All posts by David Rayner

The FBI Sets its Sights on NCAA Basketball

Stop the presses! An FBI investigation suggests that “influencers” surrounding high school basketball hot-shots are getting paid by shoe companies and agents to steer kids to preferred One-and-Done programs!?! Who would have thought it possible? Maybe the better question…is anyone really surprised?

I have no doubt that there are blue-blood basketball programs and blue-blood wannabes that have a river of illicit money flowing to families, coaches, and other influencers that surround the top 30 or so recruits in the country. College coaching staffs may know exactly what is going on and are involved in the money flow. They may know what is going on and simply turn a blind eye. Some programs are not part of the system. They are likely the ones not getting many top 30 recruits.

This is not a question about whether college athletes in revenue sports should get paid (they should). This problem is about the leeches in current system that abuse their relationship and influence with high school kids for profit.

The reality is that every year there is a very small group of high school players who are ready to play in the NBA. The unfortunate reality is that there are another 30 or so kids every year who think they are ready to play in the NBA but are not. Unfortunately, this larger group of “not ready, but think they are” have “experts” and “advisors” whispering in their ears that they are the next Joel Emblid, Jahlil Okafor, or Karl-Anthony Towns, when they aren’t.

Like Ben Simmons, Jabari Parker, Jamal Murray, Stanley Johnson before him, it didn’t take a genius or any special eye for talent to watch Marvin Begley III play basketball and conclude that he was a stratospheric talent. Were there “handers” who profited from O-A-D decisions of these phenoms? I don’t know, and for these players, it doesn’t really matter. It is not these kids who suffer from the actions of the leeches. The only problem for hyper-talented of players coming out of high school is the inconvenience of having to delay earning millions by 12 months with the charade of one year in college.

The bigger problem rests, not with the kids who become one-and-dones and sign big NBA contracts, but with the hundreds of kids over the past 10 years who thought they were O-A-D’s  because their “advisors” told them they were and they weren’t. These players made decisions based on advice and information that was tainted. The players, not the advisors suffer the consequences of bad advice. Crestfallen players languish on the bench at one-and-done factories, realizing they were not as good as they were told. They are recruited-over by the next year’s hot-shots and the dream of the NBA becomes a bridge too far.

Who pays the price for this tragedy? Not the advisers. Not the agents. Not the shoe companies. The kid who would have been far better off going to a program where he would have been the star, where he would have actually played lots of minutes in front of large TV audiences, where he had a chance to get an education, and where, given strong coaching he had a chance to grow into a professional basketball player. He is the one who draws the short straw and suffers the consequences, while the leeches are off in search of their next protege.

I would suggest that “advisors” who get paid under the table to steer kids to preferred programs are not advisors but rather predators, just like any other predator who satisfies their own needs and desires taking advantage of kids. They don’t care about these kids, they care about getting a payday. These players are kids, from a stand point of maturity and in the eyes of the law. Most of their families are not well-schooled in the world of big-time recruiting. These predators who work their way into in the circle of trust of both the players and their families are are leeches, blood suckers. They are the worst kind of threat to the best interests of these kids and their families.

It is my bet that if the FBI goes public with the results of their investigation, there will some big names in college basketball running for cover. We also will learn the names of shadowy figures who, for the right payday, steered high school recruits to the basketball factories that wanted them.

Speculation at this point? Sure. Is there really any doubt that there is illicit money changing hands in an industry that generates billions of dollars annually and the athletes play for free? Pull my finger and it plays Mozart.

Virginia’s Win over Duke is a Big Win for College Basketball

The scoreboard in Durham read:

Virginia 65

Duke      63

But the bigger story was this:

Real College Basketball – 1

NBA Minor League – 0

The University of Virginia scored a big win for college basketball on Saturday. Virginia, notched an improbable, but not shocking win against the NBA’s minor league franchise-in-residence at Durham, otherwise known as the Duke Blue Devils.

Let’s be clear about one irrefutable truth – Duke has the most talent of any team in college basketball. I am not sure there is a close second. Kentucky maybe, but no other team has the wealth of talent that a Coach K has assembled at Duke. Duke has multiple NBA lottery draft picks on their roster. So how did UVa, who has zero NBA lottery draft picks on their roster, beat Duke at Cameron Indoor?

I am not sure it’s that hard to understand. Virginia is a tightly knit team of college basketball players who are completely vested and committed to the University of Virginia and the success of UVa basketball. Duke is a confederation of future NBA basketball players, none of whom give two rips about Duke, Durham, or college basketball unless it impacts their route to the NBA. In real world terms, the Virginia players are home owners with a vested interest in the success of their program. Duke’s players are renters, looking to move out as soon as they can. Which one of those is better for the long term prospects of the neighborhood? Which is better for college basketball?

I was awed by some of the jaw-dropping plays Duke made on Saturday. They are an impressive collection of massively talented basketball players. To their credit, the Duke one-and-dones seem like good kids in addition to being ridiculously talented athletes. They are not dirty cheap-shot artists, like Grayson Allen. They are not foul-mouthed cry babies…like Greyson Allen. The fab Freshmen at Duke have not emulated Grayson Allen, primarily because they don’t care about Grayson Allen or anything else about Duke basketball…and that’s why Virginia won on Saturday.

I think the one-and-done kids play hard. I think they would much rather win than lose. I am sure they work hard in practice. However, there is no doubt that the success of Duke basketball is not at the top of their list of priorities. Duke is a holding bin, a way station on the way to the NBA for all of Duke’s contributing players. While I am sure they like Duke and respect Coach K, if VCU could convince these kids that VCU was a better conduit to the NBA than Duke, there is no question these kids would punt the Devils and embrace the Rams. This is why Duke lost today. This is also why Duke lost to Boston College and NC State. When your NBA highlight reel is your highest priority, winning is nice, but it’s not the ultimate goal.

By contrast, Virginia’s players are fully vested in their university, their coach, and their program. Several of Virginia’s players will certainly have professional basketball careers and one or two might have long careers in the NBA. However none of Virginia’s starting 5 will be NBA lottery picks, but they will all be Virginia basketball legends and adored by Virginia fans for the rest of their lives.

There is no question that Virginia’s players love UVa. They love their coach. They love Charlottesville. By the time they graduate they will have spent 4 or more of their most formative years immersed in the culture of UVa, Charlottesville, and the Virginia basketball program. They are part of the fabric of UVa. They bleed for UVa. Duke’s current crop of fab-freshmen will spend the obligatory 8 months in Durham before moving on to the NBA. While I am sure they would like to win the ACC championship and the NCAA tournament, the Virginia players would given their first born to bring championships home to Charlottesville. That’s why the Bad News Bears won today. It is why Virginia will remain relevant on the national stage as long as Tony Bennett is leading the program.

I have no illusions that Virginia is the favorite to win the NCAA tournament this year.  I will be thrilled if they can win the ACC regular season. It is a long road ahead and Virginia has to clear many high hurdles to win the ACC much less win the NCAA championship. By the time March rolls around, less talented legs are tired and the Duke thoroughbreds might be in a better physical condition to make a tournament run. However, if the winner of the Big Dance comes down to heart and determination, a real college team like Virginia will be tough to beat and fab-freshmen can move on to the NBA, making room for next year’s mercenaries.

Sorry Duke, Virginia is the New Taste in College Basketball

Reading some of national reporting on college basketball, particularly Virginia basketball, it might be easy to conclude that there was a crisis in college basketball. It would be easy to conclude that Virginia basketball was an infection slowly killing college basketball. It would be easy to conclude that Virginia was leading NCAA basketball down the path to attention deficit disorder-driven doom.

Such a conclusion couldn’t be more wrong.

I watched Duke play Florida State the other day. It is hard not to be impressed by the embarrassment of riches Coach K has brought to Durham. Duke starts 4 freshmen. At least 2 of those 4 will be one-and-dones. The other 2 could spend a second season in Durham pretending to be college students, but it is not likely. Smart money says all four call it quits on going to class in January and conclude their stints at the NBA’s minor league franchise-in-residence at Durham after March Madness concludes.

As I watched the track meet with FSU, I couldn’t help but wonder what Shane Battier, Carlos Boozer and Jay Williams thought. I can’t imagine what Bobby Hurley, Christan Laettner and Grant Hill think. I am sure they are happy with the continued success of the program. Duke is an unquestioned big dpg in NCAA basketball. However, watching Duke play basketball today has very little in common with Duke basketball that put the Blue Devils on the map. It looks nothing like the game that Battier, Booozer, Laettner, and Hurley played. Funny, I don’t remember many reporters griping about too much defense when defense was Duke’s calling card.

The Duke of old was known for discipline. Hard-nosed, aggressive man-to-man defense was Duke’s differentiation. While Duke had very talented players back in the day, they lived and died with their defense and the offense it so frequently spawned. Prior to the current incarnation of Duke basketball, players went to class and graduated with college degrees.

Not any more. The Duke of today is a staging area for NBA players. A way station, a holding bin. Duke no longer has a brand or calling card other than a roster stacked with kids who have no interest in a Duke education. Instead, they have every intention of leaving Durham before the first commencement ceremonies of their college “careers.” Remember when Coach K wouldn’t raise a championship banner in Cameron Indoor if a player on his team had not finished his degree? Yeah, those days are over.

Watching Duke play these days is like any other play ground game. it is festival of 1-on-1 moves and dunks. Duke’s defense is more happenstance than strategy & execution. When ridiculously talented players log enough minutes, eventually they will be in a position to make a remarkable play. Duke’s defensive success is more like looking down and finding a 4-leaf clover than the result of a well deployed plan.

On the other hand, I just got back from the Virginia/North Carolina game in Charlottesville. UNC came into today’s game averaging 85 points per game. They scored just over half of their average today as Virginia dominated the Tar Heels for the second year in a row in John Paul Jones Arena.

In past two games combined against Virginia, the Heels have scored 92 points for a per-game average of 46. That doesn’t happen by accident. It also is not a result of Virginia’s roster being stacked with 5-star, future NBA lottery picks. Rather it is the result of a program that is committed to winning differently and generally has its way setting tempo and controlling the pace of play.

Unlike Duke, Virginia wins based on stellar execution at both ends of the floor. They win by playing the best defense in the country. They win by frustrating offensive juggernauts used to having their way running up and down the court doing tomahawk and windmill dunks. UNC didn’t have any windmill jams on Saturday. Instead they got their butts kicked at both ends of the court by a team that, on paper, had no business staying within 20 points of the Tar Heels. What’s not to love about that?

David slaying Goliath has always been a popular theme in college athletics. Until Virginia started averaging close to 30 wins a season, no one ever evaluated David’s style points for how he slew Goliath. That Virginia fans went as crazy over 3 uNC shot clock violations as they did for De’Andre Hunter’s thunder jam over Joel Barry shows me that Virginia fans appreciate the full breadth of the college game.

Virginia can’t win playing UNC or Duke basketball, so they don’t. Instead, they play aggressive defense. They make the extra pass on offense. They play Virginia basketball. True basketball fans should at least appreciate if not relish the fact the Coach Tony Bennett has found a way to run with and beat the big dogs by intentionally not playing their game. Strategy and execution should be as appreciated as a part of college basketball as a break-away slam.

I suspect those who grimace at the way Virginia has creeped into the top tier of basketball programs are the same folks who like to see a winning score at the US Open of -20. On the surface a birdie-barrage looks more entertaining than hacking out of knee-deep cabbage.

However, what the run-and-gunners  and birdie fanatics miss is an appreciation for the strategy options and execution that turn an expected outcome on its head. Maybe what irks Virginia’s detractors the most is that Virginia wins enough big games now, that after a beatdown of UNC, no one even considered storming the court…since Virginia has now done this 5 times in a row.

I am not asking everyone to be a Virginia fan. All I am asking is for an accommodation, for a grudging acceptance that there is more than one way to succeed mightily in college basketball. Virginia might be an acquired taste, I understand that, but so is good bourbon, good scotch, and stout beer. Beating the tar out of the Heels two years in a row is a great reason to celebrate the acquired tastes in life, wherever we find them.

What Will Carla Do at Virginia?

It had been a while since Virginia played in a post-season bowl game. In the excitement generated by Virginia’s invitation to the Military Bowl, Virginia fans might have forgotten that sometimes post season bowl experiences go awry.

Some might argue that things started to go downhill with the weather forecast which was for daytime temperatures in the mid-20s with steady winds throughout the day. The good news for the Virginia program is that its fans turned out in force. Virginia fans filled the vast majority of the seats in Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium eagerly anticipating the next step in Bronco’s resurrection of Virginia football. Kudos to the Virginia faithful for a strong showing in Annapolis. That’s our primary role supporting the program and it was a job well done.

Unfortunately, Virginia’s on-field performance in the Military Bowl against a middling Navy team was 12 seconds of glory and 59 minutes and 48 seconds of agony.  After running back the opening kickoff for a score, Virginia played like they took the month off leading up to the Military bowl. Navy dominated the lines of scrimmage and Virginia quarterback Kurt Benkert’s passes went in every direction except that of wide open receivers. Benkert missed 3 walk-in touchdown passes, under and over shooting by 10 yards or more, so off the mark that fans wondered who was Benkert’s intended target. The balance of Virginia’s performance was equally dismal. I could only tolerate 3 quarters of frigid football torture before heading for the warmth of the 3-hour ride home.

Speaking with friends about the game, one particularly loyal and astute Virginia fan raised a most interesting question – What will Carla do?

Virginia’s new athletic director Carla Williams was an all-SEC guard for the Georgia women’s basketball team. She spent the last 14 years with he Georgia athletic department, overseeing the Georgia football program. During her 14-year tenure at Georgia, the Dawgs won 10 or more games 9 times. They had one losing season, a 6-7 campaign in 2010. The bottom line is that Carla Williams is used to winning…a lot.

I wonder what she thought as Virginia went a second consecutive game without scoring an offensive touchdown? I wonder what she was thinking when Virginia punted from inside the Navy 40 yard-line? I have no doubt she has never seen a field goal attempt from 46 yards bounce across the goal line, having never reached a height that would clear the cross bar. The cynical part of me wanted to say “welcome to Virginia football” Ms Williams. Given her background of winning, however, I doubt Williams will stand idly by while Virginia football continues to struggle in its return to football respectability.

The real question is, what will Carla do? Recall, Carla Williams was running the football program at Georgia when the Dawgs fired Mark Richt, who averaged almost 10 wins per season in the juggernaut SEC. The Dawgs won the SEC twice, their division 6 times and won 9 bowl games while Ms Williams as in Athens…and then Richt was kicked to the curb.

I don’t think Georgia holds the SEC record for the largest loss margin as Virginia does for the ACC – tying it’s own record this week with the 42 point drubbing against Illinois in the 1999 Micron PC Bowl. I also don’t think Carla Williams will find this year’s performance an acceptable outcome for the Virginia football program. She didn’t hire Bronco and she didn’t hire any of the staff Bronco brought with him. I am sure she expects a better performance from a coach making almost 3.5 million a year.

I don’t think that Bronco is in trouble, yet. However I do expect to see changes in the program – some of which we will see, others will be kept behind closed doors. I will be very surprised if offensive coordinator Robert Anae is with the program next season. 10 consecutive quarters without an offensive touchdown is unthinkable for someone with Carla Williams’ background – even Vandy can get the ball in the end zone once or twice a game against the best in the SEC.

While Virginia fans should be encouraged by the improvement in the program from 2-10 in 2016 to 6-7 in 2017, I doubt that this is the expectation for Virginia’s new athletic director. This makes the 2018 season a critical one for Bronco and his staff. I think that another 6-7 season with a season-ending drubbing will raise questions in her mind if Bronco is the right leader for Virginia football. I have no doubt that Williams has a short list in her mind of talented coordinators she could bring to Charlottesville should the Virginia program stagnate or regress in 2018.

I don’t think Bronco will make any public “hot seat” lists in the coming year, but I’d bet you 5 bucks he is on the only hot seat list that matters and that there will be many candid discussions during the off season with his new boss.

This is all is good news for Virginia football. I am not ready to throw in the towel on Bronco and staff, but I am glad that he has a boss who is used to winning on Saturdays and who I doubt has many positive feelings about the 2017 season. If Virginia is going to continue to improve its football results, 6-7 seasons with an embarrassing bowl loss cannot be part of the recipe for success. Based on Carla Williams’ background, I suspect Virginia football will improve under the current leadership or it will see dramatic changes that will lead to wins in the future. Either way the Virginia fans who posted in Annapolis on a day when it would have been easy to stay home will see more winning Saturdays for Virginia football. I am good with that.

Is Virginia Basketball the Bitcoin on the NCAA Basketball?

Has anyone but the most ardent Virginia basketball fan heard of Kihie Clark and Kody Strattmann? For those with better things to do, that is your UVa 2018 basketball recruiting class. Any guess where this recruiting class is ranked in the ACC? Don’t bother looking it up. It’s last. There is a chance Virginia could add a name or two to the ’18 class, but don’t bet a week’s pay on it. Worried? Don’t be.

If anyone is concerned about the future of Virginia basketball, please watch Devon Hall play this year. Hall is not only a a top statistical performer for the team, he is a floor leader, a general who knows what Coach Bennett wants at all times. He is like having an assistant coach running the offense and setting the defense in real time. Not many top programs have this type of player anymore. Virginia makes a living off of guys like this and will continue to do so in the future.

Let’s face the reality of Virginia basketball – Tony Bennett runs a different program compared to most of the other top tier teams in the country. Virginia’s defense grabs most of the headlines from the national media who generally are too simple-minded to appreciate the skill and teamwork of great defense. They want all icing & no cake, so when Virginia basketball fails to look like the mind-numbing NBA, they complain that they are bored. Too bad for them. Like good scotch, Virginia basketball is a taste worth acquiring.

However, where Tony Bennett really excels, where he is radically different in his program strategy, and where he makes his bones winning lots of basketball games is in his roster management and player development.

It is hard to argue with CTB’s results bringing Virginia back to the conversation of the elite teams in the country. It is just an unusual path. Like the value of bitcoin, fan confidence in the future success of the Virginia program is based on trust. And like bitcoin, there are likely to be spikes and crashes in the public perception of his roster management and his recruiting. The results to date are stellar however, so fans should trust his system, trust his eye for talent, and trust his ability to develop talent over a college career. Ahhh…. the multi-year college career. We don’t hear much about that anymore, with the exception of UVa and maybe Wisconsin & Villanova, but it is a crucial part of Tony Bennett’s strategy and Virginia’s success.

It is important to get two things out in the open that will not change for Virginia basketball:

  1. Virginia will never land top 15 recruits who are likely “one & done” players. Nor will Virginia land top 40 recruits who think they are one & done, but really aren’t. In Tony Bennett’s system, a top 40 recruit, pretending to be a college student for 6 months, who is not committed to intensely effective defense will sit on the bench. Think that is an attractive option to prima donna kids who think they are the next LeBron James?
  1. Malcolm Brogdon winning the NBA rookie of the year will do nothing to help Virginia’s recruiting with top 40 kids. Brogdon is the poster-child for Virginia athletics. Virginia fans love Malcolm Brogdon, but that carries no weight with high school kids looking for a basketball home. A true student-athlete, had he not made it in the NBA, Brogdon’s fall back was likely medical school. He went to college for 5 years and finished with 2 degrees. How appealing is that to hot-shot high school kids who have no real interest in 5 months of college education, much less 5 years and 2 degrees? Not very.

This is not to say that the Virginia program is void of ACC talent. Quite the contrary. It is just different than any other program in the ACC and most programs in the nation. CTB and his staff find the right “fits” for the program and develop that talent over time. London Perentes anyone? Joe Harris? Both of these recruits garnered collective yawns from the recruiting services and did little to boost the “ranking” of Virginia’s recruiting classes – yet both were All-ACC performers and are playing professionally in the NBA (Perentes making his debut with Cleveland last week)

The tough reality for Virginia fans is that recruiting for Tony Bennet is going to run in cycles.

Scan Virginia’s roster and you will find 5 active redshirt players (Devon Hall, Mamadi Diakite, Jack Salt, Jay Huff, & De’Andre Hunter), with a 6th (Francesco Bodocci) in progress. Intermixed with the redshirt players are talented recruits who have played since their arrival in Charlottesville.

A couple of interesting points about the redshirt strategy at Virginia besides the fact that I love it: First, if CTB can get kids with the maturity and foresight to see the advantages both athletically and academically of taking a redshirt year, Virginia is already ahead of the game. The second key point – not all of the redshirt players are off the radar “fliers”. Diakite, Huff, Hunter, and Hall were all top 40-100 recruits. In each of these instances, Tony Bennett has taken talented, highly recruited kids and taken their least productive years in Charlottesville as overwhelmed freshmen adjusting to the speed of the game and learning Virginia’s stifling pack-line defense and traded it for their most productive year as a 5th-year senior. Devon Hall is the classic example of why this is an outstanding strategy – if you can find the right kids.

The redshirt strategy is also why Virginia’s recruiting will run in maddening cycles. Top 40 kids with talent enough to crack any line-up in the nation aren’t coming to Virginia. Top 40-100 recruits in 2018 look at the Virginia roster and see it is packed with talented players, 4 of whom have a redshirt season under their belts and lots of eligibility remaining. From their view, Virginia might be a 2 year wait before they garner significant minutes. Is anyone shocked those kids have, thus far, decided to start their college careers elsewhere? So for his ’18 class, Coach Bennett made the best pitch he could for kids who would light up the recruiting rankings and missed. Top 100 recruits can look at a roster, watch the steady progression of current players, and decide if Virginia is the right fit for them. In 2018 they decided it wasn’t.

2019 will be a different story. Significant minutes will be up for grabs when Devon Hall, Nigel Johnson, and Isaiah Wilkins graduate. There might still be a wait (or hopefully a redshirt year) in the future for top 100 kids coming to Virginia in the 2019 class, but there are more routes to playing time and the wait for significant minutes might be one year away instead of two.

All of this is not to say there is not risk in Tony Bennett’s strategy. His last two recruiting classes are more “London Perentes” than “Kyle Guy”. Sometimes Bennett misses on a recruit – a player does not develop like we all hope or runs out of patience competing for playing time. From the 2017 & 2018 recruiting classes, I will be shocked if all 4 turn out to be strong ACC players. Maybe he has found the next Jared Reuter instead of the next Joe Harris. We just don’t know yet, but it is highly unlikely that CTB whiffs on all 4 players. It is more likely that CTB found at least 2 more London Perentes or Jack Salts who can help Virginia stay at or near the top of the toughest basketball conference in the nation.

The most important reality for Virginia fans is that there is not another path to basketball relevance. I have not spoken to any fans who want to play the one & done game. That space is already occupied. Kentucky, Duke, and uNC have sacrificed their academic integrity for the right to remain basketball blue bloods. I don’t fault them for it, but it is just the stark reality. Virginia does not have a history and a story to compete for top 15 recruits with these programs, so a head-2-head strategy to “out-Duke” Duke is doomed for failure. So CTB and his staff will compete for kids in the bottom half of the top 100, look for hidden gems, and redshirt as many as possible.

The 2017-18 season is just underway and Virginia has already climbed the polls based on their performance to date and history of quality play the past 6 years. Virginia’s ranking may be a little lofty this early in the season, but this team is packed with talented players many of whom have an extra year of development and maturity under their belts. When March madness rolls around, I expect Virginia to be in the thick of it again – playing maddening defense that will confound opponents and irk journalists. If Virginia is going to make a deep run in the NCAA tournament in March it will be on the backs of redshirt players augmenting the production of Kyle Guy and Ty Jerome.

Virginia won’t have as many NBA players on the roster in 2017-18 as Kentucky or uNC, but they might win as many or more games. Winning is the best and Virginia basketball does it a lot. Winning differently and I would argue in better fashion, is what makes Virginia a truly standout program. We can thank Tony Bennett and his staff for the return to the top of the basketball pyramid, but we have to endure the recruiting realities of being the different kid on the block. My best advice for Virginia fans, trust Coach Bennett, trust the system, trust the recruiting, and strap in, its a good ride – maybe not as good as the bitcoin ride, but it likely has a higher probability for sustained success.

Virginia Football is Heading in the Right Direction – Despite the Last 2 Games

It’s a shame that disappointment was the overriding sentiment among Virginia faithful as the regular season came to a close on Saturday in Charlottesville. The current sentiment is understandable but should not be the prevailing sentiment when looking at the full body of work and the progress Virginia football demonstrated during the year. That said, I get the current feelings of disappointment and pondering what might have been.

Two weeks prior, Virginia completely dominated the #3 team in the country, on the road, for two and a half quarters before falling apart and adding an expected, but still disappointing loss to the 2017 record. Overmatched and on the road, Virginia looked like they could play with some of the best teams in the country before mistakes and fatigue showed that they couldn’t.

If I’d have been offered the following bet prior to this weekend’s game against Virginia Tech – if UVA holds VT to 10 points in the game, would you bet $ 100 that UVA wins the game? – I would have taken the bet in a heartbeat…which reinforces the reasons why I’m not much of a gambler. Virginia’s defense played very well against a respectable Virginia Tech offense, while Virginia’s offense posted its worst performance of the year against a solid but far from great Virginia Tech defense.

Virginia Tech feasted on wimpy opponents to start the year, bolstering its defensive stats by smashing lousy Delaware, ODU, and ECU teams while pitching shutouts in two of those three scrimmages. On Saturday however, Virginia’s offense helped the Hokie defense look like 1975 Steelers. It is hard to fathom that this was the same Virginia offense that racked up 28 points and 440 yards of total offense the prior week against a far more talented Miami defense. The Virginia offense had a couple of chances to score enough points to beat Virginia Tech, but unlike several games prior, dropped passes, overthrown balls, and a fatigued offensive line sealed Virginia’s fate.

Virginia fans know this drill. So close, but no cigar. Hence, the pervasive and familiar feeling of disappointment.

I’d suggest that Virginia fans need to shake off the disappointment and recognize that the 2017 football season was not only a success but could be a turning point in the return to football respectability. Optimistic projections entering the 2017 campaign predicted 5 wins in ’17. Many fans would have seen progress if not success in more than doubling last season’s win total with a 5-win season.

While close-but-no-cigar is recognizable territory for Virginia fans across the athletic spectrum, “close” has not really been part of the equation for football for the past 5 years. Not only was Virginia close in most of their games this season, they won 6 of them and are going bowling for the first time since 2011.

While a bowl game is a significant achievement for a previously 2-10 team and a nice reward for seniors who worked hard to turn the fortunes of Virginia football around, the best outcome of making a bowl may not be apparent until next season. Making a bowl means an extra month of practice for a Virginia team that sports a plethora of red-shirt and true freshman in their 2-deep. An additional month of practice gives Bronco and his staff the opportunity to give younger guys significant practice time and more first-team reps than usual. This extra practice time is invaluable for young teams working to build on a successful season.

Virginia fans can do their part in the turn around of Virginia football by forgetting the disappointment of 2 losses to end the season plus the distraction of a nice start to basketball season by turning out for the bowl game this year. Most projections have Virginia playing in the Military Bowl in Annapolis which is right in the drivable heart of the Virginia fan base. If Virginia draws the short straw and ends up in Detroit at the Quick Lane Bowl I understand that is a slightly less desirable trip and may not see a stellar Cavalier turnout.

Given the breaks of the last two games, I think this team is overdue for a bit of good luck. See you in Annapolis!

The Unfortunate Return of “The U”

Like Jason in the “Friday the 13th” Movies, “The U” appears to be back.

I know “everyone” (defined as the college football media and the FCS-sized Miami fan base) seems to be excited about the reemergence of “The U”. I’m not going to lie, I kind of liked Miami more when they were “The Who?” based on their pedestrian performance since joining the ACC in 2004.

Let’s be honest about Miami, they don’t represent the best that college sports have to offer America’s youth, even when they aren’t very good. What does Miami have in common with classic NFL warriors like Franco Harris, Jack Lambert, Joe Montana, Ronnie Lott, Heath Miller, & Mike Singletary? I’d say the answer is nothing.

Unfortunately, Virginia gave the ‘Canes the opportunity to sport their ridiculous turnover chain 3 times on Saturday. Virginia played a spirited game against Miami on Saturday. Virginia fans might complain that this was a winnable, signature game that got away. Virginia has rallied well many times this season when they took a punch from their opponents and turned tough games into wins. Miami’s punches didn’t crush Virginia on Saturday, rather Virginia punching itself undid its aspirations for an unlikely win. For all the things Virginia did well against the Canes, to beat the #3 team in the country on the road takes a near flawless performance. For all of the positive plays Virginia made, there were too many field-position mistakes that allowed Miami’s offense to start with short fields well inside Virginia territory.

The bottom line on the game? Miami has more better players than Virginia, an outstanding head coach, and played in front of a crowd that exceeded Miami’s normal FCS standards. Virginia made a few critical mistakes that hurt their cause. If one is a conspiracy theorist, the fix was in from on high from the ACC or the NCAA as officiating was below Pop Warner quality, with the worst calls all going against Virginia.

The worst part of Virginia’s loss to Miami was not the loss itself, but rather that it tossed fuel on the fire for the resurrection of “The U” and all that it entails. Some things are best left in the trash bin of American culture. Breakdancing, Pet Rocks, The Bee Gees, and the unfortunate antics of “The U” are things we all could have done without in perpetuity.

“The U” joined the ACC in 2004 along with Virginia Tech. There is no doubt ACC leadership had dreams of regular FSU/Miami championship games with packed stadiums and signed contracts for the first 5 ACC title games to be played in Florida. When Wake Forest showed up to play Georgia Tech in 2006, and Boston College played Virginia Tech the following 2 years, things were not exactly going according to plan.

Miami is finally going to make it to the ACC title game this year, albeit 12 years late. The worst thing that could happen for the ACC, college athletics, and the future of American culture would be for Miami to win this game. While the antics of “The U” are not yet down to the standards of the past, I loathe the thought of what could pass, should Miami beat Clemson in 2 weeks.

When I think about the epics struggles in American athletics over the years and the societal good that so many have delivered to American culture, I wonder what true legends like Jackie Robinson, Joe Louis, and Hank Aaron would have to say about the turnover chain and the bravado of “The U”. I suspect they might wonder what it was they suffered and fought for if this was the end result.

Let’s hope for a Clemson victory in the ACC championship game and for a modicum of restraint if the unthinkable happens.

Virginia Football, Still Looking for Win Number 7

For many Virginia fans, after qualifying for the first bowl game since 2011, the football program was playing with house money. Virginia was ahead of most every projection for wins in 2017. Many experts saw 5 wins as the mark of good progress and here Virginia sat with 6 wins and 3 games to play. This is the definition of “house money” and Virginia had nothing to lose the rest of the way, right?

I think not. Despite their performance against Louisville, I don’t think the team is thinking that way either. I didn’t see anyone on the sidelines that looked satisfied with the season to date, resting on their laurels waiting for the announcement of the formerly elusive bowl game destination.

Rolling into Saturday’s game, Louisville was due to put it all together. Unfortunately their best game of the season came against Virginia. Any team with Lamar Jackson is dangerous. He is an exceptional talent. Virginia fans will be glad to see a new quarterback in Scott stadium next year leading the Louisville program. However, everyone knew the Cardinals could produce on offense. The shocker on Saturday, and the driver of the win for Louisville, was the performance of their defense. A talented unit on paper, they had been shredded on multiple occasions in 2017, and as a result, Louisville was a surprising 5-4 heading into their match with Virginia.

While there have been many games over the years when obscure players and teams have had exceptional performances against Virginia, this was not one of those occasions. There was no excuse for Louisville’s defense to be ranked in the 80s among D1 (sorry, I still think in terms of D1, D2, & D3…not FBS & FCS) programs. There was too much talent on the sidelines for that kind of performance. Unfortunately for Virginia fans, the Cardinals’ defense put it all together against the Wahoos and the Cavs left Louisville with a convincing loss, and a record of 6-4. Virginia is still well above season expectations, but not lacking more than a dash of hope for a 7th win before Virginia learns its opponent and destination in the post-season bowl frenzy.

I don’t think Virginia was flat on Saturday against Louisville and I don’t think they were overly sloppy. Virginia just had one of those days when their opponents played very well and the Cavaliers were simply not up to the task. Remember Miami’s last game in the OB? Virginia won 48-0 against a Miami team that had far more future NFL players on the field at all times. Virginia steamrolled the Canes as Miami had one of “those games”.

Virginia has done a good job of putting tough losses behind them in 2017. Ugly losses against Indiana and Pitt have been followed by nice wins against UConn and Georgia Tech. This is a team that seems to have no memory. The past is the past and the next game = the most important game of the season. I credit the staff for building this culture and the players for executing in several tough circumstances.

After watching Miami dismantle Notre Dame this weekend, I am not going to call a Virginia win next week in Miami. However, I am going to predict that Virginia shows up next week well prepared and mentally ready to do what it takes to win, to fight until the final whistle, and possibly pull off the biggest surprise since their last blowout win in Miami.

Virginia might be playing with house money when looking at the “expert’s” predictions for the season. However, when I watch Virginia on the field, I see a team that is focused on nothing but win number 7, and after that win number 8.

What we saw against Louisville was the uncomfortable reality of a team rebuilding from the foundation up not a lackadaisical performance due to a sense of entitlement because a bowl game is in the cards. Unlike so many teams in the past decade, this Virginia team is focused and well-prepared and they win more than in the past..just not every week.

Not the “Same old Hoos” – Virginia is Going Bowling!

There were enough mistakes on Saturday for Virginia to fulfill the lowly expectations of many fans for the rest of the 2017 season –  a blocked punt, dropped passes across the receiving corps, missed tackles that resulted in long gains. The first two plays of the second half resulted in Georgia Tech touchdowns. For those keeping score at home that was less than a minute off the game clock and a narrow one-point GT lead ballooned to a 15 point margin and the rout was on. Except it wasn’t.

Playing Georgia Tech is always a challenge. They play a different brand of football. They run on first down. They run on 3rd and long. They go for it on 4th down. Their blocking schemes are unique and their athletes are drilled in the nuances of GT football. So when the Yellow Jackets burst out to a big lead, it is not unusual for their opponents to collapse. As noted last week, teams don’t make defensive adjustments at halftime that stymie Georgia Tech. Either you break the code to stop the Jackets in the week leading up the game…or you don’t. There isn’t a lot of middle ground. Virginia looked like they could hang with Georgia Tech, but Virginia can never afford big mistakes. This is especially true against G-Tech who can grind games away with clock-eating drives. Virginia’s early mistakes looked like they would break their back.

When Georgia Tech broke the game open early in the second half, the hearty Virginia fans that braved the Charlottesville downpours could not have been blamed for heading for the exits – to dry tailgate tents and warm rides home.

A funny thing happened in Charlottesville on Saturday. While the crowd was thin due to the horrid weather and tepid team performances of the past two weeks, the fans in the stadium remained and a Virginia team that was expected to accelerate the rush to the exits, instead stormed back and sent the Engineers back to Atlanta with a stinging loss.

Tepid might be a kind description of Virginia’s performances against Boston College and Pittsburgh the past two weeks. Disheartening might be a bit more accurate. However, even in those losses, there was not the expected fatalistic sense of doom throughout the game. There was not the disorganized chaos that has marked Virginia football the past decade. Even in those disappointing losses, Virginia never rolled the tents, like they had in years past.

So when Virginia looked like they had thrown the game away in the first 2 plays of the second half against Georgia Tech, it would have been easy for Virginia fans to begin the groaning festival, reminiscing about the horrors of being a Virginia fan. But this team is not Virginia-business-as-usual. They don’t get rattled like Mike London’s Virginia teams. Instead, the guys that made big mistakes in the first half suddenly made big plays to win the game.

Lester Coleman, after a blocked punt and a touchback-punt that netted less than 20 yards in the fist half punted like an All-American. He flipped the field on Georgia Tech with a monster 60-yard punt on a soggy day when punting was a nightmare. Later, he pinned GT inside the 5 yard line that led to a safety and then again inside the 10. Andre Lavrone, Doni Dowling, and Olamide Zaccheous made fantastic catches after ugly drops early in the game. Kurt Benkert threw pinpoint touchdown passes in traffic after one of the season’s ugliest pick-sixes.

I know this goes against the grain for a program that has not been bowling since 2011, but it is time for the Virginia program – players, coaches, and fans to get greedy. Making a bowl game is great, and I am so happy for the players, especially the seniors who have slogged their way back to respectability. It’s time to move beyond respectable to pretty darned good.

Virginia was a 9.5 point dog to Georgia Tech and a 13.5 point dog to Boise State. The Wahoos have opened as a 9 point underdog to Louisville. I don’t think Vegas knows what to do with Virginia this year. I’m not a betting guy, but take the Wahoos and the points. Lamar Jackson is a fantastic talent and Louisville is hungry for a win after a subpar year. However, unlike too many prior seasons, I just wouldn’t bet a against this team. If they look sloppy in the first half or make a couple of big mistakes to go down to Louisville early, don’t change the channel, don’t go work in the yard. I know what “same-old-Hoos” looks like. These aren’t the same old ‘Hoos.

An Unlikely Virginia Football Contrarian…

I was out of town this weekend when kickoff for the Virginia/Pitt game rolled around. The bartender was either unwilling or unable to find RSN. There was no doubt in my mind that my fellow bar patrons included few UVa fans, so I am not sure if the failure to locate the game was due to a lack of coverage in the area or by design to keep the bar filled and happy.

Frankly, I am not sure it matters. I read the articles and studied the box score. Another convincing Virginia loss. The second in a row as Virginia remains one win shy of bowl eligibility. If I was going to completely miss a game, this was probably a good one. The anatomy of the loss – the shortcomings of the offensive line, a high school caliber field goal kicking game, and squandered opportunities inside the Pitt 40 yard line are not the biggest challenges for the program right now.

I think the biggest problem for the program is that fans are perilously close to or have already thrown in the towel on the season and some on the football program at large. I got several texts during the game, while I was out for a hike in the Virginia mountains, that predicted a 5-7 season and another bowl season without Virginia as a participant. They were done, waiting for basketball season.

It is hard to blame them. Virginia has been consistently pretty bad over the past 10 years. Al Groh and Mike London each had flashes success during their tenures, but ultimately both were major players in the disintegration of the Virginia football program. Bronco’s first season at 2-10 didn’t do much to repair the damage. Fans are justified in their short fuse.

I understand the sentiments of those who have seen enough. Virginia athletics has a long and storied history of leaving its fans at the alter, especially in the “money sports” of football and basketball. While Virginia has built itself into a national player on the basketball scene, there is no doubt that recent teams had final 4 potential, yet have fallen short of basketball nirvana. Football has been a train wreck since George Welsh was prematurely pushed aside. I get it, for many it’s time to move on.

I’m not there yet. While the playing margin for error for Virginia football is razor thin and the tolerance for injuries among the starters is even thinner, I think there is another win in this team and a bowl game on the horizon. I’d love to cite a mountain of stats that back up my position, but they aren’t there. In fact, the stats clearly support the opposite position. If I were at the blackjack table in Vegas, I’d be the hated player going with his “gut” hitting a “15” while the dealer shows “6”.

I think that Quinn Blanding and Micah Kizer will rally this team for one more win this season. As it sinks in on the rest of the team that these warriors may go their entire college career without a bowl appearance, I think the rest of the team will dig deep and find a way to pull off a major upset victory.

Virginia will be the betting dog the rest of the season. The Wahoos opened as an 8.5 point dog to Georgia Tech, which will likely be the smallest spread we see the rest of the way.

In past seasons, undermanned Virginia teams have stymied the maddening triple option to upset the Jackets in Charlottesville. I think it is possible again this Saturday, but I think the options this week are polar opposites. Virginia will either eek out a close victory or get blowout by 25 points or more. If it is close, Virginia can will its way to victory. If the roof starts leaking early and Virginia struggles in the first half, it will get ugly in a hurry. The triple option is not a riddle you solve at halftime. It is a puzzle you unravel the week before the game.

Let’s hope for a good week of practice and a sharp performance on Saturday, otherwise I’m the guy that took the dealer’s bust card. You’re welcome.