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A Final Four missed: But thanks, UVA ’16ers, for what you’ve built

uva basketballHow to make sense of that which seems to make no sense, namely, emotions over a basketball team losing a big game?

We can look to the fan base. The UVA fan base didn’t respond well to the Cavs’ 68-62 loss to Syracuse in the Midwest Regional final Sunday night, and you can find reason to forgive them for going full-on nutjob in the aftermath.

Virginia led by 15 with 9:36 to go, and snatched defeat from the jaws of the program’s first Final Four berth in 32 years.

A gut punch, kick in the jimmie, a thumb to the eye, a poke on the nose and some ritual stomping, with cries of “uncle! uncle!” thrown in for good measure, and bad.

It hurts more because four guys responsible for the resurgence of UVA basketball – Malcolm Brogdon, Anthony Gill, Mike Tobey and Evan Nolte – are now officially UVA basketball alums.

Tonight is a good time to think back to when they were being recruited, and all coach Tony Bennett could sell them on was … potential.

Brogdon actually enrolled in 2011. He signed on after Bennett had led the Cavs to a 31-31 record in two seasons of efforts trying to clean up the mess of Dave Leitao, who had been fired after just four seasons in which he had tried to clean up the mess of Pete Gillen, who himself had inherited the mess from the end of the Jeff Jones era.

We’re several degrees past Virginia basketball being anywhere near relevant at this stage. The program had won one NCAA Tournament game in 14 years, in a grand total of two trips, with five losing seasons in that span.

Brodgon’s freshman year saw UVA return to the Tournament, but a late-season fade ended with a first-round blowout loss to Florida.

That spring, Bennett added Tobey, Nolte and Justin Anderson. The 2012-2013 Cavs would play without Brogdon, though, after surgery that ended his 2011-2012 season before the postseason forced him to take a medical redshirt year.

Gill jumped on board as well, transferring after a freshman season at South Carolina, and AG and Brogs developed a rapport in scrimmages against the first team.

Those two joined the main roster in 2013-2014, and after enduring some growing pains in November and December – home losses to VCU and Wisconsin, an ugly-as-sin road loss at Tennessee – the team started to gel.

To say the least, they started to gel. To the point of going 16-2 in ACC play, and bringing home the school’s first ACC Tournament championship in 38 years, and an NCAA Tournament #1 seed to boot.

A Sweet 16 loss to Michigan State didn’t dampen the enthusiasm about where the program was headed, with a young nucleus returning, and starting the 2014-2015 season 19-0, then rebounding from a home loss to Duke to get all the way to 28-1, before a surprise early exit in the second round, again at the hands of Michigan State.

Anderson passed up his senior year for the NBA Draft, and the 2015-2016 ‘Hoos were ranked sixth in the preseason, started 11-1, before losing three out of four early in ACC play, stealing an improbable win at Wake Forest, finishing 13-5 in the conference, and earning another #1 NCAA Tournament seed.

This is a good time to stop and think back to where Point A was and where Point B is. When Brogdon was a high-school junior, the sales pitch from that guy named Tony Bennett was, come to Virginia, where we just finished 5-11 in the ACC, and help us get better.

Tobey, Nolte, Gill, looking for a place to transfer from South Carolina, got a similar pitch from a guy named Tony Bennett saying, hey, my second year, we were 7-9 in the conference.

Tobey recently recalled that his freshman year, the team kept up with Joe Lunardi’s Bracketology blog because they wanted to see if the Cavs were going to get an NCAA bid. (They didn’t.)

From Tobey’s and Nolte’s and Anderson’s freshman year, and Brogdon’s and Gill’s redshirt year, Lunardi went from weighing in on whether Virginia would be in the field to where they would be a #1 seed.

These kids weren’t recruited to be the foundation of a group that would win 30, 30 and 29 games, back-to-back regular-season ACC titles, an ACC Tournament championship, get two #1 national seeds.

None were Top 50 recruits. For perspective on that, the 2016-2017 roster has four Top 50 recruits, and three others who were 51-100 in the recruiting rankings.

Brogdon once told reporters after a game, last season, that he had narrowed his college choices to UVA and Harvard, and that family members were upset that he chose UVA over Harvard.

This from a kid who ended up being named first-team All-ACC three times, was the two-time ACC defensive player of the year, and was ACC player of the year as a senior, as well as a finalist for the Naismith national player of the year award.

No offense to Harvard, but the Crimson doesn’t get too many guys named Naismith finalists.

Brogdon got better in his five years at Virginia. Anderson, ultimately taken in the first round of the NBA Draft, went from project to phenom in three short years.

London Perrantes couldn’t get a sniff from USC and UCLA in his native Los Angeles, but all he’s done in three years as a starting point guard is go 89-18.

This group wasn’t recruited to compete for national championships; it willed itself into that position.

It’s heresy in these parts to mention Duke in any kind of positive light, but a story about the early years of coach Mike Krzyzewski is appropriate here. Coach K wasn’t a popular choice when he was hired at Duke in 1980, and there were numerous calls for his job after his third team finished 11-17, putting his record at Duke to that point at 38-47.

But Krzyzewski had put together a foundation of players – Johnny Dawkins, David Henderson, Mark Alarie, Jay Bilas and Weldon Williams – who would play in a national-title game in 1986.

Now, when you say guys played in a national-title game, you’re saying they didn’t win it, and Duke’s ‘86ers graduated without winning the big one.

But two years after their run, Duke was back in the Final Four for the first of what would be five consecutive trips, and Coach K’s teams have competed in a total of 12 Final Fours and won five national titles.

The players that came after the ‘86ers were without question head-and-shoulders more talented than that group.

But none of the rest of what happened happens without the ‘86ers playing above their skill level to build a foundation for what was to follow.

The ceiling for this year’s Virginia senior class ended in the Elite Eight, but it ended, as the ‘86ers, short of winning it all.

And we don’t have the ability to recall with hindsight what hasn’t happened yet.

It just feels to me that the ‘16ers put down the cinderblocks for the next 20 years of what will be a memorable run for Virginia basketball.

Bennett will get his Final Fours. We will witness national championship banners flying on high above JPJ.

We thought it would be in the next couple of weeks. Duke fans in the mid-1980s thought when their team won 37 games that they had missed an opportunity as well.

It’s human to be disappointed when it seems defeat is the final answer.

But it hasn’t been that long since Virginia was losing to Bradley in something called the CBI, losing at home to Liberty, skimming by Radford and VMI at home, getting blown out by a bad Boston College team in the first round of the ACC Tournament.

And no, it’s not easy, getting to Final Fours, winning national championships. Consider Kansas, which has won, what, the last 12 – 12! – Big 12 championships (12!). How many Final Fours do you think Kansas has been in the past 12 years?

Two.

North Carolina has been to four in the past 12 years, but tonight’s win over Notre Dame in the East Region sending the Tar Heels to Houston gives them their first appearance in seven years.

Lots of things have to go right, and even then luck is a factor.

For one night, OK, for nine minutes, luck wasn’t on Virginia’s side.

If the worst thing that happens to any of us this year – fans, alums, players, coaches – is that we all had to endure that painful, excruciating, nine minutes, it won’t be that bad a year.

As hard as it is, the right thing to do right now is celebrate the contributions of Malcolm Brogdon, Anthony Gill, Mike Tobey, Evan Nolte, and let’s also throw Justin Anderson and Caid Kirven in there for good measure.

Oh, and can’t forget Tony Bennett, who dealt with tonight’s loss with more grace and class than anyone should be expected to muster, given the circumstances.

Following their lead, thanks, guys, for giving us reason to be disappointed that you didn’t bring home the big trophy, and for making us believe that bringing it home was, and will be soon, possible.

Column by Chris Graham

   
Discussion
  • SpotlightGlobal Music

    Sorry, but all this stuff about how far they’ve come only highlights the bigger story: UVA is now the all-time worst choking team in NCAA history. As a C’Ville resident since 1979, we were capable of winning up to 3 NCAA titles the same 3 years that Ralph Sampson was National Player of the Year. We never even GOT to the title game. Just 1 Final Four. Not even a single ACC title. At least the Bills & the Braves got to the championship games when they became the #1 choke teams. It was absolutely heartbreaking & demoralizing to be a fan back then. The experts back then all said we got out-coached by vets who shine in the tourney.

    FF 32 long years later, and this year was our best chance since, perhaps ever, to win a title game. (MSU knocked out + We know how to beat UNC in the Final Four, and Nova in the final, if they get there.) We were 68-0 when leading by 10+ @ halftime, but instead we wind up earning the permanent stigma of allowing the first ever #10 seed into the Final Four, and blowing a 16 point lead in the process. MEGA-EPIC CHOKE. Again, we got out-coached. They obviously weren’t prepared enough for the press.

    Bennet has been sooooo good, which is why he should have apologized to the team and to the fans, instead of all the silver lining stuff he said in the post game conference. When your choke is this massively epic, you really should apologize and admit you got out coached. And this is 3 years in a row that UVA under-delivered in the tourney. Will Bennet one day learn how to coach in the post season like he does in the regular season? Let’s hope so.

    I’m so upset, I am forbidding my 4.5 GPA HS daughter to attend UVA, which was high on her list. I now need a new school to root for. Either one that wins, or one that has no hope, like MIT. She can go to MIT, and I can avoid more massive disappointments.

    The WORST for a fan is when your team has the potential to go all the way, and keeps falling way short. UVA is good enough to make you watch and root, but not good enough to avoid breaking your heart. Thus, I can no longer root for UVA. It’s just too painful, unless and until they actually WIN an NCAA title. Ok, that’s a little harsh….If they get to the Final Four, I’ll root for them again, but not anytime prior. They have lost me as a fan, and Tony will have to EARN my loyalty back, by getting back to this point in the tourney, and winning. Loyalty is not automatic. That’s how big & bad this choke is. There are many fans who feel like I do.

    • For a lot of us, it’s not about being a “fan,” but rather it’s who we are. The University of Virginia culture is more than a basketball team, or a football team or baseball or lacrosse team.

      I was drawn to UVA in middle school because of its commitment to excellence across the board, and I spent my high-school years putting myself in a position to be a part of that culture. I am a lifelong ‘Hoo because of all the other ‘Hoos that I met in my four years on Grounds and the thousands I’ve had the fortune to become acquainted with in the 22 years since who strive every day to maintain that standard.

      For us, there is no on-off switch in terms of that allegiance to the institution and to each other. Many of us are leaders in our communities, in our industries, in classrooms, in religious institutions and on non-profit boards.

      The sports teams give us an opportunity to come together and celebrate. OK, so they “choke” in big games. Breaking news there. Every college athletics program across the country loses big games. Not everybody is Alabama football or Duke basketball, though it is helpful to point out that even fans of those programs lament the end of their seasons that don’t end with championships, and there are plenty of those to go around even for the blue bloods.

      The notion that UVA sports teams “choke” is perhaps an indication that they also play a lot of big games, and thus have some success that they could build on and, as is often the case in sports, fail to follow through on. Because guess what, the guys on the other side also recruit athletes, offer them scholarships, pay their coaches well, and the rest, in their efforts to win.

      I’ll take the group of coaches that I get to deal with on a regular basis – Tony Bennett in basketball, Bronco Mendenhall in football, Brian O’Connor in baseball – win, lose or draw. Standup guys, all, and as an alum and lifelong ‘Hoo, I am proud to call each a representative of my University. Each is expert at building a foundation for success in terms of style and approach relative to their sports, but more importantly, they are at an elite level in terms of their efforts at recruiting and molding young men,

      Those young men are also, to a person, the kind of young men that anyone can and should be proud to call fellow ‘Hoos. Malcolm Brogdon, who no doubt some of the fair-weather fans are lamenting this morning for going 2-for-14 from the floor last night, wants to dedicate his life to eradicating poverty in Africa, after spending a few years in the NBA.

      Examples like this abound across the athletics programs at the University. Our athletes perform at a high level, and they can offer a lot more to the world than what they do on the court or on the field.

      If your loyalties are so fragile that they can be flipped on and off in a few minutes of a basketball game, they are of no value at all, if not to you, certainly to the rest of us who are ‘Hoos for Life.

      And if those who you claim to speak for feel the same way, so be it.

      We don’t root for a mascot, colors, a logo. We were there when the CBI was the best we could do, when Seth Curry was burying threes in JPJ, when Virginia Tech beat us in Scott Stadium year after year after year, when Rolling Stone dragged our good name through the mud.

      And we’re here now, and will be tomorrow.

      We are Virginia.

      • Eurohoo

        Well said, Chris. But, it is most impressive that you spent so much energy on this guy, who doesn’t get it and, certainly never will. I will refrain from wasting time on him. But, I will say that, although weird stuff always happens in sports and that I suffered mightily last night from my perch across the Atlantic, with other pained, but completely true blue Wahoos of various ages, we all remain completely committed to, and a part of the University, and think the world not only of each other, and you, but most significantly of Tony Bennett, MalcolmBrogdon, Anthony Gill, Mike Tobey, Evan Nolte, Caid Kirven, Barry Parkhill, Norm Carmichael, Jrff Lamp, Rick Carlisle, Othell Wilson, Bryant Stith, Buzzy Wilkinson, Terry Holland, Hoot Gibson, Thomas Jefferson and every other WHoo who is a part of the University, past or present. At this point, neither I nor any of my friends really care at all about the comments of the gentleman who can go off and cheer his lungs out for MIT’s vaunted tittlywinks team. But, our hats are off to you for spending more thoughtful minutes with him than I could imagine his loyalty and understanding of anything could possibly merit.

        • Thanks. I did spend way too much time on this, in one sense, but in another, this one comment represented so many that I saw on social media and message boards last night and early today, and somebody needed to put their foot down.

          To borrow from what Dean Wormer said in Animal House, today that foot was me.

      • Michael Magann

        Chris, this is an excellent article and an excellent reply to the comments made. It sums up not only what we Wahoo fans should understand and appreciate about this basketball season, but about our beloved University as well. You and I are about the same age and I graduated from UVA a year or so ahead of you. Like you, I became a die hard fan around middle school and loved watching, most often, listening on the radio during the Sampson years and the special 1984 team, as well as the rise of football under Coach Welsh. That wasn’t easy living an hour west of Blacksburg where everyone was a Hokie or a Mountaineer fan. I was there in 1990 tearing down the goalpost after the Clemson win. Being a Wahoo fan over the last 20 years in basketball and football has not been easy if you demand winning at all cost. As I get older and so many of these players could be my sons, I applaud the effort and dedication of all of these athletes, regardless of where they go to school. Having said that, I could not be more proud of the young men in this year’s senior class. They are all what any of us would want in our own sons and what they and Tony Bennett have accomplished in Charlottesville is beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. Thank you for putting this all in perspective. I enjoy reading your articles and you are right, no matter what, “We are Virginia”.

        • I was a first-year student at UVA in 1990, and the first football game I was able to see in person was that Clemson game. (It has not gotten better than that day. Which is OK.) I was on the field for the goalposts going down. (Didn’t get near enough to them to help in that process.)

          Thanks for reading and for writing. You put it well with the perspective of our age. We are old enough (almost!) to be these guys’ fathers, and I feel much worse for them that they fell short of the goal that we all wanted than I do for myself or for us as fans.

          Second on my list, though, is our fan base. Me, I can take it. I really wanted this for our fan base in general. We deserve it, but one day soon, it will come. We have Tony, we have Bronco, and thankfully we have Oak making our springs exciting in baseball. I had two first-year roommates on the baseball team, and when our suite went to watch them play, we were half the crowd. I tear up every time I see a Super Regional at Davenport because I remember those lean years, and how far things have come.

          • RowdyHoo

            I was attending UVa as a second year when we first beat Clemson. The next year we tied (“didn’t loose”) at Death Valley. In 1992, during my fourth year, we jumped out to 28-0 lead with time left in the first half only to have Clemson return a kickoff for a TD before half. We didn’t score again that game and Clemson ended up winning 29-28. That is ‘one’ of the chokes I remember most. But you make a great point by saying that every program has those. It’s not just a UVa phenomenon.

            Great article BTW.

            PS-Maybe we start a GoFundMe account for SpotlightGlobal Music? The brother must be suffering some sort of tragedy to be that bitter over a BBall loss. ?

          • I remember saying out loud at that 1992 game, “No way we lose this game with a 28-point lead on an option team.” Famous last words.

    • Dan

      Good lord. Just shut up. That’s not being a fan.

    • Brian Rostron

      U.Va. is overrated but cheap, or at least was when Virginia actually had competitive scholarships such as the Virginia Scholars program. It’s a place to go for a cheap undergrad education, work hard, and then get accepted to a good grad program. My brother and I essentially paid for all of undergrad through scholarships and summer jobs and then went to Yale for law school and Berkeley for grad school. If your daughter is interested in math and science, then MIT is infinitely better than UVa.

      • Eurohoo

        Yawn. Job in government?

 
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