Tag Archives: University of Virginia

Is Virginia Basketball the Bitcoin on the NCAA Basketball?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Virginia and North Carolina Both Got What They Deserved

After a hard fought game, Virginia left Chapel Hill with what it deserved – a victory over the struggling, but athletic North Carolina Tar Heels. Virginia snapped a 7-game losing streak to a Carolina team that also got what it deserved on Saturday.

After the NCAA issued the University of North Carolina a “get out of jail free” pass for academic fraud that kept its athletes eligible for almost 20 years while robbing them of any chance for a real education, UNC got what it deserved Saturday as well – a loss and a pot to stew in until the teams meet again next year.

UNC coach Larry Fedora was fuming as the clock ticked down to zeros and Virginia lined up in its victory formation. Fedora and the Carolina nation were outraged at a no-call on what they felt was a face mask penalty on a 4th down, game ending sack by Chris Peace. Carolina fans aren’t used to calls not going their way. Ignore the fact that Carolina just as easily could have been called for a block below the waste on the same play or the missed holding call on Eli Hanback the play before. UNC is supposed to get the breaks and get the calls, whether their athletes go to class or not.

When the NCAA acknowledged that Carolina ran an academic charade for 17 years that helped keep its athletes eligible to compete in its revenue sports, but then stated that the academic curriculum of its members is outside the jurisdiction of the NCAA infractions team…you might say Carolina is used to having its way. Maybe Carolina fans should go back and listen to the interviews and read the chronologies laid out by their internal whistle-blowers describing barely literate athletes getting “As” in classes that never met and turning in papers they never wrote before they get too indignant about a no-call that didn’t go their way.

The University of North Carolina, after spending $ 17 million dollars defending its systemic academic fraud, essentially threw the entire university under the proverbial bus by stating that their sham classes were part of the regular curriculum and were available to all students. Wow, the entire university population can take no-show classes? That must be very comforting to the parents of students and to major benefactors of the university.

While UNC was busy throwing its academic integrity out the window to defend its athletic department, Virginia was busy taking care of business on the field, resurrecting its dormant football program. Jordon Ellis in particular, personifies the 2017 Virginia Cavaliers. On Saturday in Chapel Hill, Ellis had his most productive day as a Cavalier. His legendary work ethic was on full display as he consistently ran for yards after contact, always fell forward, and gained needed yards on 3rd and 4th down.

Jordon Ellis embodies what we love about college athletics. He is a humble, hard-working young man who waited his turn and is reaping the rewards along with his teammates. The best news for Ellis and for Virginia fans is that Ellis is a red-shirt junior and Virginia fans can look forward to him grinding out 137 yards against UNC again next year in Scott Stadium.

Virginia played a far from perfect game against the Tar Heels on Saturday, but they made plays when the game was in the balance. That is what good teams do. I was disappointed that the ‘Hoos did not convert UNC turnovers into more points. The Virginia defense broke down twice against talented freshman Michael Carter allowing two long gains that resulted in or set up two Carolina touchdowns. Virginia will need more nearly perfect performances to generate more wins in the second half of the season. Big tests await the Cavaliers, starting Saturday with a home game against a rapidly improving Boston College program that Virginia has never beaten.

If karma is indeed about retributive justice, then maybe UNC just made their first, very small installment to bring the scales back to balance and Virginia a might be reaping the rewards for the hard work of the past two years.

For the first time ever, I think I might pull for the Blue Devils when UNC and Duke play in basketball this season.

Note for this coming Saturday – I realize that no one loves a 12:30 kickoff, but this team is 5-1. Boston College’s series record against UVa is 5-0 and they are coming off a huge win against Louisville. This Virginia has earned a crowd of 45K or more to help them clinch a bowl bid for the first time since 2011. Not loving the kickoff time, but loving this 2017 Wahoo team – Bloodies and Screw Drivers at 10:00 on a beautiful fall morning in C’ville ain’t all bad.

Virginia Posts a Strong Performance in Boise

Is the Virginia football jinx dead? (Gasp!) Thinking such things seems outlandish, risky, and maybe even blasphemous. Serious consideration of such a possibility is premature. However, the thought occurred to me as the final seconds ticked off the clock in Virginia’s improbable 42-23 victory Friday night.

Winning football games is hard. Winning football games against good programs on the road is harder still. Over the past 10 years, Boise State has won 110 games. The Broncos have beaten teams that Virginia only dreams of beating – Oklahoma, TCU, and Virginia Tech among them. I don’t know if this year’s BSU team is up to the usual Broncos’ standard, but I do know that on Friday night, Virginia took a good Boise State program to the woodshed.

Contrary to the Las Vegas betting line of 13 points in favor of the Broncos, I had a good feeling about Virginia’s chances against BSU. In its first 3 games of the ’17 season, Virginia had really cleaned up their play. Turnovers, penalties, and mental errors were way down from what the Virginia faithful had come to expect from the Cavaliers. The turnover trend was positive for Virginia. It seemed like the Cavaliers were on the brink of putting things together for the first time in many years.

My good feelings about Virginia’s chances to win were converted into assured confidence for victory on one critical turn of events in the first half. As any Virginia fan knows, the probability of converting fake punts and on-sides kicks is very low…except against Virginia. In recent years, conversion rates against Virginia for these plays has been the inverse of the rest of the football universe. Virginia football of the past 10 years gives up the trick play. The Virginia team Friday night did not and quickly converted the resultant opportunity into points.

That’s what good teams do. They take advantage of their opponent’s miscues. They make them pay. Virginia’s inability to do this with any consistency the past 10 years is why they have a 10+ year losing streak against Virginia Tech. It is why Virginia has been absent from the bowl picture 8 of the last 9 seasons. Now, for 2 weeks in a row, when Virginia’s opponents have made mistakes, Virginia has capitalized and won in convincing fashion.

Equally encouraging, and also swimming against the traditional Virginia currents, the ‘Hoos never took their foot off the gas against Boise State. Despite a couple of late game blunders after victory was in the bag, Virginia played to win for 60 minutes. Well conditioned Virginia fans, in any game where Virginia leads, start doing the math in their heads when it looks like Virginia might win. How many touchdowns does the opponent need to score divided by the time remaining…and what is the probability of the making the needed scores in the remaining time? No matter how improbable, Virginia fans have a fatalistic feeling anytime a win looks possible. Think Notre Dame. Think Louisville. Think Michigan, Texas, UNC, and a host of others.

Friday against BSU, Virginia was as focused and aggressive in the final minutes of the game as they were at the start. It was clear that Virginia’s players were intent on this win, on making a statement, that they were not going to let this one get away. How refreshing. How encouraging.

Friday’s win was a good win. The challenge now is stringing together multiple good wins to become a good team. Virginia gets an extra week off to rest and prepare before a solid Duke team comes to Charlottesville. This is an important game. It’s at home. It comes off a bye-week. It comes on the heels of 2 strong wins. Good teams win this game. Virginia gets a chance to take another step towards becoming a good team in 2 weeks.

Is the Virginia football jinx dead? Is the curse of Al Groh finally broken? It seems risky to ponder such things. When seeking guidance in life on important questions…investment advice, house purchase decisions, predictions on the fortunes of Virginia football, I find the Magic 8-Ball as good of source of truth as any.

Magic 8-ball, is the Virginia football jinx and the curse of Al Groh dead? “Concentrate and ask again”

Magic 8-ball, is the Virginia football jinx and the curse of Al Groh dead? “Signs point to yes”

Even though the Magic 8-ball said “my reply is no” when I asked if I should sell Sun Microsystems at $ 75/share many years ago, I think it is on the right track now, as is Virginia football.

I hope Virginia fans reward their team in 2 weeks by coming to the game, not just the tailgate. This team is vastly improved over last season. In Bronco Mendenhall’s culture of earned not given, this team has earned increased fan support. Let’s do what we can to deliver.

Spring Comes to Virginia Football

Spring has sprung for Virginia football, which means that spring practice has ended and the spring game…spring scrimmage…football festival (whatever) has mercifully passed. Now recruiting season kicks into high gear.

With all due respect to the 90,000 Alabama fans that pack Bryant-Denny stadium for the Red & White game, spring football is boring. It is a zero-sum game. If a great performance by your redshirt freshman running back is an indication that he is the next Heisman hopeful it also likely means that your run defense stinks. Many players sit out the spring healing from off-season surgery, quarterbacks wear red jerseys so no one hits them, and the new freshman class has yet to arrive. If you can find the fun in spring football, let me know. I’ve been to far too many spring games when I could have spent the day pulling weeds or stripping wall paper.

The importance, and the fun, of spring and summer for college football fans is recruiting season. For Virginia fans though, I think the fun of this year’s recruiting is going restrained. It might even be a little boring.

When Al Groh and Mike London arrived in Charlottesville, they each won big recruiting battles in their early years with the program. Al Groh brought consensus high school All-Americans Ahmad Brooks and Kai Parham to Charlottesville. Mike London landed 5-star super stars Andrew Brown and Quinn Blanding. These recruiting wins, among others, brought excitement, optimism, and paper victories to Charlottesville. The thing about paper victories is they don’t always translate into on-field victories. At least they don’t for Virginia.

It is no secret that Bronco Mendenhall is facing strong recruiting headwinds. The program has been in a funk for the past 10 years. It hasn’t beaten Virginia Tech in over 10 years. Then there is Bronco’s coaching philosophy. Bronco is all about earned not given, running a hyper-disciplined program, and success in the class room in addition to the playing field. If you were a 5-star recruit with Alabama & LSU wooing you daily, telling you that you will be their next future first-round draft pick who cashes-in after 3 years in “college”, would you return a call from Bronco Mendenhall?

Therefore, the fun of recruiting under Bronco will not compare with the fun we had under Al Groh and Mike London. Bronco is going to recruit over-achieving 2 and 3 star kids who want to play in Bronco’s system and go to class at UVa. A scan of BYU’s recruiting classes under Bronco shows long lists of kids that weren’t recruited very hard by Southern Cal, Oregon, and UCLA. Virginia generally had higher ranked recruiting classes than BYU during Bronco’s tenure with the Cougars. The happy news for Virginia fans who worry about Bronco’s lack of recruiting star power is that Bronco won a lot more football games in the fall than recruiting battles in the spring. He certainly won a lot more football games than his two predecessors at UVa.

A glance at the offers out to the high school seniors in Virginia’s 2018 recruiting class is a manifestation of things most fans already know. Virginia is woefully under-staffed on the offensive line. The defensive line is in better shape, but only marginally so. Bronco has over 60 active offers out to shore up his depth and talent in the trenches. Virginia also needs to upgrade it’s team speed. Virginia needs playmakers who can turn a short 4-yard slant into a long TD run.

A little deeper analysis of the current commit and offer lists shows that Bronco and staff are looking for kids they can develop, that might be a bit under the radar, and can survive the rigors of Bronco’s system and UVa’s classroom. Bronco is not recruiting a lot of kids with offers from the top of the Big 10 or SEC. Bottom line, there aren’t many 4-star and 5-star recruits on the 2018 offer list and there aren’t any on the commit list.

The glass half-full reality for Virginia fans is that UVa is not going to have to beat Clemson and Florida State for any of their recruits this summer. There are no Terry Kirby’s or Chris Slade’s committing to Virginia this summer that will make Virginia fans giddy and Hokie fans jealous. Bronco is recruiting kids that seem to align with the mold of players he recruited at BYU. The great news for Virginia is that Bronco won a lot of games with those kids. The sour pill for Virginia fans is that this requires still more patience. Instead of high-fiving big recruiting wins, Virginia fans are going to have to trust that Bronco and staff know what kind of kids thrive in their program and can win games of Saturdays.

Spring practices and spring games are inherently boring. Spring & summer recruiting is not. While the path that Bronco demands for his program might make for a subdued recruiting season, if Bronco gets the kids he wants, the fall should be a lot more exciting than the spring…and much more successful than the past several falls.

Virginia Football – Buy, Sell, or Hold?

If UVA football under Bronco Mendenhall was a publicly traded stock (ticker symbol BRNC), for all intents and purposes, it had its initial public offering on September 3 when UVA was thumped by FCS contender University of Richmond. This game was the equivalent of a stock that went public at $20 and finished the first trading of day at $15. It was not what anyone vested in the success of BRNC wanted to see. Many were ready to sell early and cut their losses.

Storm clouds on the horizon did little for the next two trading days. A lopsided loss in Eugene and a close but embarrassingly ugly loss in Hartford drove BRNC’s value down further. Analysts had to be wondering whether they should have kept BRNC out of the public eye and how could they have been so wrong about its prospects.

BRNC futures were trading down sharply when undefeated Central Michigan came to Charlottesville. However, those who were short BRNC took a bath as the Wahoos took down the Chippewas in convincing fashion. A second impressive win on the road at Duke rallied BRNC past its IPO price as fans started to jump back on the BRNC wagon.

As with all stocks, the biggest question looking forward is: where do we go from here? While this question tends to focus on the potential wins and losses over the coming seven games, there is more to the success of BRNC in the UVA market than winning six games in 2016 and going to a bowl game.

Bronco, assuredly, has to win games. However, UVA fans are an unusual bunch. He has to win back a weary UVA fan base. He has to replace the sense of impending doom that has surrounded the program for the past 12 years and with a sense of anticipation. Additionally, style points matter for Virginia fans. Virginia fans want to win, but they won’t accept athletes that embarrass dear old UVA. Therefore the value of BRNC with the Virginia faithful is much more complicated than the win-loss record.

This probably explains why BRNC got so far ahead of itself in its pre-IPO excitement. Bronco said and did everything that Virginia fans cherish. He was tough on his players. He spoke of earning versus giving. He spoke of discipline, focus, and speed. He had a system that had produced winners for 10 years in a row. His players stayed out of trouble and graduated on time. He was thoughtful and engaging when meeting with the donor community. Most of all, he had a track record of winning the right way. He was a CEO who had thrived in an environment at BYU that was equally as complex and demanding as UVA. It is little wonder initial expectations were inflated. It is also not a shock that over-blown expectations were quickly dashed.

However, as anyone in the financial market will tell you, there is a big difference between investing and trading. Both investors and traders were overly giddy about BRNC when it went public against Richmond. The traders started to jump ship after the first couple of losses. Most UVA fans are investors though. Over the decades they have celebrated jubilant highs and endured heart-breaking lows. Over the past couple of decades, the trend of the athletic program has been up and to the right, with football being the notable laggard.

Therefore, it is understandable that fans over-bought BRNC in the run up to the final horn on September 3. Some felt like they had been sold a bill-of-goods. However, BRNC is is not a fly-by-night. It is not BRNC.com. BRNC is built on foundational principles that last, that win games over the long term. While the UVA fan base might be a little less patient than Bronco would like, I think they are on board for the long term.

BRNC might not be Google or Amazon in terms of it’s performance, but it’s not going to be Enron either. Hang in there UVA fans. Happy returns are not far off!

E-mail David at [email protected].

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One False Rape Accusation is One Too Many

Jovon Robinson was once the top-rated junior college football player in the country and had committed to play for Gus Malzahn and the Auburn Tigers. Robinson’s time spent at Auburn was short-lived because a woman accused him of domestic abuse and, having taken the allegations seriously, Malzahn kicked the once promising football player off of the team.

Robinson’s accuser later admitted to Malzahn, via email, that she had fabricated her domestic abuse story out of spite.  She said she did it because Robinson asked her to leave his room. In the end, it didn’t matter. She had made her accusation and Malzahn and Auburn took her at her word.

That’s correct. Her allegations against Robinson were made up. The incident was fabricated. It did not happen. The woman lied.

We live in a society where we are told that allegations of domestic violence, and specifically rape, are to be taken seriously and this is something that I do agree with.

However, taking domestic violence and rape allegations seriously should not mean blindly believing the woman and blindly casting judgement upon the man. We are innocent until proven guilty. Or, at least, that’s what we’re told.

A mantra that is heard throughout the country is that one rape is one rape too many. But there is a flip side to that. Just as those words are true, so is the notion that one false accusation of rape is one false accusation too many. Sadly, that is not the case.

We have been programmed to believe that once a man is accused of rape that he is then a rapist. This is ridiculous and, dare I say, based upon gender discrimination. Yes, often times the allegations do turn out to be factual, but what about those times when the allegations turned out to be completely fabricated? Again, one false accusation is one too many.

There was the instance when Brian Banks was falsely accused of rape. The Duke lacrosse team comes to mind. There was the fallout from the accusations presented by Emma Sulkowicz, a.k.a, “Mattress Girl.” How about the rape hoax at the University of Virginia and the rape hoax that Lena Dunham perpetuated at Oberlin?

All of this isn’t to minimize rape, quite the contrary. The point is to stress that both the accuser and the accused deserve the same amount of respect as the facts of the matter are investigated. Once the facts are known, then, and only then, should judgement be cast.

When a woman endures the physical and emotional trauma of having been raped, she does have to live with that the rest of her life. But when instances such as those stated above occur, and a man is falsely accused of rape, that too can have a long-lasting effect on a person.

It is important to remember that often times the accuser is given the luxury of anonymity while the person being accused is outed to the world. This lack of discretion can present the man as guilty for the rest of his life. It doesn’t matter that the accusation of rape may have, in fact, been in a hoax.

Jovon Robinson may have had his problems once he arrived at Auburn, but being a rapist was not one of those issues. That fact doesn’t matter and his football career is over. As for Robinson’s accuser, she still benefits from the anonymity that is provided to those who accuse others of rape. It doesn’t matter that her story was false.

E-mail Seth at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @SethMerenbloom

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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.

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.