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Painful gratitude

Virginia basketball deserves thanks for "roller coaster" season

Back in January 2007, before I could grow more than a creepy strip of blond peach fuzz above my lip and when all I knew about the University was that its main building looked sort of like a brown Jefferson Memorial, I attended the New Orleans Saints’ 39-14 drubbing at the hands of the Chicago Bears at the NFC Championship game. To witness in person my beloved, resurgent team come so agonizingly close to actualizing my wildest dreams and lay a “Transformers 2”-like egg hurt worse than a 3-13 disastrous season ever could.

The stakes were lower and the pain likely not as acute for Virginia fans, but the Cavaliers’ 75-64 loss to Iowa in the NIT quarterfinals Tuesday night constituted a similarly deflating ending. Just a month after excitement cascaded to a fever pitch following the Feb. 28 Duke victory, coach Tony Bennett and Virginia bumbled through the kind of maddening March that tempts me to rage about stagnant possessions, egregious turnovers and AWOL leading scorers.

But I’ve learned a lesson I was too immature to grasp six years ago. For those of us who have paid close enough attention, this 2012-13 campaign, as that 2006 season did for Saints fans, has taken us on the kind of roller coaster ride that, for all the peaks and valleys, can make one a wiser person for enjoying it. And the only acceptable response to such a thing, as much as my cynical impulses scream in protest, is one of gratitude.

I’ll start my round of thank you’s by acknowledging a freshman class whose overachievement this season enabled Virginia to excel this year. Though Taylor Barnette, Teven Jones, Evan Nolte and Mike Tobey all deserve credit for their energetic play and persistence through growing pains, Justin Anderson earned the right to a little special treatment after his flourish to end the season.

Even at the beginning of the season, when his offensive game was more limited than the dietary menu at a Taco Bell, Anderson always played like a puppy on roller skates: exuberant and capable of occasionally amazing you. After his 24 points, 6 blocks and 5 Lebron-esque dunks, however, Anderson demonstrated a willingness and capacity to channel that enthusiasm into a polished, lethal game. Players who love the game as much, are blessed with as much talent and are willing to work as hard as he and the other freshmen have been are the ones that change programs. Freshmen, thank you for rendering the future so bright.

The John Paul Jones Arena crowd that spurred Virginia on to a 20-2 home record has merited recognition, as well. Too many empty seats lingered even among the 11,141 attending Tuesday, but all of us who were here from the beginning watched a University and a community rally around a team that really doesn’t play a fan-friendly style of ball. Thanks to bursts of infectious energy and an uncommon understanding of the game action, the Wahoo Nation helped turn JPJ into a venue that propelled Virginia to a high ACC finish. Fans, thanks for the effort.

I also need to acknowledge, little as I want to after their abysmal finishes, the instrumental role that veteran stars juniors Joe Harris and Akil Mitchell played in Virginia’s commendable season. Yes, I know Harris averaged just 12.1 points in his final seven games and disappeared when Virginia needed him most against the Hawkeyes. But, he also singlehandedly shouldered the offensive burden for much of the season and had a game against Duke that thrust this program into the national limelight.

Agreed, Mitchell was more erratic than Charles Barkley’s golf game in the NIT, tallying 12 embarrassing turnovers. He also improved from an inconsistent banger into a steady, creative scorer and a defensive pillar in the undersized Virginia post.

Even Tuesday, with Harris hitting one second half shot and Mitchell letting a gargantuan Iowa front line dominate the boards 34-26, neither stopped trying to carry the team. For that, even more than for your individual superlatives, I thank you.

Then there’s Evans, who just concluded one of the more polarizing careers I can remember. After a typically anemic, 0-point scoring performance and an uncharacteristically nightmarish defensive showing against Iowa’s monstrous 6’6” combo guard Devyn Marble, his critics are reveling in his permanent departure from the program. Yet by never letting the criticism that swarmed around him compromise his elite defense nor dissuade him from his leadership role, Evans made an admirable, inspiring sacrifice — he valued his team’s welfare over his own reputation. Thanks, Bub, for toning down the noise and supplying such feisty defense for so long.

Finally, Bennett needs thanks for his best coaching job since arriving at Virginia. Both the coaches and media polls pegged Virginia as the seventh best team in the conference preseason, and by talent, those rankings hold — NC State, Maryland and Florida State should have finished ahead of the Cavaliers based on ability alone. Instead, Bennett inspired a ragtag group of flawed veterans and inexperienced freshmen to buy into a demanding, draining defensive mentality that flies in the face of the swashbuckling style most teenagers would prefer.

As a result, the Cavaliers played far above their heads; even Tuesday night, they challenged an Iowa team with a vast size advantage and a motion offense that ran as smoothly as Bennett’s packline defense. Tony, thank you for steering this ship to clearer waters than we ever could have envisioned before the season, and for doing it with class and composure.

It took a while, but that 2006 Saints season taught me how to appreciate an imperfect but ultimately fantastic year. As Virginia prepares for a season I expect to feature elevated expectations and more consistency, I will always treasure 2013 similarly — as a season that, despite a bitter end, I wouldn’t trade for the world.

So I’ll leave the ranting and raving for others and reflect on this season with gratitude. Feel free to join me if you dare.


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