On Monday, University alumnus Ian Cohen wrote a story for Grantland entitled “In Praise of Virginia: The Mediocre, Miraculous No. 1 Seed.” That Bill Simmons’ colossus of a sports and pop culture website would publish such a piece signifies Virginia’s arrival as a national talking point. A big to-do, if you will.
With respect to Mr. Cohen, I disliked the article. Calling mediocrity “a viable term” to describe Virginia’s comprehensively excellent athletic program, Cohen went on to characterize men’s soccer, lacrosse and baseball players as unlikeable pricks and exhibit a degree of familiarity with the basketball team that suggests he’s been reading online recaps and passing it off as expertise. He discusses how he avoided Virginia’s 72-63 ACC Tournament victory and how he is bracing for the other shoe to drop in the tournament. Most egregious of all, he calls himself “presumably someone who’s in a position to speak on behalf of all Wahoos.”
Ultimately, the article is about Cohen hedging his bets, and implying a similar impulse is consuming the Virginia fan-base. Anyone on Grounds paying a modicum of attention these past few months — anyone who witnessed the crowd that flocked to the Greensboro Coliseum last Sunday, or patronized a food or drink establishment in Charlottesville during a game — knows that such a perspective hardly represents a universal sentiment. People have gone all-in on this team; “Why not us?” has supplanted “Why us?” as the operative Virginia supporter mentality.
Still, what bothered me most about the article was that Cohen had a point, albeit a sloppily delivered one. We’re not Cleveland or anything, but after decades of uneven men’s hoops and football performances, Virginia’s ACC Championship and No. 1 seed twofer certainly made for a surreal weekend. The natural instinct for those that care is to suspect that things are going a little too well to last, especially now that the joy ride ends abruptly with the next loss. The temptation to hope for the best but batten down the hatches in expectation of heartbreak has never been stronger.
Critical consensus holds that the Cavaliers will break before the might of No. 4 seed Michigan State. What I alluded to a few weeks ago still holds more or less true: those outside the Virginia bubble are paying respect to Virginia with a collective patronizing smirk, as if the Cavaliers are that C-student burnout they knew in high school who somehow ended up becoming a state senator.
Virginia players have relished the neglect from the national media, real or perceived. As perspicacious observers of this team should already know; however, Virginia has far more going for it than a chip on its shoulder and good luck. If I remember my Gary Gallagher class correctly, Tony Bennett is like a kindly, basketball coach version of Ulysses S. Grant, using a wealth of resources to relentlessly barrage opponents in his distinctive style until physical, emotional and mental attrition grants the Cavaliers a victory. It’s more villainous than spunky.
According to basketball-nerd folk hero Ken Pomeroy, the Cavaliers rank among the best in the country in adjusted offense and adjusted defense, which this handy chart (courtesy of Michael Eilbacher) indicates bodes well for their title chances. Perhaps a healthy Michigan State will indeed meet Virginia in the tournament’s fourth round and ride Adreian Payne, Gary Harris and Keith Appling to a sound victory. If they do so, they will have beaten a fellow titan, not a fluke one-seed on some miraculous run.
Virginia’s quality manifested itself at the ACC Tournament this weekend. Every Virginia player — including tournament MVP Joe Harris and fellow first-teamer Malcolm Brogdon, who had shooting performances of 2-of-7 and 1-of-7 from beyond the arc, respectively — struggled for stretches this past weekend. When they did, however, at least two others — whether it was Akil Mitchell, Anthony Gill, Darion Atkins, Mike Tobey or London Perrantes — compensated with big shots, offensive rebounds and lockdown defense. Few teams in the country can hope to contend with that kind of depth.
When Bennett’s defense is humming and clicking on one of those all-consuming, 35-second possessions — where an offensive player tries to penetrate, gets halfway to the line, realizes he just waltzed into the basketball equivalent of a woodchipper and either passes the ball in a panic or hurls up a shot he knows is doomed before he releases it — I wonder whether sports is part of the arts, after all. On the other end, though the Cavaliers still sputter every now and then, their patience in waiting for the best shot available has translated to several scintillating second-half scoring sprees. To watch Virginia closely is to recognize what college basketball can be at its best. I can think of no better compliment to pay a team.
I love the general sense of wonder around Grounds surrounding the fact that the Cavaliers became this good. It really is amazing, after all.
I also understand that things just got real scary; though no one would ever call this season anything short of a resounding success, odds still remain strong that Virginia players and supporters will be forced to tell themselves exactly that after a loss rather than enjoying the bliss of a national championship.
Still, for the first time since Ralph Sampson was eating LittleJohn Sampson’s — give or take a 1995 or 2007 — the Cavaliers are a formidable enough team to win a national championship without the intervention of gypsies or the shoes from “Like Mike.” It may be a puncher’s chance, but it’s far more than most teams ever get. Add in the rampant hoops fervor which has gripped the University community these past few months, inciting non-sports fans and diehard devotees alike to scream like lunatics at TVs, and it’s clear that something very rare is happening in Charlottesville. It’s the kind of sports phenomenon that fans seldom get to enjoy, and though the foundations laid by Bennett suggest otherwise, it may never happen again for Virginia basketball. We can’t know for sure if we’ll ever have better reason to believe.
With respect to Cohen, I would recommend everyone savor these last few moments of believing in a pretty darn special basketball team. Even if Friday rolls around and Virginia is losing to a team in Coastal Carolina whose mascot name roughly translates to “Fairy Tale Roosters,” and even if that other shoe does finally come crashing to the floor; at least you can say you shoved all your chips to the middle of the table. Opportunities such as this one, with the potential for a timeless achievement this high, happen too infrequently to bet anything less.