On Sunday night at the Chicago Bulls’ TBD United Center — home of NBA stars Derrick Rose, Jimmy Butler and Pau Gasol — the Virginia men’s basketball team stormed out to a 14-point halftime lead against ACC rival Syracuse in the NCAA tournament’s Midwest Regional final.
The top-seeded Cavaliers might not have been cruising — All-American two-guard Malcolm Brogdon had missed a few makeable shots, and Isaiah Wilkins hadn’t yet cracked the scoring column — but they were just 20 hardwood minutes from Houston, the site of this year’s Final Four.
Eleven seconds into Sunday’s latter 20, Virginia’s lead stood at 16 points. About five minutes later, Tyler Lydon’s 3-pointer drew Syracuse within seven. And though London Perrantes gave the Cavaliers 54 points to the Orange’s 39 with less than 10 minutes to play, Syracuse pushed back.
Twenty basketball minutes can dilate, stretch out and expand like a Spalding under the pump, and sometimes seem so much longer than 20 minutes at your desk, in your kitchen, or at the store.
When the Orange started their 25-4 run, my mother asked me, “Are you nervous?” I said no, because I wasn’t, because Virginia seemed too good a team to lose this game, and because it’s just basketball, right?
Right — but maybe also wrong. When Syracuse’s run didn’t flame out, I became fiery myself. I laughed in disbelief, but I must also own up to yelling at the TV.
I wanted the Cavaliers to make the trip from Chicago to Houston, by bus or by jet, and if you are reading this I’ll bet you wanted that, too. Chicago to Charlottesville is a homecoming, and homecomings can be sweet. But this one feels premature.
There is a Powerade ad currently airing about the Bulls’ Rose — who grew up in the Englewood community area of Chicago, Ill. — and, more generally, about all of us. The ad borrows from 2Pac, who tells us, “We are the roses; this is the concrete, and these are my damaged petals.” He’s talking about beauty in the midst of adversity, how a rose — how each of us — can blossom despite our circumstances.
But Virginia’s rose was still blooming, and now it’s been cut off at the stem. Roses bloom in Englewood, and surely they bloom in Houston. But do roses bloom on the road from Chicago to Charlottesville, a road I’d guess the Cavaliers were sad to travel?
I think the truth is that Virginia’s rose has been blooming for some time and won’t stop soon. I think the truth is just like 2Pac says — “we are the roses.” The last 10 minutes Sunday — when Syracuse’s press flustered and Malachi Richardson worked his magic — are just the latest bit of adversity.
Yes, the Cavaliers traveled east from Chicago when they might have gone south. And yes, the Midwest Region had opened up — Virginia could hardly have had a better draw to Houston.
But Virginia men’s basketball is exciting now, much more so than before. When I came to this school in the fall of 2012, folks whooped and hollered because our Cavaliers took down Duke. Now, we know our team is as good as any — and we expect wins upon wins.
Remember last year’s loss to the Blue Devils? That Duke team boasted three first-round NBA draft picks. College GameDay covered the game — at John Paul Jones Arena. The defeat was Virginia’s first of the year, 20 games in. And yet we were disappointed.
If our rose is not blooming, then I don’t know what a flower looks like.
The nagging question, I suppose, is what Virginia’s rose will look like at full maturity. Will our Cavaliers make a Final Four someday?
And if they do, will they cut down the nets?