There is undeniable appeal in watching a juggernaut churn out championships. The Yankees’ 27 titles attract fans nationwide. Tom Brady and Bill Belichick earn admiration across the NFL. Few teams in the NBA can challenge the star-laden Miami Heat.
But the 2012-13 Virginia men’s basketball team will never be mistaken for Goliath. They walk onto the basketball court with slingshot in hand — not the fastest, nor the tallest, nor the best shooting team — but eager for a chance to prove the pundits and the stat sheet wrong.
Derek Jeter, Brady and the “Heatles” apologize when their wins are not pretty enough. The Cavaliers celebrate low-scoring, grinding games. “Winning ugly” is not a stain that needs to be washed away. “Winning ugly” is the highest compliment for this team.
Their motto — “Embrace the Pace” — could double as an ironic bumper sticker for a senior citizen’s car. It is not a boast or an apology, but a stamp of approval for a style of play that has been described as “unsightly” by objective observers and “endearing” by those who frequent John Paul Jones Arena.
These Cavaliers take their cue from coach Tony Bennett and his unwavering confidence. He is not a coach in the mold of Belichick or Norman Dale, but closer to Billy Beane and “Moneyball.” He has done the math: if you give up fewer points than you score, you win. What the pundits say counts for nothing.
The team took this message to heart when it squeaked out a win against a tireless NC State Tuesday evening.
“If you thought we could have ran up and down and out-possessioned them, I think that would have been hard for us,” Bennett said. “We had to make them play against a set defense and work.”
The Wolfpack flirted with the rim for the game’s final three and a half minutes. They tried floaters inside, long balls outside and everything in between. Nothing they did could crack the Cavaliers’ defense down the stretch. The more NC State pressed, the less progress they made as the remaining seconds ticked off the clock without the Wolfpack scoring.
“We just couldn’t seem to score it,” NC State coach Mark Gottfried said. “That was tough.”
A lot has happened in the last 30 years of ACC basketball. Michael Jordan has donned the light blue of North Carolina, Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski has won more than 750 games and the conference has produced nine national champions. But no team had held its first six ACC opponents below 60 points. The Cavaliers are at seven and counting. No team had allowed fewer than 52 points per game. The Cavaliers are allowing 51.2.
Three freshmen demonstrated why Virginia has won 12 straight home games, why a team without a true go-to scorer is making history with unproven players. There was nothing jaw-dropping, nothing reminiscent of past Cavalier greats like Mike Scott during one key sequence with 12 minutes remaining in the game. There was just 30 seconds of solid, fundamental basketball.
Mike Tobey dropped in a hook shot inside with his soft touch. Justin Anderson elevated and banked in a layup off the glass to tie the score at 40. Evan Nolte drew a charge on 2011-12 All-ACC forward C.J. Leslie. Those three plays will not feature prominently on Sportscenter, but they are the reason the Cavaliers have been dangerous in a year they were supposed to be pushovers.
Why are three freshmen on the court rather than watching from the bench in crunch time for an ACC contender? This team — with walk-on point guard Doug Browman providing valuable minutes off the bench, Akil Mitchell playing the role of both defensive stopper and offensive weapon and players across the board exceeding expectations — needs them to.
“They have to, they’re part of it,” Bennett said of the freshmen. “I think they’ve shown that they can perform in those settings. They bring a different dimension. All three of those guys bring something a little different.”
Minutes after the Cavaliers knotted the score at 40, Anderson chased down T.J. Warren on a fast break and notched a highlight reel-worthy block and Tobey dropped in another layup on the other end to tie the score at 49. Freshmen who were going to be counted upon to limit mistakes in crunch-time instead took control.
“I was proud of Justin, proud of Evan, proud of Mike — of all my young guys — for stepping up and helping me defend,” Mitchell said. “They all played big roles.”
The biggest applause of the night, however, was reserved for the team’s veteran backcourt. Sharpshooting guard Joe Harris, who has served as the team’s de facto go-to option, pump-faked and drew a three-point shooting foul on a Wolfpack defender and sank all three to give Virginia a 52-49 lead with five minutes to play. Then, after missing three consecutive free throws to close the first half, Evans calmly knocked down a pair to stretch the lead to three with 27 seconds remaining.
“We’re touching on something very special,” Evans said. “A lot of guys have bought into the system. Guys are playing their roles at a very high level. And we’re doing it as a unit which is big.”
The win moves the team into sole possession of second place in the ACC. Yet the Cavaliers have not received any votes this season in the national rankings after losing three games to Colonial Athletic Association opponents early in the year.
“From the outside perspective looking in, it is kind of hard to believe that we lost to Old Dominion and George Mason early in the season and the kind of things that we’ve gone through,” Mitchell said. “But we know this team fights through adversity and that’s one of the things that we’ve always done with coach Bennett.”
The national television audience that tuned in last night on ESPN2 might have questioned how the Cavaliers came out ahead despite bruising the rim from long range with 4-of-16 shooting. The television commentators and sideline reporters might have pondered why the “Wahoo Nation” was not hushed by another offensively-challenged performance by the home team. Let them wonder — that’s the way these Cavaliers and their fans like it.