As their team sits at 3-3 and in 2nd-place in the SEC East, fans of the Florida Gators thought their season would be going better than it has up to this point. There was the season-opening 33-17 loss to a disappointing Michigan team. And they lost frustrating games to LSU and Texas A&M. None of these losses were bad losses but those games against LSU and Texas A&M should have been wins.
I’m here to tell fans of the Gators that it’s just a game. It’s. Just. A. Game.
But for a vocal, impulsive minority portion of the fanbase, it’s more than just a game. This is SEC football and everyone should dominate the way Nick Saban and Alabama do. So naturally (?) some Florida fans have resorted to making death threats against both Jim McElwain and some of the players.
If you’re a fan of the Gators, there are bigger things in life than the record of the football team. If you’re a fan of any team, there should be bigger things in your life. But this is SEC football. Remember? “It Just Means More.”
Except it doesn’t.
The success or lack thereof of your favorite sports team should not mean more. It shouldn’t mean more than your well-being, the well-being of your family, or the strength of your relationships with others. Most of us understand this. But sadly many don’t.
Your happiness and reason d’etre shouldn’t hinge on the success of a sports team. And when your mental sanity is tethered to the record of a sports team, you only appear more delusional when it’s a college team your psyche is tied to. If you’re a grown ass man or woman, stop worshipping 17-21 year old kids and go find a life. It’s a big world out there and Jim McElwain shouldn’t be the captain of your ship.
This attitude is nothing new, particularly in the SEC.
I’m not a fan of NCAA basketball referee John Higgins. When I say that, what I really mean is that I’m not a fan of Higgins as referee. He may very well be a great guy and great businessman. When the Kentucky basketball team lost to North Carolina in the 2017 NCAA tournament, some Wildcat fans blamed Higgins. And you guessed it, there were even threats made against his life.
These aren’t the only examples of fans going off the deep end but these are two of the most reason examples in the SEC.
Watch your team on television. Go to the games. Be an armchair quarterback on message boards. Have fun being a fan. But remember this. It’s all about fun for you. Your livelihood doesn’t depend on the success of your favorite team and neither should your happiness.
If you find a need to harass and threaten the lives of coaches and players then being a fan of a team isn’t for you. You need to put on yourself on probation for lack of institutional control and come back to sports when you’re mature enough to handle it.
I didn’t begin to grow my hair, longer than the crew cut I sported at the time, because of the influence of rock groups I listened to, like Steppenwolf and Cream, who were popular at the time. It was due to a basketball player who was my idol, “Pistol” Pete Maravich. I loved the way Pistol Pete’s shaggy brown hair flopped as he brought the ball up the court for his team, the LSU Tigers.
Freshmen weren’t allowed to play on the varsity back in 1966, so Pete’s first year as a starter for the Bayou Bengals was the fall of 1967. And there were very few games that were televised back then, but when there was a game on television I was watching. I couldn’t wait for Saturday afternoons and the SEC game of the week.
I was also a sophomore on our high school’s team in ’67 (we didn’t have a varsity and junior varsity). We had an “A” team and a “B” team and I was on the “B” team.
The problem was, we had to cut our hair to play sports at Wilcox County High School in Camden, AL. I began to let mine grow in 1968 which was my second year on the “B” team (that team went 17-0 by the way). But come November and basketball practice, whack, we had to get that hair cut. Mine wasn’t trimmed short enough so I had to go back and get it snipped again. And friends, it wasn’t very long to begin with.
The fall of 1968 was also when I had my first kiss, my first taste of whiskey, and my first cigarette. I’ve since given up the cigarettes.
So those were heady days. And as the lyrics to the Grateful Dead’s Uncle John’s Band go, “Wo, oh, what I want to know, where does the time go?”
It has now been 50 years since Pistol Pete Maravich was in his first varsity season down in Baton Rouge. I was fortunate to witness him play the first game in what became Beard-Eaves Memorial Coliseum in Auburn on January 11, 1969. The home team Tigers won that game, 90-71. Sorry Pete.
And, it is noteworthy that LSU never made the NCAA Tournament during Maravich’s playing days. They did receive an invitation to the NIT his senior year.
Yes, it’s a long way from those 23 teams, from 50 years ago, to the field of 68 that we grapple with today, and there are 10 of the usual suspects (North Carolina, Princeton, West Virginia, Dayton, Virginia Tech, Kansas, Louisville, New Mexico State, SMU, and UCLA) in both sets of brackets.
But interest is at a fever pitch, in the year 2017, and we are all caught in the throes of what is now termed “March Madness.”
The “Sweet 16” will have begun play by the time you read this, and here is the way I see it shaking down.
In chronological order:
Michigan over Oregon
Gonzaga over West Virginia
Kansas over Purdue
Arizona over Xavier
North Carolina over Butler
South Carolina (Welcome Cinderella!) over Baylor
UCLA over Kentucky
Wisconsin over Florida
South Carolina over Wisconsin
Gonzaga over Arizona
Kansas over Michigan
UCLA over North Carolina
That leaves us with a Final Four of:
South Carolina vs. Gonzaga
Kansas vs. UCLA
So let’s fasten our seat belts as we approach the final turn on that magic carpet ride… ”March Madness.”
An unusual thing happened last week. Someone actually read one of my articles. It was then generously posted to the very active and opinionated Wahoos247 Forum where an internet food fight ensued over the future of the Virginia basketball program. I thought it was worthwhile commenting the differing opinions on the paths to Virginia success
It is my strongly held opinion that Virginia basketball is on the right track and that facts support my position. Tony Bennett has cracked the code to winning in big time college basketball without sacrificing the values and traditions of The University at the altar of the NCAA tournament gods. Virginia is on an historic trajectory. While Virginia can and should continue to upgrade the overall talent in the program, Coach Bennett’s system and program is not predicated on being a “one & done” NBA farm team. I would contend that most of Virginia’s fan base and donor community does not want Virginia to become another NBA minor league franchise, even if that is the price for an NCAA crown.
Shockingly, not everyone agrees with me. There is a vocal contingent of the Virginia fan base that enthusiastically believes Coach Bennett needs to step up the tempo of his program. Their belief is that top talent is required to win the NCAA tournament and that Virginia will never attract required talent with our current pace of play. They contend that while we don’t need to be a run & gun program, we need to push the fast break and create more secondary break opportunities. This is what top shelf talent wants in their pre-NBA experience and Virginia needs to adjust or stagnate at current levels of success.
Borrowing General McAuliffe’s reply to the German request for surrender in the Battle of the Bulge, I say “Nuts!”
It is important to note that no matter which side of the argument fans fall, everyone speaks of Tony Bennett in glowing terms. The man, the coach, the mentor, Tony Bennett is an exceptional leader. Some just want him to evolve his program from where it exists today into a more recruit-friendly, mainstream-fan friendly pace of play.
Unfortunately for that segment of the Virginia fan base, the facts are the facts. Virginia is on an historic run of success under Coach Bennett. For the first time in Virginia basketball history, Virginia will make the NCAA tournament for the 4th consecutive year. Virginia made the tourney 3 years in a row under both Terry Holland and Jeff Jones, but Tony Bennett will eclipse those marks this year. Depending on how well Virginia does in the ACC and NCAA tournaments, in 2017 Virginia will win the most games in program history over any given four-year period. Additionally, over the past 6 years, including the current incomplete season, Tony Bennett has won more games than any other 6-year period in UVa basketball history. Tony Bennett’s teams win. They win with a unique and consistent brand of basketball against the best teams in the nation that sport the top ranked talent in the nation.
Those clamoring for adjustments to Coach Bennett’s program as well as those like me who feel that we are on the correct path want the same thing. We all want to see Virginia win the NCAA tournament. We just disagree on how we get there.
For the same reasons that I wrote the initial article on Virginia basketball, I remain convinced that Tony Bennett has Virginia on a path to win it all in the near future and that dramatic change to the program would be the least likely path to success.
During the “Sampson Years”, Virginia’s other golden era for basketball, Virginia’s success was tied directly to its talent level. Specifically, Virginia’s success was tied to Ralph Sampson, arguably college basketball’s best player ever. When Ralph graduated, Virginia basketball was still good, but it was no longer in the national conversation and it declined over time as Virginia was not able to attract the talent to contend with college basketball’s blue-bloods. Finishing second for top recruits like JR Reid and Alonzo Mourning, no one was complaining about Virginia’s pace of play back in the day. Virginia was just the perpetual silver medalist for the top players in the country.
By contrast, Virginia’s current success is linked to its system, to its culture, and to its maddening defense and deliberate offense. Winning the Virginia-way requires exceptional attention to detail and basketball acumen. An unassailable 6-year record of success unquestionably suggests, that this is the recipe for Virginia to remain among college basketball’s elite programs. Talent levels for programs like Virginia will spike and recede. Virginia will never, in any scenario, sign a plethora of 5-star, top 25 recruits year in and year out like Kentucky and Duke. Instead, Tony Bennett and his system will weather the fluctuations in program talent and continue to win.
Ralph Sampson playing for Virginia was one of the most exciting times in the history of Virginia athletics. It was also a fluke. It is possible that Virginia could sign a player of Ralph’s talent again and keep him for 4 years…it is also possible that I could win the lottery next week too.
Rather than tie Virginia basketball success to selling our souls for the services of 18-year old, pre-NBA prima donnas for a single season, I would rather follow the path that has led us to the greatest sustained period of success in Virginia basketball history. Continued program success, winning big games against the elites of college basketball, and graduating players like Justin Anderson, Joe Harris, and Malcolm Brogdon to successful careers in the NBA will keep good talent interested in playing at UVa. Will it be top shelf, one & done talent? Nope. Do we need that type of talent to win it all? Nope.
As my investment advisor tells me, “past performance is no guarantee of future success”, but for Virginia basketball, it provides a pretty good roadmap of how Virginia can remain in the national conversation for a sustained period of time. Dramatic change to the current course and speed of Virginia basketball would also violate one of life’s most time-tested tenets…if ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
Nothing is easy with Virginia athletics. Games that look like Virginia blowouts turn into nail-biting wins or heart-breaking losses. National recruits that bring joy when they commit to Virginia have run into academic troubles or been booted for violating team rules. So it’s understandable that Virginia fans forgot their heritage the past 3 years when Virginia basketball won 89 games along with ACC regular season & tournament titles. We got a little bit spoiled. We thought after grueling football seasons, basketball would be easy. Nothing is easy. Many Virginia fans forgot the first rule of Virginia athletics this winter.
While not easy, Virginia basketball is different. Virginia is led by a coach who has a system that wins…a lot. Like a good investor coach Tony Bennett sticks by his principles and with his system even when short term results are not what Virginia fans have come to expect. Defense first, protect the ball, never get into a run & gun shoot out against a team full of sprinters when you are a team packed with distance runners. Play the game you can win, not the game casual basketball fans and many high school recruits want to see. Ahhh… the recruits. This is where Virginia basketball gets hard.
Let’s get one thing straight about Virginia basketball. Virginia will never seriously compete for the double-elite high school players who want spend a year auditioning for the NBA while pretending to be college students. Kentucky signed more 5-star recruits (6) in 2013 than Virginia has signed in the history of the program. Kentucky signed five more 5-star kids in 2016 and 3 more the year before that. Virginia will never sign recruits with the high school resumes of kids that Kentucky and Duke sign every year. If an 18-year old’s objective is to build a highlight reel while breezing through a semester of pseudo-college classes, then playing in the pack-line defense (or sitting on the bench of you don’t learn it well enough) for Tony Bennett at Virginia is going to be a perpetual non-starter.
Before we curl into the fetal position and start rocking ourselves to sleep, Virginia just smoked a very good North Carolina team. UNC is packed with McDonald’s high school All-Americans who can practice all day because their ‘classes’ aren’t really classes at all. North Carolina runs the up-tempo offense that NBA scouts and high school recruits adore, yet Virginia beat them convincingly playing Tony Bennett basketball.
The soothing reality for Virginia fans is that unlike football, Virginia can win a basketball national championship. However, it is going to look dramatically different than Kentucky, Duke, or Louisville who are more than willing to sell their basketball souls for another championship banner.
Virginia is different. Not just because it plays good defense and routinely wins games scoring less than 60 points. Virginia is different, in a good way, because it develops its players. It has seniors. Virginia signs kids who are solid top 100 recruits the nation, sometimes top 50 recruits…and then it frequently redshirts them. Devon Hall, Mamadi Diakite, Jay Huff, and Diandre Hunter were all top 100 recruits and they all have been redshirted or are redshirting.
Devon Hall is a redshirt junior. He is having the best season of his career. He is a leader on the team. He is an incredibly smart player. He plays ridiculous defense. At 6-5 he is developing into a solid offensive presence, both in the paint and out. He is stronger and more athletic than at any time in his career. Thanks to Tony Bennett’s system and the maturity of the kids he recruits; Devon Hall will be back next year. Tony Bennett traded what would have been a largely unproductive and frustrating freshman year for Devon Hall for what will be by far his best and most productive season…next season.
What makes Tony Bennett’s program so interesting and I would argue exciting, compared to the traditional college basketball blue-bloods-turned-opportunists, is that he is playing the long game. He knows he is not going to sign top 10 recruits unless one of those actually kid wants to actually go to college… and learn to play grueling defense before he shows off his windmill thunder dunk. To steal a baseball analogy, Tony Bennett plays small ball. He is not banking on big homerun hitters to win games with dramatic grand slams. He is going to hit singles, bunt, steal bases, hit & run to manufacture enough offense to win while his stifling defense frustrates the opposition into mistakes.
There are no surprises when kids come to play for Tony Bennett. The players are bought-in to the system and want to do what it takes to win in a proven system. They clearly like winning and do it a lot, despite the sheer talent stacked against them on any given night in the ACC. While Virginia is not often the Las Vegas betting line underdog based on the success of the program, Virginia is the non-NBA farm team underdog every season. Virginia is different, winning the hard way. Virginia has more in common with “Rudy” than the Fab-5 or Phi-Slamma-Jamma. Winning year in and year out using an unusual system with underdog kids has tremendous appeal. I think that’s a big part of why John Paul Jones arena is one of the most exciting venues in college basketball and Scott Stadium…is not.
The chatter amongst those who know basketball far better than me is that Jay Huff and Diandre Hunter have the most NBA potential of all the players on the Virginia roster. Neither will play a minute this season for a team that has at times struggled to close in games it clearly should have won. Why aren’t these kids playing now? Would Virginia have won one or all of the Villanova, Miami, Va Tech, or Syracuse games with a little help from these talented freshman? Probably, but it’s not part of the plan for Virginia basketball. It’s not how Tony Bennett plays the long game.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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