The Virginia men's basketball team has lost six in a row and is well under .500 in conference play. Andy Katz tweeted recently that "the romance with a Virginia NCAA bid is now over." Even an NIT bid is at risk now, after a Cinderella start to the ACC season. So. What now? I haven't lost the faith, and will attempt to explain why here, although it will most likely turn into a rambling stream.
The fans are turning into skeptics. The national media no longer cares about the once over-performing Cavaliers, and those who do mention Virginia do so in the context of what could be an easy win for the next opponent. Expectations among everyone for the remainder of the season are low low low.
I realize that a lot of people are beginning to abandon this team. I am not ready to do so yet. Remember that it was fewer than two weeks ago that we were a 5-2 ACC squad destined for greatness. Nothing, I repeat, nothing, has changed about this team. They're still the same group of fifteen guys who play with the same amount of heart as they did three weeks ago. We still have the talented, possibly first-team All-ACC Sylven Landesberg, who just recently put up 27 points in the losing effort at Miami. And while the big dance looks just out of reach for the Cavaliers this weekend (unless there is a heck of an ACC tournament run, which our team can do), I'm not ready to call for Tony Bennett's head.
While at Washington State, Bennett never had anything worse than a 3-game losing streak. We lost more than that in a mere 8 days, due to bad weather and a fearful turtle team. But I don't think we should really read much into this. I'm hearing rumors of people turning on him already, and how Bennett had already been on the down-and-out over at Washington State, which their record may suggest. But the way Wazzu fans responded to our hire, I can't help but question that line of thinking.
I like our style of play now. For the past 8 years of my life, which is really when I've been passionate about Virginia basketball, I've been screaming at the TV, "SLOW DOWN! TAKE YOUR TIME! TAKE YOU...NO! WHY WOULD YOU TAKE THAT SHOT SO QUICKLY?!?!" It is good to see that Bennett's offense -- for the most part, when functioning properly -- is all about shot selection and realizing that 35 seconds is actually a long time. Plus, you're actually seeing set plays, intentional screens, and a little thing called movement on the offense. Quite frankly, it baffles me why Virginia has not been scoring more than it has, as it seems like a lot of the shots we're taking are decent shots that just aren't finding the bottom of the net.
Our defense is much improved. I admittedly am a fan of the zone defense (think an active zone defense -- we're talking Syracuse), but have been pleasantly surprised with what Bennett's pack-line man-to-man has been able to produce. For much of this season, we have led the ACC in scoring defense, allowing 60 to 61 points per game. This line obviously took a hit over the past week or so, but I don't think I need to go into too much detail on this point.
And both the offensive and defensive improvements come using essentially the same personnel on the floor. That's a sign of good coaching right there.
Let's also keep in mind that we have a very young team. The only seniors we're really losing here are Calvin Baker and Jerome Meyinsse (Yes, I realize Solomon Tat is a senior, and that he is a captain, but c'mon. Let's keep it real here.). Frankly, neither provides the offensive nor defensive power that our team relies on, so realistically, I don't think we're going to be hit too hard at the end of the season.
Of course, the big question mark for next season is whether Sylven Landesberg will be sticking around. But is this really a question mark? I cannot for the life of me rationalize hiring an agent and foregoing two years. He's good, sure. And there's incentive to jump to the NBA what with the impending lockout and all. But I'm not entirely convinced he's that good just yet. Really, I don't think he even needs to improve that much to get into the draft, I just think he needs to improve the guys around him. Would you rather a 4 star prospect on a .500 team or a 4 star prospect on a .750 team? My point is this: I think if he stays at Virginia, his stock will dramatically increase if the team performs better next year. Simple.
We also have a heck of a recruiting class coming in, with 2 four-stars and 2 three-stars (all in the top 35 nationally). And FINALLY! A true center! TWO of them! Four-star James Johnson and three-star Will Regan should provide a much-needed presence in the post that our current team lacks (both are listed at 6'8). Of course, we don't necessarily use our highly-touted recruits from the get-go (see Tristan Spurlock and former Cavalier John Brandenburg, who transferred out due to a lack of playing time). But something tells me that we will be relying pretty heavily on at least one of these two centers beginning Day 1.
Let's also not forget that our team just finished a stretch of five games over eleven days in five different cities. No other ACC team has had to face this daunting task. And consider the last two games, where our opponents had nearly a week to rest and prepare. Keeping this in mind, it's easy to see why many of those rim shots weren't going in.
I have a sense that I'm just rambling at this point, so let me just sum this up in a few quick notes:
- Coach Bennett has and will continue to do great things for our program.
- Both our offensive and defensive systems are greatly improved.
- This young team will become a force once then have some experience under their belt.
- Top-notch recruits will mean a stronger program next year.
- Our whirlwind tour of the eastern seaboard can explain a lot of our offensive deficiencies over the past few games.
- We all still hate Virginia Tech.
- And Duke.
So keep your chins up, Hoos! Bennett's boys return to cozy JPJA this weekend to face Duke -- it's not exactly the homecoming a team wants, so they will need all the support they can from you! I think Journey said it best when they said "[Virginia Cavaliers,] I'm forever yours, faithfully."