NC State had entered the 2012-13 campaign as the first consensus ACC favorite not named Duke or North Carolina since roughly the Paleolithic Age. By the time the Wolfpack trounced Virginia 75-56 in the quarterfinals of the ACC Tournament, however, they were “only” 24-9 and had finished a “disheartening” fifth in the conference standings for their best season since 2004. I stayed with an NC State family that week in Greensboro and talked to other media who had covered the team, and they all conveyed a similar sentiment: NC State’s electric performance against Virginia underlined how egregiously the team had underachieved beforehand.
Virginia will open its 2013-14 season as the No. 24 team in the nation, with many outlets — including ESPN — forecasting the team to finish comfortably within the top-four of the ACC. Considering coach Tony Bennett welcomes back every rotation member save Jontel Evans — with sophomore transfer forward Anthony Gill, redshirt sophomore Malcolm Brogdon and freshman phenoms London Perrantes and Devon Hall all set to enter the fold — fans and followers of the Cavaliers certainly should feel giddier than Rob Ford on a Cancun Spring Break. Yet the same cruel fate which befell NC State a year ago, when a few key missteps and mishaps rendered an objectively impressive season a letdown, could target Virginia as its next victim. The Cavaliers will play well. For various reasons, nevertheless, their final win-loss record may underwhelm.
The most cited concerns revolve around Virginia’s point guard situation. Bennett will likely start Brogdon, a 6’5” specimen who can create his own shot and held his own defensively as a freshman. If you remove 5-of-7 and 5-of-6 outliers against Michigan and Maryland from his sole season in 2011-12, however, Brogdon shot just 34.2 percent from the field. He also registered more turnovers (1.6) than assists (1.4) per game, and has played exactly zero minutes since Feb. 2012 while recovering from a fractured foot.
Redshirt sophomore Teven Jones, the only other point guard on the roster who has logged significant playing time and a sturdy on-ball defender, has yet to demonstrate consistent comfort on the offensive end. Finally, while Perrantes and Hall have reportedly each impressed during camp, both will need to master Bennett’s pack-line defense before the coach trusts them enough to deploy them for extended stretches. Equipped with a jump-shot that would shame Philip Seymour Hoffman in “Along Came Polly,” Evans nevertheless offered Bennett a trustworthy, if flawed, two-way presence. This crop of point guards could exceed his standard, but they still have to prove it.
Far less ambiguity exists at the off-guard position, where senior Joe Harris begins the season with more accolades to collect and #swoons to induce than ever. The fawning over Harris, though, worries me just as much. Contrary to the assumptions many non-Virginia observers drew from his 36-point eruption against Duke last Feb. 28, the Cavaliers struggled more often than not when Harris shouldered a disproportionate offensive burden. In the 15 games in which Harris fired off 13 shots or more, Virginia finished 5-10 — including the losses to lowly Delaware and Old Dominion that doomed the squad’s at-large NCAA bid prospects.
The threat here is not that Harris will hoist up difficult shots willy-nilly to pad his point total. Rather, the danger will arise when, as in 2013, the offense inevitably hits a rut, and more than a year’s worth of accumulated noise alluding to Harris’ Alpha Dog status entices the Cavaliers into letting him hoist difficult contested jumpers during critical late-game possessions. Bennett denied that Harris could be as much of a “focal point,” with the array of offensive weaponry at his disposal, while Harris himself promised not to force things at last month’s Media Day. Let’s hope they cling to those convictions when times get dicey.
Plenty of fans and pundits blamed Harris’ post-Duke victory hangover — 27-of-82 shooting in final seven games — for the team’s quasi-collapse in March. His specific struggles overshadowed a disturbing team-wide trend that has manifested in the last two seasons.
Since the start of 2011, Virginia has finished an alarming 5-11 in games decided by three points or less — including two road losses to Boston College and Florida State that severely crippled the squad’s theretofore promising NCAA chances. The Cavaliers have also compiled a combined 4-7 record the past two Marches, shooting 42.3 percent in those 11 games as compared to 45.7 percent during the past two years as a whole.
Harsh and unfair though it may sound, the empirical evidence suggests a team that has wobbled in several pressure-packed situations the past two years. In the course of a schedule featuring diabolical conference competition and non-conference games against top-25 caliber squads in VCU, Wisconsin and Tennessee, how the Cavaliers fare in such circumstances could determine whether we remember 2013-14 as magical or depressingly adequate.
The aforementioned concerns qualify as nitpicky, and I failed to mention most of the reasons I suspect Virginia will flourish, such as a defense which may limit an entire team to fewer points in a game than Andrew Wiggins will average at some point this season. Just beware of judging these Cavaliers purely against the backdrop of their preseason expectations. As with NC State last year, there are so many contingencies and potential turns of ill fortune that could conspire to thwart this team that evaluating Virginia purely on its ultimate record stems from the same illogic suggesting Kevin Durant was a chump last year for failing to drag the Thunder to the Finals.
Though you have the right to ignore me and lambast Virginia for anything short of 25 wins, I recommend heeding the message Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle delivered to the Cavaliers in September: focus less on the end, and more on the means.
“Carlisle said that managing expectations is about the process,” Bennett said. “That is what good players do; that is how the thought process goes. Practice is getting better each day you are competing with each other, and the end result is all just a by-product.”
**Update:**An earlier version of this column incorrectly referred to “Tobacco Road” as solely including Duke and North Carolina, when the term in fact encompasses N.C. State, as well.