One of the many taboos of “coach-speak” — the bland jargon coaches often employ to shield themselves from revealing too much or speaking too candidly and which Rex Ryan has never quite grasped — is to assume a victor’s disposition after defeat. Sure, praising your players’ effort and communicating optimism for the future are kosher. But in an industry in which, ultimately, victories pay the bills, expressing anything short of gloomy dejection after an unfavorable result comes across not only as disingenuous but insulting to players and fans alike. This dogma applies not only to individual games, but to entire seasons, as well; that’s why John Fox sounded so deflated after the Broncos’ playoff loss to the Ravens and his razor-thin defeat to Brian Kelly for “Pomegranate-looking Coach of the Year” honors.
But as much as this “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing” mantra shapes our perceptions of the American sporting climate, the concept of success as relative is what, ironically, helps sustain sports’ appeal. If we regarded only the ultimate champions as winners and neglected to place teams and athletes in their proper context, we’d be unable to appreciate the “losers” who inspire us and capture genuine success. In such a cynical world, Butler’s improbable back-to-back title game losses in 2010 and 2011 would amount to just that — losses. And Oscar Pistorius, the 2012 Olympian famous for his blade-like prosthetic legs, would be just another anonymous athlete who failed to win a medal.
Thus, context matters when gauging the success of a team. Which brings us to the 2013 iteration of Virginia men’s basketball, a squad that has impressed considering its dearth of experience but still remains laughably short of restoring the program to its former esteem, when Ralph Sampson was an icon and not just the name of a Littlejohn’s sub. As the team’s uneven performance during the winter recess shows, determining whether coach Tony Bennett and these Cavaliers are having a “successful” season depends entirely upon the parameters used to judge them. Namely, it depends on whether you think Virginia’s season could possibly count as a positive one if the squad continues to perform like an ACC also-ran.
While most Virginia students were setting aside their books and engaging in spirited conversations about “Django Unchained” during the break, the Virginia basketball team was going 3-3 in a stretch that included a few soaring highlights mixed in with losses to hapless Old Dominion and Wake Forest that were more humiliating than my singing performance in my fourth-grade play.
Still, the Cavaliers achieved many things worthy of our admiration during those six games, including a level of defensive play stingy enough to put the Baseball Writers Association of America to shame. Bennett’s scheme places a premium on forcing off-balance or low-percentage shots, and the Cavaliers have mostly executed it to a tee.
Bennett’s main rotation has limited opponents to a paltry 51.6 points per game and a 36.4 field goal percentage, marks that rank second and sixth in the nation respectively, and yielded fewer points to traditional powerhouse North Carolina in a 61-52 victory than the Virginia football team gave up to Georgia Tech last year. Even during Saturday’s 59-44 loss to Clemson, when the Tigers poured in 35 second-half points and shot more than 50 percent for the game, it was Milton Jennings’ scorching 3-point shooting rather than any severe lapses or miscues which doomed the Cavaliers defensively.
Their statistical defensive prowess aside, the Cavaliers’ most significant development may be their emerging freshmen’s willingness to embrace the culture with which Bennett has imbued the program since his arrival in 2009 — a noteworthy accomplishment for a team that has endured the transfers of several frustrated players in the past few seasons. Given that most of Virginia’s players were high-volume, exciting stars in high school — including the first-year troika of Justin Anderson, Evan Nolte and Mike Tobey, which Bennett has relied upon so much this year — their commitment to a slowed-down, disciplined gameplan indicates a level of maturity that bodes well for the program’s future. Given that most college students struggle with the concepts of discipline and selflessness, such solidarity from the young core is promising.
Unfortunately, honoring such “victories” is nearly impossible when the team plays as abhorrently as it did last week. Virginia’s issues stem almost entirely from an offensive attack that looks so punchless at times that the “facepalm” has rapidly become Hoos’ fans go-to gesture when watching games. When clear first-option Joe Harris has struggled — he shot 16-of-42 in Virginia’s three losses during the break — an already tepid offensive unit has mostly imploded into a cringe-worthy collection of lethargic passing and ineffective post-ups with scarcely any free-throw shooting in sight. And even when the Cavaliers have found open looks, Virginia has shot with the accuracy of Dick Cheney and committed costly turnovers.
Throw in the multiple mental miscues Virginia has suffered this season — the second-half travesty against 2-14 Old Dominion, the 17 turnovers against Wake Forest, the air balls against Clemson — and the Cavaliers have not played up to the standard of the consistent ACC contender and NCAA Tournament participant most fans expected them to have become by now.
And therein lies the rub with judging Bennett and Virginia this season: For all the excuses you can rattle off and positive aspects you can highlight, the team’s inconsistency this past month has created a maddening, bitter sentiment among Cavalier fans. Bennett has held Virginia together about as well as could be expected in the wake of those transfers, building around a cadre of young, versatile players who will undoubtedly thrive in future seasons.
But while we can certainly understand why Virginia is not yet challenging for an ACC title, nothing excuses the 35.9 percent shooting or the pathetically low 20 combined free-throw attempts from this past week’s road losses. Nor is youth ever a justification for losing against teams with far less talent, as the Cavaliers have now done thrice against Delaware, Old Dominion and Wake Forest. In the end, this break taught us that for all the small successes and admirable qualities that define this edition of Virginia basketball, the team will need to correct its offensive woes if it wants to contend in the ACC. Win on the court, and Bennett won’t have to worry about looking sad enough at his press conference.