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A UVA national title: And the pressure is off?

chris jpjThe UVA sports fan in me is, finally, relaxed. The reason: the national championship in baseball.

This is no disrespect to the other 22 national championships in sports like lacrosse, tennis, soccer, rowing, cross country, boxing (yes, we claim a national championship in boxing, in 1938, in the total).

Baseball is a sport that your average diehard UVA fan/alum actually knows something about, maybe even played competitively growing up.

It’s not one of the revenue sports: there are only two of those, football and men’s basketball. Even so, college baseball is growing in popularity (1.7 million people watched the College World Series finale, prime time on ESPN), and with more top baseball talents going the college route out of high school, the quality of play relative to its professional counterpart is somewhat on par with college basketball and college football.

So back to what I said in the lede, about how I’m finally a UVA sports fan, relaxed, because of the championship run of the UVA baseball team.

I say that in the context of, well, for starters, I’m 43 years old, and I assume in good health, with a normal life expectancy, maybe into my late 70s, early 80s, and that with roughly 40 years of living left in me, I know for absolute certain that I am not going to see a UVA national champ in football.

I’m more certain that college football will cease to be a big deal in my lifetime than that UVA will win a national title in football, with the issues with head trauma associated with repeated hard hits more known to us now.

Which brings us to basketball. I hate to concede the point, but I didn’t enjoy at all the 2014-2015 UVA basketball season, which of course makes absolutely no sense. Our guys were #2 in the country half the season, were 28-1 at one point, and all most of us could think was, when is the other shoe going to drop?

The disappointing end to the season, with losses to Louisville, North Carolina and Michigan State in a five-game span to close things out, only confirmed our worst deep-seated fears.

The magical run of Brian O’Connor’s team this May and June has washed that tendency to expect the worst away for me.

That team was the inverse of the typical top-level UVA team, with the propensity, it has long seemed, to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

Think back to the 1990 football team, which rose to #1 in the national rankings before tanking all the way to an 8-4 finish. Ralph Sampson manned the paint for four years in University Hall, and had one Final Four trip to show for it.

Even O’Connor’s teams had their troubles closing the deal, with really, really good teams in 2011 and 2014 coming up short in their quest to bring the big trophy home.

Men’s basketball will get its championship in the next five or six years. Tony Bennett has built the foundation to a program that, while you can’t expect them to win 30 games every year, will get a little better every year. The talent pool is getting deeper, and we can hope that the 2015-2016 ‘Hoos can get a little deeper into the NCAA Tournament, to build the institutional knowledge of what it takes to get to the next level and pass that on to the next group.

Basketball is in good shape. Baseball is in great shape. The team that maybe shouldn’t have even gotten an NCAA bid in 2015 had 14 freshmen dogpiling in Omaha. That core is back for two more years, at least, and talk about being able to build upon institutional knowledge.

But if O’Connor’s kids don’t do it next year, life goes on. He’s not going to stop at one.

Bennett will give it the old college try, and I think we can expect his 2015-2016 team to be again a top contender for a Final Four berth and national title.

Assume Bennett sticks around in Charlottesville for the duration, and two, three, four good chances at a national title over the next 25 years isn’t at all out of the realm of possibility.

Football is on its way to the next man up in terms of coaching regime, which is OK.

The situation is so bleak there that the next guy probably doesn’t dig himself out of the hole before he gets canned. We’re at least that guy’s successor away from having a shot at getting that disaster turned around.

But hey, whatever. We UVA fans know what it feels like to win a natty: it feels damn nice, to be honest about it, and it will happen again, and likely multiple times.

(Just not in football.)

– Column by Chris Graham


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