One of the happiest days of the year is just about wrapped up, and it is indeed a happy time for fans of Virginia basketball as well. The Hoos (10-1) are riding a nine-game winning streak as ACC play quickly approaches. I got to thinking about what should be on the wishlist of all UVa fans. Although the list wasn't easy to come up with considering how well things are going, I did manage to come up with a few items that will bring a smile to the face of everyone wearing orange and blue. Here they are, in increasing order of importance:
7. Stronger performances from Evan Nolte
It's hard not to be a little disappointed with how Evan Nolte has played through 11 games. To be fair, there are a number of guys ahead of him in the lineup that are simply excelling in their own roles - Marial Shayok, Isaiah Wilkins, Jarred Reuter, etc. But seeing Nolte, a senior forward, shooting 2-10 from three on the season and only averaging about seven minutes a game - the fewest for any player that's not a walk-on - isn't fun, compared to his .276 three-point percentage and 18-minutes-per-game average last season. Here's hoping that he can get his confidence back and earn a more regular appearance in the rotation for Tony Bennett's club.
6. Better concession options at JPJ
This is a nitpick, but it has to be discussed. For a town of its size, Charlottesville has an impressive array of food options that are almost worthy of a trip just by themselves. But as good as Raising Cane's and Ben & Jerry's (especially the latter when I've screamed myself hoarse pregame and in the first half) are, it's almost insane that one of the nicest college basketball arenas in the country has such relatively paltry choices for food. And yes, I know that there are many eateries within walking or very short driving distance that do the trick. That said, I can think of several local restaurants that could set up shop on the concourse (or even outside the arena) and make some serious coin: Littlejohn's, Bodo's, Wayside Chicken, Ace Biscuit and Barbecue, the Bellair Market, Marco & Luca Dumplings, and Boylan Heights. But with Aramark firmly entrenched at UVa until 2034, this might have to be pushed over to the "Christmas Miracle" category.
5. Consistency from Mike Tobey
Mike Tobey can be an brilliant player who uses his 7-foot-0, 260-pound frame to dominate the post and impose his will on both ends of the floor like no UVa center has since Ralph Sampson. Mike Tobey can also be a foul machine with a tendency to miss layups and frustrate Virginia fans with his wild unpredictability. We've seen flashes of the former against Maryland in 2013 and NC State last season. We saw the latter against Duke in 2015, when the senior missed two layups and a free throw in the final 1:06, including going for the layup down 3 while Justin Anderson was open for a game-tying trey in the corner. Jack Salt is talented but raw, and the redshirt freshman from New Zealand simply can't be expected to play 15-20 minutes a game in the event of Tobey having a bad night. When Tobey has come off the bench, he's performed well. I don't know what it will take for him to reliably be a positive force on both offense and defense, but it has to happen - and soon.
4. Better interior defense
Yes, UVa fans are spoiled with what has been the most consistently efficient defense in the country the past few years, and the new rule changes with regard to freedom of movement and the shot clock have only served to make the Cavaliers a more potent offensive team (they only trail North Carolina in terms of offensive efficiency to this point of the season). But I know I'm not the only Virginia fan frustrated with the opportunities that opposing teams have had in the low post, especially with the previously unheard of open lanes to the basket, rare as those may be. Bennett and his staff have been working to tweak the defense under the new rules to ease the defensive foul issues while still maintaining Pack Line principles. And truth be told, it's not as if the defense has totally melted down. They're still the 16th-most efficient in the country. But it's not exactly easy to envision a couple of deep runs in March if the defense doesn't shore up some of their issues.
3. Fewer slow starts
By and large, this hasn't been a terrible issue this season. And in Virginia's sole loss at George Washington, the Hoos actually started the game on a 6-0 run and didn't trail until the 13:06 mark of the first half. But Bennett realizes that these slow starts, an issue that really date back to Anderson's broken finger last year, are not sustainable. I hardly think it's an issue of entitlement or cockiness on the Cavaliers' part, and it can be fixed. If the Cavaliers have any single biggest strength, it's their ability to will themselves to a win and break their opponent's spirit with a well-timed Cavalanche or explosive play. However, as the level of competition increases over the next three months, it would be wise to not have to rely on one game in and game out, because it might not always come.
2. Michigan State on the other side of the NCAA tournament bracket
The first NCAA tourney loss to the Spartans in 2014 stung - Teven was fouled - but it was easier to handle because of what had been accomplished to that point. When the bracket was revealed last March with MSU a No. 7 seed in the same region as second-seeded Virginia, it almost felt like a setup even though I'm sure it wasn't. But with the problems for UVa that I listed above, combined with the fact that the Spartans are off to their best start in program history, I really don't think it's too much to ask the Santa Claus of college basketball to make Virginia's chance at a first-ever national championship game appearance that much easier with only one way for the two teams to meet - in the national championship game. Which leads me to the top item on the wishlist of all Virginia fans this Christmas...
1. A first-ever national championship
You knew this was going to be No. 1. In 110 seasons of UVa basketball (77 if you don't count the years when March Madness didn't officially exist), the Cavaliers have never appeared in the sport's ultimate game, let alone won it. Many teams were championship-caliber, but couldn't climb the mountain. Whomever those six wins come against might well be inconsequential, as it's been since 1984 that UVa has even won four in a row in late March. Sure, if they came against the likes of Michigan State or Maryland or Kentucky, they would be even sweeter. But at the end of the day, if Santa's best present for the Hoos comes at around 11:30 p.m. on April 4, I doubt very much that they'll care about which team they ultimately deny an appearance on the big stage in Houston.