I’m going to start this post with a confession. I have a degree from Virginia Tech, but I grew up loving University of Virginia basketball. The football at U.Va. was never much to speak of before George Welsh arrived on campus, but basketball has always been a different story. Years later, I still have a degree from Virginia Tech unless they decide to take it back, and I still love watching Virginia basketball.
If you’ve checked the rankings in the past month, you’ve no doubt noticed that Villanova is the top ranked team in the nation, but just behind them is Virginia at number two. If U.Va. keeps winning and Villanova stumbles, then Virginia will ascend to the number one ranking in the Associated Press poll for the first time since 1982.
For those of us who remember the early 80s, Virginia basketball was in the top 5 of programs in the country. Featuring 7’4″ center Ralph Sampson, Virginia went 118 – 23 from 1979 – 1980 to 1982 – 1983. Sampson was three times the National Player of the year and the worst record any of his U.Va. teams had during that span was his first year when the Cavaliers went 24-10. They were passed over for the NCAA Tournament, but won the NIT.
Unfortunately, during his time at U.Va. Sampson went to just one Final 4 in 1981. They broke my heart when they lost in the Semi-Finals to hated North Carolina. Yes, another true confession. If you grew up loving U.Va. basketball, you hated North Carolina. I thought Dean Smith was the Devil. I’ve softened that stance over the years and to be honest if you give me a choice between North Carolina and Duke, I’m cheering for North Carolina. No disrespect to his career, but Coach K is a whiner.
Sampson’s U.Va. career ended in a painful fashion in 1983, when his U.Va. team just 40 minutes from making it back to the Final Four, was beaten in the West Region Final by N.C. State. The lasting image of Sampson from his Virginia career was him laying on the floor pounding his first in disbelief as Othell Wilson missed the potential game winning basket.
Sampson wasn’t alone in helping Virginia get to the top, although you have to wonder if they’d ever made it without him. Othell Wilson, Ricky Stokes, Jim Miller and Kenton Edelin, and Jeff Jones who had graduated by 1983 played a significant role in U.Va.’s success. And, in all fairness, Sampson wasn’t the first great player at Virginia. To know the history of Virginia basketball is to know the names of Buzz Wilkinson, Barry Parkhill, Wally Walker, Jeff Lamp and Lee Raker. Prior to Sampson, Parkill was U.Va.’s first ACC player of the year in 1972. Since Sampson, the only other Virginia player to be named ACC player of the year is Malcolm Brogdon in 2016. Virginia has 7 ACC Titles behind only North Carolina and Duke, two ACC tournament titles in 1976 and 2014, 21 NCAA Tournaments, 9 Sweet 16s and Six Elite 8’s but only two Final 4’s. They hold the dubious honor of winning the final NCAA Third Place game beating LSU in 1981.
And let’s not diminish the role that coach Terry Holland had in building Virginia basketball to one of the best in the nation. Holland was always regarded as a perfect Virginia gentleman, but in fact he was a North Carolina native who played for legendary coach Lefty Driesell at Davidson College just outside of Charlotte.
Holland has told the story of how Driesell lured him to Davidson. Driesell came to his house on a recruiting visit on the night of Holland’s Senior prom. Now, in those days coaches didn’t make what they do today, so they specialized in side gigs. Driesell’s side gig was selling encyclopedias. Holland was getting set to leave to go to the prom, when Driesell offered him his car to take his date to the dance and told him he’d be at his house waiting on him when he got home. Holland obliged and by the time he returned Lefty’s car to him, Holland was not only going to Davidson, but the family had a new set of encyclopedias.
Holland coached Virginia for 16 seasons, winning 326 games. He had just three losing seasons and two of those were in his first three years. Holland out-recruited everyone to lure Sampson to Virginia from Harrisonburg and like Sampson had a painful end to his Virginia career losing in a controversial finish to Syracuse in the 1990 NCAA Tournament second round in Richmond, Virginia.
Holland was replaced by his former player Jones, who honestly did a nice job. winning 146 games while losing 104 winning the NIT in 1992. Jones best season was 1994 – 95, when he went 25-9, losing in the Elite 8 after finishing the regular season tied for first in the conference at 12-4. But, Jones also suffered an inglorious end. There were reports that he had a wandering eye, which resulted in the break up of his marriage. When two of his final three teams had losing records Jones was fired in 1998 after going 11-19. Jones has rebuilt his career, and after whiffing by hiring at best mediocre successive coaches in Pete Gillen and Dave Leito, Virginia got it right in 2009 by hiring Tony Bennett from Washington State.
Bennett – not the one who left his heart in San Francisco – learned his craft during his playing days at Wisconsin-Green Bay and in the NBA, and then as an assistant to his father Dick Bennett at Wisconsin. He learned his father’s unique defensive system dubbed the “pack line” defense which at its basic sags a man-to man defense inside an artificial line near the perimeter and does not deny the second pass. The defense will let you pass the ball anywhere you want, but once a player gets that pass, he has a defender in his shirt. The best description of the defense is that it’s a boa constrictor, wrapping itself around an opponent and sucking the life out of it.
This season, Virginia has sucked the life out of every team but one, losing to West Virginia. Virginia enters this week with a 22-1 overall record and 11-0 in the ACC. They’ve all but locked up the ACC’s Regular Season title which is a nice talking point, but not worth much as the ACC considers the Tournament Champion, the ACC champ. This after starting the year unranked and on the heels of losing some of their best players in Brogdon and London Parentes in the past couple of years. With a 210-84 record at Virginia, Bennett already has the second highest winning percentage in school history at 71%. This week he can win his 100th Conference game at Virginia.
So far this season, Virginia has be-deviled Duke, made North Carolina look like a pick up team, rolled Virginia Tech right off its home court and just last weekend held Syracuse to 49 points, the lowest scoring output Syracuse has ever had in the Carrier Dome.
Fair or not, this Virginia team will ultimately be judged on its performance in March. And you can bet Virginia basketball fans will be holding their breath on selection Sunday to see if they NCAA Tournament committee screws them again by placing Michigan State in their bracket. Bennett’s 2013 – 2014 team won 30 games and was a top seed in the East Region before they were knocked out of the Tournament in the Sweet 16 by Michigan State. A year later, they were a two seed in the East and lost in the second round to Michigan State and in 2016, they were again just 40 minutes from a Final 4 when as #1 seed, they were beaten in the Regional Final by 10th seeded Syracuse.
You’ll often hear national knuckleheads who have nothing to talk about say that players don’t want to play in Virginia’s defensive first system. I happen to think that players want to be coached to be their best and win games. It’s apparent you can do both at Virginia while also getting a first class education. If this year stays on its current path, there won’t be any Grinch stealing Christmas and that will be just fine with all the Hoos in Hooville, not to mention those of us who just like good basketball. .