Let’s all take a deep breath. Yes, it may take some time to come to terms with the unexpected Cavalier loss to another mid-major, but history tells us that this is not the end-all be-all for this season. Coming into 2020, Virginia fans had expectations that this year could produce another national championship. Senior forward Sam Hauser’s transfer from Marquette and the addition of several highly-touted freshmen elevated the Cavaliers into the national limelight once again after an up-and-down 2019 campaign. Comparisons to the 2019 national championship squad flooded in, and the hype resulted in a No. 4 preseason ranking in the Associated Press poll.
I am not suggesting that the hype is undeserved or that the Cavaliers are already facing an uphill battle in their quest to defend the title from two years ago. As someone who has witnessed great teams struggle in early matchups, I have faith in the development of this unbelievably talented team and the 2020-21 season.
To put things into perspective, let’s consider the examples of Kentucky and Duke from last year. Kentucky entered their game against lowly Missouri Valley Conference opponent Evansville with a No. 1 ranking, having dismantled Eastern Kentucky and escaped Madison Square Garden with an impressive victory against preseason number one Michigan State. However, against an out-matched Evansville, the Wildcats struggled throughout and suffered a three-point loss to a team that was paid handsomely for the purpose of accepting a defeat.
The college basketball world loves the David versus Goliath narrative and relishes the chance to see the slaying of a giant. Like Kentucky, national powerhouse Duke had cruised through the early portion of their schedule and posted several impressive wins against Kansas and Georgetown. Seemingly unbeatable in November, the Blue Devils welcomed the Stephen F. Austin Lumberjacks into Cameron Indoor Stadium with open arms. One overtime and a game winning layup later, the Lumberjacks ended Duke’s long-standing streak of home wins against non-conference opponents and dropped them from the No. 1 ranking.
Kentucky and Duke both finished their respective seasons 25-6, not a bad showing after two brutal early season losses. Even the best of the best, high expectations and all, have to swallow their pride eventually. These blue-blood programs bounced back from unprecedented lows and surged into the NCAA tournament with serious momentum, utilizing those early losses in pursuit of a greater goal.
As Cavalier fans, let us absorb these examples and reflect upon the inevitable imperfections of a team still trying to navigate through lineups, strengths and weaknesses. Those who are quick to bash the Goliaths of the world are those who live and die upon their successes and failures, and we all must take the reactions of the college basketball world with a grain of salt. Virginia basketball carries with it a standard that has been pushed higher and higher over the past decade. Each loss, especially those to UMBC in 2018 and Purdue last year, results in a hyper-aggressive reaction from college basketball and Virginia fans alike. Instead of dwelling on the loss to San Francisco and wallowing in the notion that this season is simply not meant to be, realize that Virginia has struggled, and later succeeded, in the face of adversity.
Purdue’s 29-point drubbing of the Cavaliers and an early season loss to a mediocre South Carolina squad seemed, at the time, to signal a dismal year for the 2019 Virginia team. Save the embarrassment from Florida in the 2017 NCAA tournament, many of the Cavaliers’ losses over the decade came against worthy ACC opponents, with Duke and Florida State proving to be major obstacles for Virginia in most years. Now the narrative has changed, as UMBC and San Francisco have marked the program as one that is highly susceptible to surprises from mid-majors. However, let us remember the words of Coach Tony Bennett as the Cavaliers attempt to right the ship — “If you learn to use it right, the adversity, it will buy you a ticket to a place you couldn’t have gone any other way.”
The notion of adversity echoed by Bennett plays into our situation right now. This team needed a challenge, a test to provide some fuel and motivation for success down the road. Perfection is elusive and illusory for those attempting to attain it. Bennett knows that the road may be rocky, and his 2019 squad remains a testament to the will of a team forged from harrowing defeats along the way. The positives of the Cavaliers are endless — Sam Hauser provides a much needed offensive spark while the defense has already proved that it can keep Virginia in most every game. Junior guard Trey Murphy III — the 6’9” Rice transfer who we did not expect to play this season, but received a NCAA waiver shortly before the team’s season-opener against Towson — will be counted on for his shooting prowess and versatility on the defensive end. Senior forward Jay Huff and junior guard Kihei Clark will demonstrate that veteran leadership so desperately needed at this time, and the young freshmen will continue to develop as they adjust to the rigors of the pack line.
For even though our optimism may be clouded by one defeat, the Cavaliers will not roll over and concede to the many doubters preying on their downfall. ACC play will go on, and Virginia will contest the likes of Michigan State and Villanova with a newfound confidence and vigor. While Bennett still tinkers with the roster and the starting lineups, the Cavaliers will boast an extraordinary amount of depth that has not been present since perhaps the 2014-2015 team. An overreaction may be in store for the present, but there still lies potential for greatness in this promising 2020 squad. Such an accumulation of talent and experience will drive the Cavaliers on to greater heights regardless of past outcomes.