In researching, writing and editing the book, the focus, understandably, was on the good years, namely, of course, the four years that Ralph Sampson was on Grounds, 1979-1983.
The ‘Hoos made only one Final Four in the Ralph years, and never did bring home that national title that seemed their destiny when the 7’4” superman announced his college choice, joining an already loaded roster that included All-American guard Jeff Lamp and All-ACC guard Othell Wilson, along with future Dallas Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle.
But the program was among the nation’s elite, albeit briefly, during that period, spending most of the last three years of Sampson’s tenure ranked at or near the top of the national rankings, and even making a surprising Final Four run in 1984 after Sampson had left for the NBA.
Having grown up a UVA sports fan, and then attending and later graduating with a degree in political science from the University, the Ralph years would always be a touchstone, but they were also a bit of a millstone.
The assumption was always that we’d never have it as good as we did during the Ralph years, and that bit of melancholy casts a bit of a pall over Mad About U, written at the lowest of low points in the long arc of UVA basketball history. Pete Gillen’s sad tenure had just come to a torturous end, and the disaster that would be the Dave Leitao era was on the verge of its lone bright spot, the first year of John Paul Jones, which ended with the Cavs making their only trip to the NCAA Tournament under Leitao, who would get the axe in 2009.
Leitao’s replacement was a little-known, baby-faced former NBA sharpshooter from Washington State by way of Wisconsin, Tony Bennett, who like his predecessors preached defense, but unlike Gillen and Leitao actually had a game plan for how to recruit players to a system and then coach them to execute.
It took a while for Bennett’s system to take hold. His third team, in 2011-2012, made it back to the NCAA Tournament, and his fourth team fell just short of getting back to March Madness. Year five was magic, with UVA overcoming a sluggish 9-4 start to claim the program’s first double ACC title – the regular season and ACC Tournament – on its way to 30 wins and a berth in the Sweet 16.
As magical as last season was, it almost pales in comparison to 2014-2015, which saw the ‘Hoos ranked in the Top 10 in the preseason, get out to a 19-0 start, and spend a good part of the season ranked second in the country.
Virginia begins its trek for a second consecutive ACC Tournament championship next month in Greensboro, and I will be on press row to see if history can repeat itself.
Funny thing about that last sentence: history repeating itself in the ACC Tournament for UVA basketball used to mean losing the opener. Going into last year’s tournament, Virginia had not advanced past the quarterfinal round since 1995.
Postseason expectations were almost nonexistent, and for good reason, because if you don’t expect anything, and then nothing happens, at least you don’t have to deal with the pain of having had your hopes up, right?
From there to here: I’m booked for a week in Greensboro, and then wherever the Selection Committee sends UVA to begin its quest for a spot in the Final Four in Indianapolis in April.
It’s a far cry from hoping against hope for a home game in the NIT back in the Mad About U era.
– Column by Chris Graham