All posts by Seward Totty

Seward writes about college sports for Campus Pressbox.

Vanderbilt and Virginia Experience Shocking Ends to Season

Vanderbilt and Virginia, finalists in the past two College World Series, won’t be making it a three-peat after a regional weekend both teams wish had never happened.

Life and its random cruelty interjected itself into Vanderbilt’s season on Thursday. Freshman and 2015 Tennessee Gatorade Player of the Year Donny Everett drowned in the presence of two of his teammates while fishing with them at Normandy Lake about an hour from Vanderbilt’s Nashville campus. Though his contributions to the team as a freshman were modest–a 0-1 record in 12 innings–he brought to the team an infectious personality and the promise of a much bigger role in the coming seasons.

Rated the 21st-best player in the country following his senior year of high school, there was talk that Everett would be a first-rounder in last summer’s Major League draft. However, he made it clear that he intended to honor the commitment he made to Vanderbilt as a sophomore, stating that “the family here is just something that you cannot pass up. The life lessons that Coach Corbin can teach me, I will always remember. The education is great and will help my life after baseball.”

Shocks like the sudden loss of a teammate sometimes can be galvanizing. That’s what the team hoped when it made the decision to press on with its Friday night game against Xavier, a game that ultimately was postponed by weather until Saturday. The baseball field offered the team a chance for refuge against the despair that hung over the program. It’s been said a thousand times by a thousand athletes in every imaginable sport. The game and its routine offers the despondent athlete the chance to get away, for a few hour at least, the grief or the guilt or the shame of personal circumstance.

“It made sense. That’s their safe haven. The field was their safe haven. Just to get some type of routine and continue to do what they do, it’s almost like a rehabilitation process for them, ” said Vanderbilt coach Tim Corbin of his team’s desire to play on.

Unfortunately, the team could not gather itself sufficiently for Saturday’s game and Xavier delivered what I am sure was a regrettable 15-1 thrashing of the Commodores. In the elimination game that followed, Washington ended Vanderbilt’s season by scoring seven runs in the last three innings to complete a 9-8 comeback win.

In Charlottesville, the defending national champion Virginia Cavaliers were three outs from the driver’s seat in the regional it was hosting. Leading East Carolina University 6-3 heading to the bottom of the ninth inning, the Hoos were poised to advance to the winner’s bracket. Virginia’s closer Tommy Doyle had been rock solid since inheriting the closer’s role in a mid-season pitching shakeup and had looked good in striking out two of the three batters he had faced after entering the game in the 8th inning.

The Pirates had been knocking on Virginia’s door all day longhowever, having left 12 men on base prior to the ninth inning. In their last at bat, ECU finally broke through, scoring five runs off Doyle, the last three coming via a game-winning three-run homer by catcher Travis Watkins. The shocking end to a game in which it appeared that Virginia was going to prevail prompted Virginia skipper Brian O’Connor to comment that this “certainly is as difficult as any loss we have had in the NCAA Tournament.” Indeed.

Facing elimination, the Cavs on Sunday took the field against a William & Mary team it had knuckledusted 17-4 two days earlier and had beaten eleven consecutive times. The Tribe however, going back to its conference tournament, had won five consecutive elimination games. Against Virginia, it was the Hoos’ bullpen that blinked, surrendering a late lead and allowing the Tribe to put an arrow through Virginia’s season with a 5-4 victory.

Pitching and defense are the foundations upon which O’Connor has built this Virginia program into perhaps the nation’s finest during his 13-year tenure . The Cavaliers came into this season with lots of pitching questions and, aside from a late-season respite, those questions never really were answered. The Hoos had a dominant starter in junior Connor Jones, but struggled with second and third options until Adam Haseley found his groove late. Replacing last year’s dominant closer, Josh Sborz, proved to be impossible and Virginia’s bullpen in 2016 was decidedly sub-par by UVA standards. The result was that this Virginia team won “only” 38 games, a low under O’Connor and a testament to just how far this program has come since its days as an ACC doormat.

“They needed to walk off this field with their chins up and proud of what’s on the front of their jersey. When you have success like we have in this program, you have to step back and understand sometimes you’ve got to take the bad with the good. It stings. Nobody likes losing. You feel like you can continue to play forever, but we’ve had a lot of success in this program and we’re very proud of that and I’m very proud of this team,” said O’Connor as he attempted to put the 2016 season in perspective.

Vanderbilt’s players will grieve for their lost teammate and, with time, perhaps use that loss to propel them to greater heights next year. Virginia will lament a shocking end to its title defense. Both teams will send players on to the next level and both teams will once again be among the nation’s elite in 2017. Baseball is routine and the routine is the best medicine for disappointment. And tragedy.

E-mail Seward at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @SewardTotty.

Photo: en.wikipedia.org

What’s Up With the Hoos This Spring?

The University of Virginia’s spring sports programs traditionally are among the school’s best, year after year. In the annual Director’s Cup (or whatever it is called these days) Virginia’s top ten finishes generally are attributed to very strong spring sports results. Virginia currently stands eighth after the conclusion of the winter sports, but it appears as though the spring results will not give the school the standings boost to which it has become accustomed. Is it a post-basketball hangover or are Virginia’s sports fortunes tilting towards football and basketball, the glamour sports?

Virginia’s baseball team, the reigning national champion, currently is 23-15 and unranked for the first time in several years. Pitching, a dependable staple under head coach Brian O’Connor, is the team’s weak spot. After losing several dependable starters and a rock-solid closer to the draft, Virginia is having to go with some unproven arms in crucial roles. The team currently has no dependable closer or Sunday starter and, until yesterday’s game against North Carolina, had lost every Sunday ACC game as a result. Virginia has historically feasted on mid-week opponents, but that also is not the case this year, posting a 13-6 record against non-conference opponents. Pitching and defense have been Virginia’s calling card under O’Connor, but this year’s team is an anomaly. The Hoos rank third in the ACC with a team batting average of .302, but the team E.R.A. of 4.18 is the highest of any of O’Connor’s thirteen UVA teams.

Virginia fans remain hopeful that the Cavaliers can straighten out the pitching and extend their string of NCAA tournament appearances, pointing out that last year’s team rounded into form late before making a scintillating run through the tournament to the national title.

The situation with the men’s lacrosse team seems less hopeful. The Cavaliers have long been considered one of the sport’s dynasties, with 16 ACC titles and seven national championships as proof of their long time dominance. However, with yesterday’s loss to Duke, the men have failed to win a conference game for the second year in a row and also have missed qualifying for the ACC tournament for the third consecutive year. Even more glaring is the fact that the team is 1-16 in its last 17 ACC games and has lost twelve straight. This is not Virginia lacrosse. Not even close.

Longtime coach Dom Starsia had compiled a record of 267-95 (.738) in his 23 seasons prior to 2015, but this year’s team sits at 6-7 and Dom’s tenure may be drawing to a close. There has been a pervasive pall over the program ever since the tragic murder of women’s lacrosse player Yeardley Love by men’s player George Huguely in a fit of jealous rage in May 2010. Ironically, the men’s team did manage to win the 2011 national championship with an amazing and unexpected performance in the national tournament. However, the start of Huguely’s trial in February 2012 and the attendant negative publicity and focus on Starsia’s oversight of the program seems to have marked the turning point for the program.

The negative publicity has affected recruiting to some degree but certainly there are other factors at work. Chief among them being the prevalence of early scholarship offers to ninth and tenth graders. Frankly these offers come too early to be accurate predictors of a player’s ability to succeed at the college level. Every coach agrees with this and hopes for reform, but until it does coaches feel the pressure to offer these kids before the next coach does. Virginia, for whatever reason, has seemingly failed to identify the players who continue to grow and mature over the course of their high school playing years and as a result the team lacks the star power that UVA is accustomed to.

The spreading popularity of the game has given rise to new college programs that have diluted the pool of available talent. The University of Denver, the reigning NCAA champion, only began playing lacrosse in 1984. By comparison, Virginia has played varsity lacrosse for 87 years.

Virginia generally is patient with its coaches, especially those who have had the success that Starsia has had, but the pressure is on Starsia to fix the program’s problems and fix them yesterday. Another winless ACC campaign and no NCAA and Starsia may be encouraged to retire and allow the school to bring in new leadership.

The women’s tennis program had its best year ever in 2014, compiling a 23-6 record, winning the ACC Championship for the second consecutive year and making its fifth straight NCAA Round of 16 appearance. Head coach Mark Guilbeau has brought unprecedented levels of success to Charlottesville in his 11 years as the women’s coach. However, his tenure has not been without controversy, as his teams have experienced much-higher-than-normal levels of attrition. Sadly, that has continued to be the case in 2016, as it was recently announced that three members of the team have left the program.

All three of the players had previously been suspended for a violation of team rules and whether or not their subsequent departures are related to the incident is not known. What is known, however, is that Virginia will play out the remainder of the season in short-handed fashion. With a full roster, Virginia was considered to be a national title contender, but the recent departures of seniors Maci Epstein, Skylar Morton, and junior Victoria Olivarez leaves the fifteenth-ranked Cavaliers short on personnel and high on scandal and that can’t be good for recruiting.

Comparatively speaking, the men’s tennis team is in great shape. Despite its current number one national ranking, the team made news earlier this year when it was beaten by UNC in the finals of the national ITA Team Indoor Championship. The loss was Virginia’s first to an ACC opponent since 2006. The 140 consecutive wins is the longest winning streak in any sport in ACC history and a testament to UVA’s absolute stranglehold on the ACC for the past decade. Nevertheless, the Cavaliers continue to have realistic ACC and national title potential. The loss to the Tarheels was noteworthy but not emblematic of the problems Virginia’s other spring teams are confronting in 2015.

Virginia’s athletic mantra is “uncompromised excellence” and that has been the hallmark of spring sports at UVA for at least a decade now. Virginia fans will tell you that when it comes to the school’s sports programs, one hand gives while the other takes away. Given the recent successes of the men’s basketball team under head coach Tony Bennett and the surging optimism surrounding the football program under the direction of new head coach Bronco Mendenhall, Virginia fans will not be surprised that the school’s usually-excellent spring sports teams are scuffling. That’s just the way it is in the life of a University of Virginia sports fan.

E-mail Seward at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @SewardTotty.

ACC Links: A Busy Off-Season Proves there is No Downtime in the ACC

It may be the off-season for both college basketball and college football, but there is still plenty of news to talk about in the ACC. Georgia Tech has hired a new head men’s basketball coach, the face of Duke basketball, Grayson Allen is returning next year, the Virginia baseball team is finding out that it’s tough being the hunted team, the Master’s had a nice ACC flavor to it this year and D’Brickashaw Ferguson is retiring from the NFL.

Georgia Tech Hires Pastner As New Men’s Basketball Coach

Georgia Tech announced the hiring of Memphis head Coach Josh Pastner as its new men’s basketball coach, replacing Brian Gregory. Gregory compiled a record of 76-86 and Tech won just 27 of its 88 ACC games during his tenure. Tech has struggled to find a worthy successor to legendary coach Bobby Cremins, who retired in 2000 after 19 years at the helm of the men’s program. Pastner becomes the 14th head coach in Georgia Tech men’s basketball history.

Grayson Allen Returns to Duke for Another Trip

In something of a surprise, talented but controversial Duke guard Grayson Allen has announced that he will return to Duke for his junior season, joining what is judged to be the nation’s best recruiting class for a run at the national title. Allen, who averaged 21.5 points per game for the Blue Devils last season, made as much news for his on-court behavior as for his all-league play, and in the process became the latest Duke player criticized for play beyond the bounds of sportsmanship. Duke also announced that freshman starting point guard Derryck Thornton is leaving the program. Not to worry Duke fans, five-star point guard Frank Jackson is a member of the incoming class.

National Champion Hoos Struggling for Consistency

The reigning NCAA baseball champion Virginia Cavaliers are struggling for consistency just one year after besting Vanderbilt in a thrilling three-game series to capture the program’s first-ever national championship. The Cavaliers currently sit at 20-14 overall and 7-8 in league play after dropping two of three at Boston College this past weekend. Pitching, long a program strength under head coach Brian O’Connor, has been the team’s weakness this season. The Cavaliers currently sport a team E.R.A. of 4.19, the highest of any of O’Connor’s Virginia teams. At this point Virginia, college baseball’s winningest program since 2009, looks to be in danger of missing the NCAA tournament for the first time in thirteen seasons.

ACC Well-Represented in the Masters Field

U.S. Amateur runner-up and current UVA junior Derek Bard was among nine golfers from six ACC schools in this year’s Masters field, the most of any conference. Five ACC alumni have won a total of eight green jackets, led of course by Wake Forest’s Arnold Palmer’s four. Bard, who posted a two-day

total of +9 and missed the cut, nevertheless enjoyed the experience tremendously and told reporters that being paired with 2008 Masters Champion Trevor Immelman was a particular thrill, as was playing a practice round with 1987 champion and Georgia Tech alum Larry Mize. Ferguson’s NFL Retirement a Harbinger?

The mounting evidence that concussions have a cumulative and deleterious effect on players is starting to drive otherwise healthy players into retirement. The latest to announce something to that effect is Jets’ ten-year veteran and UVA graduate D’Brickashaw Ferguson. Ferguson, who missed only one play in his professional career and never once appeared on the Jets’ inury list and doesn’t think he ever has had a concussion, nevertheless attributed his decision to retire to worries about the cumulative effects

D’Brickashaw Ferguson’s NFL Retirement a Harbinger?

The mounting evidence that concussions have a cumulative and deleterious effect on players is starting to drive otherwise healthy players into retirement. The latest to announce something to that effect is Jets’ ten-year veteran and UVA graduate D’Brickashaw Ferguson. Ferguson, who missed only one play in his professional career and never once appeared on the Jets’ inury list and doesn’t think he ever has had a concussion, nevertheless attributed his decision to retire to worries about the cumulative effects of a long professional career spent knocking heads against opposing linemen.

*Featured image courtesy of commons.wikimedia.org

Cavaliers Showcase Ineptitude on National Television

There are only so many ways to write this tale of woe. Different opponent, same result. Facing its third quality opponent of the month, the University of Virginia football team absolutely embarrassed itself on Friday night.  The Cavaliers’ 56-14 loss to Boise State in front of a national television audience was not the worst loss Virginia has endured under London’s leadership but it sure felt like it. It was a debacle of the sort that coaches don’t survive and I think that last weekend’s result included the knockout punch that will put an end to Mike London’s coaching career at Virginia.

Against Boise State the pressure of a completely ridiculous and fantastically overzealous schedule finally broke the Cavaliers.  In a game that Virginia absolutely had to have, the Wahoos stopped being competitive at the conclusion of the national anthem. After fourteen seconds, Virginia was down 7-0.  Boise State scored 10 more points in its first two possessions and led 17-0 before most fans had finished their hot dog.  Virginia’s first three possessions produced 2 interceptions and a three-and-out. Virginia, with a roster full of London recruits, the same recruits whose hype had likely saved his job previously, were completely, totally, and utterly non-competitive.

By every metric which can be used to assess a team’s performance Boise State destroyed Virginia.  Virginia was outplayed, outcoached, outhustled, outmuscled, outthought…outeverything.  Thomas Jones is one of Virginia’s most storied players.  He is Virginia’s all time rushing leader. He was the seventh overall pick in the 2000 NFL draft.  He had a twelve-year NFL career.  Like most Virginia fans, he tuned in to watch the nationally televised game.  As the horror unfolded, his pregame Twitter excitement turned to frustration and then embarrassment.

tjones
Virginia great Thomas Jones is uniquely qualified to comment on the pitiful state of Virginia’s football program.

Virginia fans are fed up–and have been for some time now–by the sorry state of the football program and last weekend’s result has them demanding that someone answer for it. Head coach Mike London is the obvious choice, but there is talk that Executive Associate Athletic Director Jon Oliver’s overzealous scheduling and micromanagement has put London in an untenable position. There was a time when fans accepted the notion that Virginia’s academic standards made fielding a top-25 football team a difficult proposition.  Those same fans now point to Duke’s football resurrection and shout, loudly, “See?  If Duke can do it, why can’t we?”  Northwestern University, another academic stalwart and the not-proud owners of college football’s longest losing streak (34 games from 1979-1982) currently is 16th in the latest AP Top 25 football poll. Notre Dame, Michigan, Stanford all are academically rigorous and have historically successful programs.  Even Virginia has done it before, rising from complete irrelevance to national power under George Welsh in the 1980s-90s. Virginia has everything that it needs to be successful except an exceptional coach.

London’s abysmal coaching record has been at least partially offset–in some people’s minds at least–by his recruiting successes and his good character.  However the highly touted  recruits aren’t developing under London’s tutelage and fans aren’t coming to the stadium to see the head coach showcase his good character.  Virginia fans want a coach who has good character, wins the recruiting battles AND wins games.  Winning sells tickets. Winning makes donors generous. Winning makes everybody happy.

Individually, these Cavaliers have talent.  Many of them were heralded recruits whose commitment to Virginia was viewed as confirmation of the program’s resurgence.  Collectively however, these Cavaliers are ineffectual.  Virginia’s offensive line has plenty of game experience.  It was expected to be an area of strength this year.  It’s not. The line play has been terrible. Someone–perhaps a Virginia fan–once said that all runners look the same when there is no hole.  Virginia’s tailbacks have nowhere to run and the quarterback has no time to throw. It wasn’t that long ago that Virginia regularly was sending lineman to the NFL as high draft picks. Not anymore. Is that a talent or a coaching issue?  Where does the fault lie for this ineptitude?

One need look no further than Athens, Georgia for the answer.  Virginia transfer Greyson Lambert is thriving as Georgia’s quarterback after struggling last year as UVA’s signal caller. Working behind a superior offensive line, Lambert two weekends ago set an NCAA efficiency record when he completed 24 or his 25 passes for 330 yards and 3 touchdowns.  On a better team, Lambert is living up to the hype that never was evident during his time in Charlottesville. Given this, do you think that Andrew Brown and Taquan Mizzell wish they had signed with another school?  Lambert looks like a champ at Georgia.  London sold recruits on the promise of early playing time and parents on hands-on mentorship.  These recruiting wins in turn fostered the belief that Virginia was turning things around.  It’s not happening for the team or the players. Rushing 7 times for two yards won’t get Mizzell drafted but completing 24 of 25 passes for 330 yards and 3 touchdowns will do that for Lambert. A team with no coaching won’t win any more games than a team with no talent will.

And let’s be clear. It is the coaching.  The mental mistakes that Virginia regularly commits game after game reflect a lack of mental discipline, a lack of focus, a lack of preparation. At this point Virginia’s players are so desperate to make a play, to cause a turnover, to do anything to jumpstart Virginia’s nonexistent momentum that they are taking reckless chances.  Their overpursuit leaves them vulnerable to the cutback, their desire to strip the ball causes them to miss tackles.  Virginia’s defense is among the worst in the country.

The players and coaches admit that last weekend’s loss is unacceptable.  They said the same thing about Virginia’s close win against lower-division William and Mary two weekends ago. They lamented not being able to finish against Notre Dame, when finishing–plays, drives, games–is the team’s stated mission this year. They say that, with the entire ACC schedule ahead of them, the goals of an ACC championship and a bowl berth are still in front of them.  The facts belie this, however.  Virginia has not won an ACC road game since 2012. London’s overall ACC record in five seasons is 8-24. He has never beaten primary rivals Virginia Tech and North Carolina. I think it would be impossible for Mike London’s ice to be any thinner or his seat to be any hotter. Barring a miraculous turnaround, I don’t see how the psychological damage can be repaired by anything other than a fresh start.

Cavaliers Playing With Fire Already

How’s this for irony?  Virginia’s 35-29 victory over William & Mary this past weekend may do more to get Virginia coach Mike London fired than Virginia’s season-opening losses to UCLA and Notre Dame will. London’s Wahoos were expected to win and that’s ultimately what they did, but no one affiliated with Virginia’s football program can be happy with Saturday’s result.

William & Mary competes at the FCS level, college football’s lower division, and Virginia was the  heavily-favored team. That’s not to say that the Tribe isn’t a good team, only that Virginia is a bigger school with more talent, more scholarships, and better resources.  Virginia should always beat the William & Marys on its schedule and that’s why Saturday’s close win was so disappointing. During the London era Virginia far too often has played to the level of its competition. Virginia put forth a spirited effort against Notre Dame, a superior opponent.  That was encouraging.  Against the Tribe, Virginia needed a couple of explosive plays to prevent the upset. That was discouraging. Six years into London’s tenure, Virginia has established an identity as a team that doesn’t consistently do the little things right. Mental errors, costly penalties, poor tackling, bad clock management…these shortcomings have pushed Virginia’s football program to the bottom of the ACC.

Virginia's tackling troubles almost cost them a must-win on Saturday (photo: Matt Riley and Kelsey Grant)
Virginia’s tackling troubles almost cost them a must-win on Saturday (photo: Matt Riley and Kelsey Grant)

Virginia’s tacking on Saturday was atrocious.  London knows it, defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta knows it, the players know it, and so does everyone who watched the game. “We need to tackle much better,” London admitted during his Monday press conference. “Arm tackling, side tackling, we need to face people up, tackle them, knock them back, not throw them forward.”  Virginia’s defense, predicted to be the team’s weakness even without the tackling issues, is now a major liability. Charlottesville Daily Progress writer Jerry Ratcliffe pointed out in an article published in that paper on Monday that Virginia’s defense is statistically one of the worst in the country after three weeks.  There are 128 FBS teams in the country and the Cavaliers currently rank 101st in total defense, giving up 444.7 yards per game. At the current pace, reported Ratcliffe, this would end up being Virginia’s worst defensive team since the 1975 Virginia eleven went 1-10 while giving up an average of 509 yards per game.  Even worse, Virginia is one of only two FBS teams that has yet to generate a defensive takeaway this year.  Jon Tenuta came to Virginia with a reputation as a blitz-crazy defensive genius whose teams caused turnovers in droves.  Not this year.  Virginia has been pushed around defensively by two Top-15 teams but also by a lower-division FCS team that it should have manhandled.

So, in a week when the offense did its part, it was Virginia’s defense and special teams that left Virginia fans feeling grumpy. Special teams has been an area of concern for years and this past weekend’s performance was downright schizophrenic.  Virginia’s normally-reliable placekicker Ian Frye pulled off the unusual feat of hitting the upright on successive missed kicks.  Virginia had a punt blocked for seemingly the 100th time in the London era.  Offsetting these tales of woe is the fact that the Cavs returned a punt for a TD for the first time since 2004, a crazy-long time ago by football standards.

Boise State is coming to town for a rare Friday night game that seems to offer Virginia fans everything they could hope for: a quality opponent, an evening kickoff, better football weather,  and extended tailgating time.  But what Virginia fans most crave is a complete game victory where the home team doesn’t beat itself with penalties, mental mistakes and poor execution.  Virginia’s offense looked good the past two weeks, but in true Wahoo fashion when Virginia patches one leak it seemingly springs another one (defense) somewhere else.  Mike London is just about out of fingers to plug the leaks in the dike that is his 2015 football team.  The Hoos got an ugly must-win last week, their first in what must be a six- or seven-win season for London to have any hope of retaining his job.  Three games in and the team already has its back to the wall.    This is a team that could very well get better as the season progresses, but starting 1-3 may be too much of an obstacle for London’s Cavaliers to overcome.  Beating Boise State and exiting September at 2-2 would have the Hoos back on the predicted path.

Oh Virginia

Oh Virginia.  Poor, poor Virginia. You know what Virginia football is?  It’s Rudy Ruettiger, the totally undersized kid who defied the skeptics and walked on to the Notre Dame football team in the 1970s.  He’d go to practice and get beat all to hell but he’d come back for more punishment the next day. That’s Virginia football. Overmatched, taking the beating, coming back for more. The school wants so desperately to be big time and for its football program to be as successful as the school’s other teams.  It’s not there yet and the schedule is not helping the turnaround effort. Whoever makes Virginia’s schedule has a very overinflated image of the current state of the school’s football program.

The football program is the outlier. The Cavaliers have had four losing seasons in a row.  The coach’s seat is so hot that he can’t sit down, not even for a second. So, in a season where Virginia desperately needs to post a winning record to change the losing culture and reverse the fan apathy that is taking hold in Charlottesville, the Cavaliers opened the 2015 season against two top-15 teams.  Hardly a cure.

Virginia went to UCLA two weeks ago and got a predictable result, looking overmatched in a 34-16 loss.  This past weekend the Cavaliers played host to Notre Dame. The Irish now are obligated to play five ACC teams per year as a condition of its ACC membership in all sports but football and either the league scheduling office hates Virginia or else the Hoos are just plain unlucky (more on that later) to have drawn Notre Dame in a season in which it already had games against UCLA and Boise State on the calendar.   Head coach Mike London has repeatedly said he has no input on the making of the schedule and that the schedule is what it is, but for a coach trying to hang on to his job, playing three ranked nonconference teams in the first month of the season has to have him shouting a very loud “WTF!” when he is alone.

Against UCLA, Virginia looked no better–and perhaps worse–than last year’s team. Virginia was unable to finish drives with touchdowns, Virginia committed silly penalties, Virginia surrendered long plays on defense. Virginia was in over its head. So it was somewhat surprising that Notre Dame came to Charlottesville as only an eleven-point favorite given that the Irish totally dominated Texas 38-3 in week one. Well, guess what?  The odds makers knew something that most fans didn’t.

In a game that could have gone a long way towards fixing Virginia’s problems, Notre Dame avoided a colossal upset when WR and All-America candidate Will Fuller got free behind the Virginia defense and hauled in a 39-yard game-winning touchdown pass from backup QB DeShone Kizer with 12 seconds left in the game. Prior to that, Virginia had put together one of its best drives in years, a 13-play, 80-yard drive that ended with an Albert Reid one-yard touchdown plunge. Leading by one point, Virginia tried and failed on the two-point conversion that would have at least allowed for overtime in the event of a last-minute Notre Dame field goal.  Instead, the Irish took advantage of some last-second confusion at the line of scrimmage and sent Fuller on a double move fly route that got him behind the defense and Kizer, in relief of starter Malik Zaire, delivered a perfect strike.

Hoping to post the weekend’s biggest upset, Virginia instead became internet cannon fodder. #SadVirginiafan was instantly a trending meme on Twitter.

sadvafan

The mantra for this year’s Virginia team is “finish.”  Finish plays. Finish drives with touchdowns and finish games with wins.  Finish, finish, finish.  In every media opportunity, Virginia’s players have talked about finishing. Yet for the fourth time in its last eight games Virginia lost the game when it couldn’t hold a late lead.  And for the second time in three games, it couldn’t hold a lead with under two minutes to play. A different result in those two games and Virginia’s football trajectory would be totally different. Up, not down. Hold a late lead against Virginia Tech last November and the Hoos would have been bowl-eligible and would have broken Tech’s silly stranglehold on the rivalry.  Beat Notre Dame last weekend and observers talk about Virginia perhaps being one of this year’s surprise teams despite the murderous schedule.

But Virginia didn’t win either of those games.  That’s the reality. Yes, there were plenty of positives.  QB Matt Johns was stellar, mixing pocket poise with an improvisational ability that allowed him to extend plays.  WR Canaan Severin was fantastic, hauling in 11 passes for 153 yards and consistently making contested catches. The running game was better and tailback Taquan Mizzell may be about ready to deliver on the hype that accompanied his commitment. Perhaps best of all, heavily-criticized offensive coordinator Steve Fairchild opened up the offense in a way that Virginia hasn’t seen during his tenure. The defense, which was identified as a potential weakness after the early departures of DE Eli Harold and LB Max Valles, has struggled to get off the field and will need to get better to give the Hoos a chance to recover from this 0-2 start.

It is said that good teams find a way to win.  Virginia may be a good team with talented players, but it doesn’t yet know how to win.  For the program to break through, it is going to have to find a way to win one of these close games. Run out the clock, stuff the run. Make an interception, force a fumble. Score 200 points. Sack the quarterback, break up a pass.  Hell, we don’t care.  We aren’t proud.  We’d be fine with the opposing player tripping over his own feet just short of the goal line or having the guy behind the bar at Buffalo Wild Wings turn on the sprinklers during a field goal attempt.  Whatever it takes, Virginia needs to finish a game.

Time to Flip the NCAA’s March Madness Switch!

The best month on the sports calendar is here.  The NCAA basketball tournament.  Opening Day. The Masters. Finally.  For those on the East Coast who are snow blind after this record-setting winter, Selection Sunday heralds both the promise of spring and the unmatched excitement that accompanies college basketball’s marquee event.

For a few days after Selection Sunday, each of the 68  teams has a chance.  For some teams that chance is infinitesimal, but that doesn’t keep everyone from dreaming about what, theoretically, is possible.   College basketball’s increasing parity has given rise to a higher number of upsets in recent years.  A 15 seed has beaten a 2 seed just seven times, but the pace of high seed upsets has increased dramatically in recent years. Last year 14 seed Mercer destroyed at least 99% of the nation’s brackets on the second day of the tournament when it stunned Duke 78-71.  Last year 11 seed Dayton made the Elite Eight. Virginia Commonwealth accomplished the same feat in 2011, losing to 8 seed Butler for a spot in the championship game!  There’s a reason that Warren Buffett can offer $1,000,000 for a perfect bracket. There has never been one and there never will be.  He should offer a grabazillion dollars.  It’s a safer bet than the sunrise.

That doesn’t mean that there is nothing certain about March Madness, however. Excitement is  certain. Heartbreak is certain. Heck, even uncertainty is certain. There certainly will be some mid-major or small conference school that beats the odds to win a game or three.  Or four. However, for the first time that I know of the odds makers have made one team the even-money favorite to win the title. That team of course is Kentucky. Even money.  Bet a buck to win a buck.  The sharps in Vegas have a better feel for Kentucky’s chances than just about anyone else, so this betting line tells you all you really need to know about the 2014-15 Kentucky Wildcats and their national title hopes. This team of teenaged marauders and future lottery picks has cold-cocked the rest of college basketball this year and now stands just six games away from immortality.  The Wildcats had a few close calls early but now are playing at a level that likely makes pretenders of every other tournament team.Even money might seem preposterous given the incalculable number of scenarios yet to play out, but the odds makers are signaling that only long shot lovers should bother to put any team but Kentucky on the champion’s line.

It’s unfortunate that newly-ascendant teams like Northern Iowa and Virginia are having great seasons in a year in which Kentucky is having a historically great one because when a team makes history by going undefeated, that’s all anyone remembers.  What else do we remember about Indiana’s undefeated 1976 season besides the Bicentennial and Elton John singing “Philadelphia Freedom” to honor his friend Billie Jean King? Okay, I might be the only person to remember that but does anyone remember that Rutgers also was undefeated going into the Final Four?  Maybe if you went to Rutgers. History, as they say, is written by the winners.

The selection committee’s job never is easy and always is subject to ridicule.  Geography mandates the placement of the higher seeds, with but one exception. Teams from the same conference that have already played twice in the regular season cannot be among the top four seeds in the same region. Larger schools from power conferences undoubtedly get the benefit of the doubt over smaller schools from lesser conferences, as is the case with UCLA this year. The Bruins posted a 2-8 record against teams in this year’s field, but passed the “eyeball test” according to selection committee chair Scott Barnes. Was UCLA more deserving than a Colorado State team that reeled off 15 straight wins to start the season and had a better record against the RPI top 100 than did the Bruins? The selection committee determined that it did.  With so much emphasis placed on quantifiable metrics, the eyeball test seems like a very unscientific methodology.

Despite that, the committee always manages to create some compelling matchups with interesting storylines.  Virginia opens the tournament against Belmont, which features Virginia transfer Taylor Barnette.  Belmont shoots the hell out of the three, which is a shot that Virginia grudgingly concedes in order to better defend the basket.  It is not unthinkable that Belmont could shoot Virginia right out of the tournament. Should Virginia prevail,  an even more stern test likely awaits the Cavaliers. Michigan State. The Spartans ended Virginia’s season last year in an epic tournament game at Madison Square Garden and this year are Dick Vitale’s sleeper pick to make the Final Four. Additionally, Tom Izzo is a great tournament coach and has the record to prove it. According to Jared Andrews, since becoming the Spartans’ coach in 1995, Izzo is 19-4 in the round of 32 game.   Michigan State looks horribly under seeded at the seven spot, but I am sure that the committee felt like a Virginia-Michigan State rematch would make for good television. Virginia fans are feeling hosed.

Why?  Because Duke. In filling our my own brackets and doing my research, Duke’s path to Elite Eight seems absurdly easy.  Of course, that’s what we thought last year before Mercer messed everything up. However, Duke’s path most likely looks like this: San Diego State, S.F. Austin.  Yes, I am picking  S.F. Austin  to win two games.  They are the trendy 12 pick in the first round against  Utah and should they triumph, they most likely will get a game against an overseeded Georgetown squad that has gone 7-5 in its last 12 games and got knocked out of the Big East semifinals by Xavier, the 6 seed over in the West bracket. Prior to the ACC Tournament, both Virginia and Duke looked good for 1 seeds. Then both teams lost in the tournament semifinals, Virginia to a UNC team that played its best game of the year and Duke to a Notre Dame team that had already beaten the Blue Devils earlier in conference play. Duke’s loss had no apparent effect on its seeding while Virginia, getting a marginal contribution from vital cog and twice-injured Justin Anderson, was bumped to the 2 line for its loss. And people wonder why it seems like Duke gets preferential treatment? Selection Committee chairman Scott Barnes said Duke got the higher seed by virtue of its win at Virginia in January, ignoring that Duke had some inexplicable losses and Virginia didn’t.  Splitting hairs, I know.

Having now lost two of its last three, Virginia does appear wobbly.  A healthy Justin Anderson may be just what Virginia needs to go along with the motivation provided by the perceived seeding slight.  Virginia coach Tony Bennett, diplomatic as ever, waved it off, stating that every team will need to win six games to be national champion and that his team will play whoever is on the schedule. Tony Bennett, unflappable as always.

Some paths to the Final Four undoubtedly look easier than others, but then a funny thing happens. The refs throw the ball up and the players play, often with unexpected–but never boring–results. March Madness baby!

Oh, and I still hate Christian Laettner, even if he is resting in a hammock made of his own laurels.

Could Virginia be Kentucky’s Kryptonite?

As I write this Kentucky and Virginia are two of this season’s six remaining unbeaten college basketball teams. Both are having historically good, statistically great seasons. They won’t play in the regular but an eventual collision in the NCAA Tourney is of course possible. The Wildcats are, with good reason, the talk of college basketball this year. Every other team, including third-ranked Virginia, appears to be a national title afterthought.

Kentucky has lots to celebrate this year.
Kentucky has lots to celebrate this year.

However, as a lark and to pass the time until the day that they get to write about Kentucky’s predestined national championship, sportswriters are entertaining themselves trying to find a team that could perhaps, maybe, possibly, if-everything-in-the-universe-lined-up-correctly, derail Kentucky’s championship express train. Kansas couldn’t do it.  Texas either. Blueblood North Carolina wasn’t up to the challenge and neither was red-blooded Louisville. Could Virginia be one of the very few teams that might give Kentucky more than a brief test?  I graduated from UVA and was a hoops-addled student there during the Jeff Lamp/Ralph Sampson-fueled golden era of Virginia basketball.  I have lived in Lexington, Kentucky for the past 22 years and have been here to witness UK win three of its eight basketball titles. I don’t know him personally but Kentucky head coach John Calipari lives less than a mile from me. I think my perspective on a prospective UK-UVA matchup is unrivaled.

Kentucky, with its eight championships, is basketball royalty.  Virginia historically has been a pauper but for the period when it beat, ironically, Kentucky to win the Ralph Sampson lottery. Sadly, like many who find themselves suddenly rich, Virginia squandered its fortune and spent most of the past twenty years in various states of destitution until last year claiming the ACC regular season and tournament titles, plus a #1 seed in the national tournament. Virginia fans are hoping that the school has this time made a solid long-term investment in the form of head coach Tony Bennett and that it will pay off in regular tournament appearances and a permanent move into basketball’s upper echelon.

Many basketball observers have opined that this Kentucky team could be the greatest ever. Such an accomplishment would place them alongside the 1976 Indiana Hoosiers, college basketball’s last undefeated team and, because of the restrictive shorts of that era, a squad that these Wildcats likely would beat by 40. Such hyperbole is not unusual for Calipari’s Kentucky teams.  The combination of his recruiting acumen and Kentucky’s storied history has turned UK into an NBA incubator program.   Like legendary UK coach Adolph Rupp 65 years ago, Calipari’s program has reached the point where it recruits itself.  For any coach in any sport, Calipari’s position is an enviable one.

That this year’s Kentucky team is so loaded is not the result of Calipari’s clever stockpiling of talent but rather of a malfunction on his NBA assembly line. Willie Cauley-Stein, Alex Poythress, and twins Aaron and Andrew Harrison haven’t developed at the speed called for in Calipari’s production schematic. In an era where high profile players must “eat” to burnish their NBA credentials, Calipari found himself dangerously short of food (aka available minutes). To remedy this he came up with a unique platoon system where 10 players (9 now that Poythress is lost for the season) get relatively equal minutes and there is no distinction between what Cal painstakingly refers to as his “first” and “second” platoons. That he has gotten his highly-touted players to accept reduced minutes in pursuit of historical greatness may be his greatest coaching achievement.

If Kentucky is an assemblage of incredible individual talent, what then is Virginia?  It’s not Kentucky, that’s for sure. Kentucky runs talent, Virginia runs a system. That is not to say that Virginia’s players aren’t talented.  They are, but they are less heralded and their professional prospects are far less certain.  Virginia tried for years to land Kentucky-type talent but having to recruit against league heavyweights Duke, North Carolina, and other occasionally-great ACC schools was too difficult for a team seemingly always playing for next year. Six years ago Virginia determined that its best chance for prolonged success lay in the system approach. The Wahoos hired Washington State head coach Tony Bennett, the son of legendary coach Dick Bennett, creator of college basketball’s most perplexing puzzle, the Pack Line defense. Tony Bennett brought the Pack Line to Virginia and the results have been nothing short of astonishing.  Virginia has improved every year under Bennett’s tutelage, culminating in last season’s school-record-tying 30 victories and the program’s first ACC Tournament championship since 1976. Bennett and Virginia have accomplished all of this despite having exactly zero McDonald’s All-Americans and only a few players with NBA talent.  The system is the foundation for Virginia’s success. When executed correctly, the Pack Line and its focus on help defense covers up the shortcomings Virginia’s players may have against taller, faster, and more athletic opponents.

Now that Kentucky has dispatched all the teams on its nonconference schedule Virginia and Duke are about the only teams writers have left to offer up as possible spoilers. Could Virginia’s system neutralize Kentucky’s talent advantage? The easy answer is no. Players make plays and the Wildcats have more players than anyone. Kentucky’s guys would blow holes in Virginia’s D while locking down the Cavaliers defensively because it is the Wildcats’ defense that is terrifying and terrorizing opponents this year. Superior talent wins the day, right? Well, over the past year Virginia has posted a 33-3 record and throttled teams with far more talent,  but could they beat what is being touted as one of college basketball’s greatest-ever lineups? The matchup is more interesting than you might think.

Ken Pomeroy calculates pace-adjusted stats that give interested parties the means to compare teams across different playing styles. Applying Pomeroy’s methodology to the stats shows that Virginia and Kentucky have remarkably similar defensive and offensive profiles. Kentucky is harder to score on than Virginia, but not by much. The statistics bear this out. UK and UVA rank first and second nationally in scoring defense, allowing 47.8 and 48.2 points per game respectively. They also rank first and second in field goal percentage defense. UK’s opponents make just 29.7 % of their field goal attempts, Virginia’s opponents make just 32.6%. UVA ranks third in the nation in rebound margin at +14.4, UK ranks ninth at +10.5.  Kentucky allows opponents to score 82.1 points per 100 possessions and Virginia allows 84.2. That’s first and third nationally. Louisville is second.

Virginia’s Pack Line D is designed to deny the opposition close-in baskets and second-chance points. The way to beat Virginia is shoot over it. A team that makes its three-point shots will always give Virginia trouble because that’s the shot Virginia concedes in order to defend the paint. That doesn’t mean that Virginia is soft against the three, though. The Cavaliers’ 3-point field goal defense allows opponents a conversion percentage of just 29.2%.  With its interior size, Kentucky has not had to lean on the three-pointer this year. The Wildcats rank 182nd (of 345) in three-point field goal attempts per game and 228th in three-point field goal percentage at 32.1 %. Kentucky does have capable shooters in Devin Booker and Tyler Ulis. Booker has made 49% of his 50 attempts and Ulis has made 52% of his small sample size 23 attempts. Aaron Harrison is Kentucky’s most prolific three-point bomber and despite a knack for making the big shot he has been statistically terrible this season, converting just 18 of his 66 attempts (27%). His twin Andrew has attempted a far more modest 28 treys but has found nylon only on 9 of them. Booker appears to be the shooter Virginia would need to be most concerned about.

Virginia likes shots like this one by Justin Anderson.

What about at the other end? Could Virginia overcome UK’s length? On offense, Kentucky ranks fifth at 115.4 points per 100 possessions.  Virginia averages 114.8 points per 100 possessions, slotting them right behind Kentucky at 6th. By contrast Louisville, Kentucky’s last opponent and formerly the rest of America’s best spoiler hope, ranks 55th at 106.2 points per 100. Virginia is a better offensive team than Louisville and it’s really not even close, as will become obvious in a minute. Virginia has the backcourt size to match up with Kentucky, running 6’2″, 6’5″, and 6’6″ at the guard spots. There is no team in America that can match Kentucky’s frontcourt size and that would be an issue for Virginia because the Hoos prefer layups to three-pointers. Virginia ranks just 322nd in three-point attempts per game and would need to shoot a ton of them against Kentucky because the Wildcats will not let teams score at the rim. The teams that have tried (Kansas, Texas) have gotten obliterated. Virginia is a marginally better overall shooting team than Kentucky, making 49.3 % of its attempts (20th nationally) to Kentucky’s 47.2 % (51st nationally), and a much better shooting team than Louisville (43.1%, 197th nationally). Virginia guard Justin Anderson, one of the few Virginia players with an NBA future, is torching the nets this season and has hit 61% of his 48 three-point attempts.

Kentucky likes shots like this one by Willie Cauley-Stein.
Kentucky likes shots like this one by Willie Cauley-Stein.

Would Kentucky’s height allow its skyscrapers to pass out of the post traps Virginia uses to deny opposing big men easy looks at the hoop? Given that Kentucky normally has at least two guys taller than 6’9″ on the floor at the same time, Virginia won’t be able to double all of Kentucky’s bigs. If the doubled man can pass out of the trap Kentucky’s other big man should have an easy look at the hoop. Virginia will have no answer if the post trap breaks down or if Kentucky’s guards can extend the floor by hitting the three and that’s why I think that Kentucky’s interior height and superior talent ultimately would prove too much for the Wahoos to overcome on a neutral court.

SCACCHoops, a simulation service, ran a simulated game between Kentucky and Virginia 300 times. Kentucky won 167 times and Virginia won 133 times. The average score was Kentucky 60.8, Virginia 59.7. Fewer than five points decided 101 of the games and 12 of the games went into overtime.   While these results lend credence to Virginia fans’ belief that the Cavs could hang with the Cats, simulations are just that.  I think fans of both schools would love to have the issue settled on Monday night, April 6 at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.

Virginia Stumbles Into the OffSeason With Lots of Questions

Virginia's Kevin Parks is a man alone with his thoughts after concluding his college career with yet another loss to Virginia Tech. Photo/Ryan M. Kelly/ The Daily Porgress
Virginia’s Kevin Parks is a man alone with his thoughts after concluding his college career with another loss to Virginia Tech.  Photo/Ryan M. Kelly/ The Daily Progress

 

Well, that was quick. Whatever goodwill head coach Mike London managed to accrue after Virginia’s convincing victory over Miami last weekend evaporated in the frigid night air at Lane Stadium on Friday when Virginia coughed up a late lead and suffered a season-ending 24-20 loss to Virginia Tech. The game ended in the worst-possible way for Virginia—a sack on a 4th-down play that was ill-conceived, fooled no one, and had little chance of success. It served as a microcosm of the offensive shortcomings that have plagued the Hoos all year.  At the point of desperation and with the season on the line, Virginia dialed up play-action on 4th and 5 with 12 seconds left in the game. Play action?  Did anyone for even a second believe that Virginia would attempt a rush?

After a season of bizarre play calls like this one, Virginia fans are left to wonder if offensive coordinator Steve Fairchild hampered the offense or if the offense hampered Fairchild.   One thing is certain.  Virginia missed Jake McGee much more than anyone might have expected.  Virginia struggled terribly in the red zone this season and McGee, a sure-handed tight end, most likely was exactly the red zone weapon that Virginia so needed this year.  Reportedly at odds with the Virginia staff regarding his role in the offense, McGee opted to play his final season at the University of Florida.  Sadly for him, his Florida career lasted less than a quarter as he broke his leg in the first game.  It was the rare situation in which everyone involved lost–McGee, Florida, and certainly Virginia.

The Virginia Tech game offered the Cavaliers a chance at so many positives but it instead became another maddening chapter in Virginia’s increasingly long book of missed opportunities.   The maligned Virginia offense founds its rhythm just in time to execute a 10-play 89-yard that gave Virginia a 20-17 lead with 2:55 left in the game.  Virginia then turned the game over to its defense, the same defense that stifled opponents all year and kept Virginia in almost every game. In a bit of bitter irony that only Virginia fans can appreciate, the normally stout defense allowed Tech to score in just three plays.  “Sometimes I feel like we are just cursed,” said junior defensive tackle David Dean, echoing a sentiment shared for years by Virginia fans who struggle to explain Virginia’s futility in any other way.

With the loss not much changed for the Hoos in 2014. Sure, there were a few more wins and the Cavalier’s margin of defeat narrowed considerably, but the Hoos had a losing season. Again. It finished last again in the ACC’s Coastal Division. Again. It lost to Virginia Tech for the 11th consecutive time. It won no road games for the second year in a row. Yet against this backdrop of futility Athletic Director Craig Littlepage announced prior to the Tech game that Mike London would be back to coach the Cavaliers next season. “It was important to see improvement in our football program this season,” Littlepage said. “I’ve seen signs of progress in many areas.”  Never mind that this progress was measured against Virginia’s historically bad 2013 season when Virginia was rarely competitive and lost by an average of 21.6 points per game.  If 2013 is the standard then it is a laughably low one. Nevertheless London will be back for a sixth year despite an overall record of 23-38, an ACC record of 11-29, and a combined record of 0-10 against North Carolina and Virginia Tech, UVA’s biggest rivals. It is easy to understand why Virginia fans to have taken to every social media outlet to express their collective disbelief.

London will have every conceivable obstacle in his path next year-another difficult schedule, increased fan antipathy, the weight of his overall record as the Cavaliers coach and specifically his aforementioned record against Tech and UNC. London will need a heroic season next year to save his job. At the end of next season he will have one year left on his current deal.  Coaches don’t coach on one-year contracts because the uncertainty cripples recruiting.  So, either London and UVA will have a banner year and he will be extended or else London and the Cavaliers will part ways. With non-conference games against UCLA, Notre Dame and Boise State, Virginia appears to have once again overscheduled. Throw in the annual game against Virginia Tech and Virginia could easily have four losses or more. I think  sevens wins will be the minimum required of Virginia next year given the displeasure fans currently have with the state of the program.  I expect season ticket sales and early home attendance to lag accordingly.

“I trust the plan Mike has in place and believe his leadership provides the best opportunity for Virginia football to be successful in the future,” Littlepage said in a press release.    “The staff has refocused its recruiting efforts to emphasize the need to attract student-athletes capable of helping the program compete at a high level in the expanded Atlantic Coast Conference,” Littlepage said. “We are seeing many of these student-athletes on the field right now and the staff continues to have success on the recruiting trail. We will continue to support the program in their efforts to maximize their recruiting success.” Littlepage’s support of London puts him in a potentially untenable position. It’s win and win big for London next year or else Littlepage will be held responsible for Virginia football falling even father behind.

Reflecting on his team’s season-long effort, London said, “We improved as a football team. We played better. We did a lot of things that you can look at and you can build on, but ultimately when we don’t have a chance to go beyond the regular season and into other opportunities, it hurts. You want to win football games. That’s the whole objective.” In reference to Virginia’s offensive line play against Tech, London admitted that some of his lineman were “overmatched there a little bit.”  After five years of bungling effort, indefensible clock management, poor personnel decisions, and overzealous scheduling, many fans feel the same way about London. However,  the players, London and Littlepage all feel confident that next year is THE year that all the hard work starts paying off. For the sake of everyone with an interest in the University of Virginia’s football program, I hope they are right because at this time next year there will be no debate about London’s job.  He either will or he won’t.