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.