All posts by David Rayner

It’s Never Easy for Virginia Football

I know, we’ve all said it a thousand times. Being a UVa fan is never easy. When it looks like it might be easy, it’s not. It’s hard. It’s stressful. It’s complicated. Even the location of Virginia’s game against Ohio wasn’t easy. Early in the week when it looked like Hurricane Florence would be churning over central Virginia all weekend, AD Carla Williams adeptly moved the game to Nashville, so Virginia could avoid a disruptive cancellation. Demonstrating that no good planning goes unpunished, Florence stayed well south of Virginia and game-time conditions in Charlottesville were not much different than those in Nashville.

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Takeaways from Virginia’s Loss to Indiana…plus a Quick Spin Around the ACC

Before jumping into Virginia’s game against Indiana and a few other tidbits from around the ACC, I’d like to make a comment about being a “visiting” team on the Big10 Network. My comment is short and to the point. It sucks. It’s a lot like being the professional wrestler who doesn’t have music and a bevy of girls around when he’s introduced for his match. I suppose it is understandable, but the Big10 Network is really the “homer network” – from the announcers to the incessant Big10 propaganda. I hope we never play on it again. 

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Virginia Takes Care of Business

It would be easy to say that Virginia football delivered on expectations in Saturday’s opener against the Richmond Spiders. It might be more accurate to say that Virginia exceeds the tempered hopes of the fanbase. The Commonwealth of Virginia is blessed with a plethora of strong FCS programs. Good for football in The Commonwealth, sometimes problematic for the state’s FBS programs. 

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Can Bryce Perkins Change Virginia’s Luck?

Pre-season football prognostications are the worst.

I suppose they help pass the time after the national championship game, which like the World Series needs to be played closer to the end of the regular season. However, as guideposts for the season ahead, pulling names from a hat is likely to be more accurate predicting success and failure in the coming season. 

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Virginia Basketball: Moneyball = Money in the Bank

I really liked the movie “Moneyball”. I liked the book even more. I don’t think you have to be a baseball fan or even a sports fan to appreciate the game-changing, innovative strategies deployed by Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane. Similarly, Malcolm Gladwell’s book “David & Goliath” provides a non-sports related peek into the world of winning through innovation and differentiated thinking. The bottom line of these books – if David tries to beat Goliath in a traditional fight, he dies. If the Oakland A’s try to out-spend and out-market the New York Yankees or Los Angeles Dodgers, they get steamrolled every time. I think both of these books and their underlying themes are perfectly applicable to the strategy Tony Bennett has deployed for the UVa Basketball program and is manifest in his recruiting strategy.

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Not Time to Panic about Virginia Basketball Recruiting

…and some measure of joy returned to Charlottesville last week. When what was one of the greatest seasons in Virginia basketball history came to an abrupt and ghastly ending in the first round of the NCAA tournament, it seemed as though athletic joy was permanently exiled from C’ville. 

Then Casey Morsell happened. 

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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.