Sometime in the spring of 2009, I saved an Excel file on my computer called "UVA Basketball Despair." If you think that’s geeky, well, you wouldn’t be the first. But I didn’t know what else to do. Virginia had just finished the season 10-18, marking the program’s lowest win total in 40 years. As an alum of UVA’s history department, I started to dig through the past to see just how far the program had fallen. The look back wasn't pretty.
In my Excel file, I started listing the names of every school to make the Sweet Sixteen after Virginia’s last appearance in 1995. Over the years, that list neared, then crossed over 100 names. Virginia's recent ineptitude came into clearer focus as I typed in names like UT-Chattanooga (1996), Tulsa (2000) George Mason (2006) and more. Each of those schools had enjoyed more recent success than Virginia, a program with every advantage imaginable. Basketball Despair indeed.
Days later, Virginia’s basketball fortunes changed for the better, though we fans didn’t know it at the time. Dave Leitao was shown the door after a listless effort in the ACC tournament. His firing made most fans happy. Many thought Virginia could get Tubby Smith, who was rumored to have been interested in the job after Pete Gillen got canned. Or potentially Virginia could land Rick Barnes, who once spurned the Hoos after Terry Holland retired.
Instead, a little-known coach from the West Coast named Tony Bennett accepted the job.
After the initial shock, it became pretty easy to like what Bennett was doing. The improvement in play was evident overnight. Bennett had a system and a plan, which was much more than Leitao ever seemed to have. Leitao’s teams could barely get the ball in-bounds. Bennett, in contrast, worked miracles with guys like Will Sherrill and Jerome Meyinsse.
Still, success didn’t come instantly. Despite nice wins (at UNC in 2010, at Minnesota the following year) and an NCAA tournament run in 2012, there was still more building required. Virginia pulled an unfortunate choke job in the 2011 ACC tournament. The 2012 team saw its lack of depth exposed after a series of transfers and injuries. The 2013 team suffered one too many bad losses and barely missed the Big Dance. Virginia was knocking on the door, but couldn’t get invited into the March Madness hotel for more than a short stay.
So despite the obvious improvement, I was forced to retreat back to my "UVA Basketball Despair" file every March. Northern Iowa and Cornell went into the file after making the Sweet Sixteen in 2010. VCU made the list in 2011. Florida Gulf Coast went up in 2013. Virginia, unbelievably, remained off.
Coming into the 2013-2014 season, anyone who’d been paying attention knew Virginia had a chance for a breakthrough. The team was deep, experienced and nationally-ranked. All of those attributes made the rocky out-of-conference start all the more frustrating. I remember talking to a friend on the morning of Virginia's first ACC game against Florida State and conceding that "maybe we’ve underestimated just how hard it is to have a breakthrough."
That night, Virginia upset the Noles in Tallahassee and started a glorious new chapter in Wahoo history. We all know how the story turned out. The Cavaliers won 22 of their next 25 games and made us fans forget everything we thought we knew about Virginia basketball. More established foes were soundly beaten: Carolina, NC State, Syracuse, Duke, Memphis. One by one, the milestones were reached: first outright conference regular season title since 1981. First ACC tournament title since 1976. And the coup de grace, the first Sweet Sixteen since 1995.
I went back to my Excel file this weekend, but it was to no avail. The computer that holds my file of Virginia's despair is about six years old. It’s slower than molasses. It’s physically busted: the screen is no longer attached to the keyboard and has to be propped up by a book. I couldn't update or erase the file if I wanted to. But thanks to Tony Bennett, Joe Harris, Akil Mitchell and the rest, I won’t have to. Wahoo basketball is relevant again. Years of frustration and despair have been erased by a wave of enthusiasm and pride.
It will be a long spring and summer for Virginia fans, but thanks to Coach Bennett and his players, we're finally able to stop wondering when we'll have our breakthrough.
See you in the fall, guys. Thanks, and Wahoowa.