe contender for a No. 1 seed.

They allow 55.2 points per game, fewest in the nation, and rank seventh in defensive efficiency with 90.2 points allowed per 100 possessions. They slow you down, but they beat you to a pulp.

Six players average more than six points per contest and can lead the team in scoring on any given night, while freshman point guard London Perrantes ranks third in the ACC in assist-to-turnover ratio. After Saturday’s 70-49 clubbing of Notre Dame, Irish coach Mike Brey called Virginia the best team in the conference after a 25-0 second-half run in which the Cavaliers might as well have been playing five Lennay Kekuas.

Both statistical gurus (the team ranks sixth in Ken Pomeroy’s esteemed Pythagorean-based rankings) and charismatic bald men (Jay Bilas, Dick Vitale and Seth Greenberg) have suggested Virginia could reach Cowboys Stadium this April. It’s a team reaching peak Tony Bennett-ness: unselfish, disciplined and ruthlessly efficient.

Yet for a brutally effective, workmanlike team establishing itself as a juggernaut, Virginia has had itself one kooky year. During an uneven non-conference slate, the Cavaliers played offense with the grace of Steve Elkington’s Twitter account and lost to Tennessee by 35 before turning into a national force almost overnight. Seniors Joe Harris and Akil Mitchell, bedrocks of the team’s 2013 success, have regressed by most statistical parameters this season — including the fancy ones such as Player Efficiency Rating which measure per-minute production.

Though Malcolm Brogdon has evolved into the best player on a top-15 team, he has failed to score 20 points in a single game and remains relatively anonymous outside ACC circles. An anomalously weak schedule has left Virginia with very few opportunities to cement its foothold in national consciousness.

All of which has led to a peculiar dynamic. Virginia has pounded teams in one of the nation’s most formidable conferences for three months, earned glowing praise from smart basketball observers, and somehow still feels like an obscure outsider banging at the doors of Valhalla.

You can hear the air of surprise when SportsCenter anchors announce Virginia as the ACC leader, as if they are reporting that malt liquor is actually a part of a balanced breakfast, and the doubt in analysts’ voices as they scour the Cavaliers’ resume. Even the team’s staunchest proponents tout its virtues with a “believe it or not!” affect. Arguably superior to an offensively wobbling Syracuse squad, the Cavaliers have experienced such an offbeat and under-ballyhooed season that for their fans to clamber maniacally onto the court following a victory seems paradoxically logical.

Again, the court-storming “debate” lacks intrinsic import. North Carolina fans rushed the court after beating Duke last week not because it came as a shock, but because they were happy teenagers who had just witnessed a hated rival thwarted and wanted, in the parlance of our times, to turn up. If Virginia brings it Saturday, we will follow in kind, because chances to just be loud and dumb and careless without guilt or recrimination are a priceless commodity at this place.

Still, contemplating whether Virginia has passed some magical demarcation line this season where its fans should treat victory as an expectation rather than a pleasant surprise puts into perspective what an interesting season we have witnessed in Charlottesville thus far. In becoming one of the big, bad villains of the ACC, Virginia is somehow still the Little Engine That Could. I don’t know for sure whether fans will rush the court post-victory. Like many fans, I expect — and pray — that we will find out.


Published February 25, 2014 in FP test, Sports





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