D.J. Bickers remembers the last time the UVA men’s basketball team won the ACC title in 1981. He was in fourth grade and watched the final home game against Maryland at U-Hall with his father, a former UVA football player who instilled in his son a fierce loyalty to the school.
“I have not seen Charlottesville this excited about UVA Basketball since I was 10 years old watching Terry Holland coach Ralph, Jeff Lamp, Jeff Jones and that incredible team to victory,” said Bickers, now 42 and a local dentist.
“Ralph,” of course, is Ralph Sampson, the 7’4″ center from Harrisonburg who led the Cavaliers to the National Invitational Tournament title in 1980, an NCAA Final Four appearance in 1981, the same year the team last won the ACC regular season, and an NCAA Elite Eight appearance in 1983.
There’s no “Ralph” on this year’s squad, but that hasn’t slowed the UVA team from steamrolling every one of its ACC opponents since an early January loss to Duke, which was followed by a 12-game winning streak. On Saturday, March 1, the Cavaliers added a 13th straight victory and clinched the outright regular season ACC title with a convincing win over the No. 4-ranked Syracuse Orangemen in their first visit to the John Paul Jones Arena.
After giving up a brief seven-point lead in the first half, the Cavs went into halftime down one point. But slow and steady wins the race, as UVA fans are gleefully learning after years of having their hopes for an ACC title or NCAA championship raised repeatedly and then dashed.
This year feels different, and the second half of the Syracuse game was Exhibit A of what’s made this UVA team so successful: teamwork and a strong defense that led to the 75-56 trouncing of Syracuse.
“It’s a sum-of-the-parts story,” said Marvin P. Bush, a managing partner at Arlington-based investment firm Winston Partners. The youngest son of President George H.W. Bush and brother of President George W. Bush, he graduated from UVA in 1979, just in time to campaign for his father in his bid for vice president on the Reagan ticket.
Bush—who’s been a season ticket holder for at least two decades and who describes his father and brother as “UVA fans by osmosis”—likens the pride around this year’s team to those heady Sampson days when the UVA player made the cover of Sports Illustrated six times and was the first pick for the Houston Rockets in the 1983 NBA draft.
“This is probably the closest sensation to that,” said Bush, who joined Bickers and others in attributing the teams’ success to Tony Bennett’s coaching prowess.
“He’s incredibly disciplined, and has an uncanny ability to bring the best out in these kids,” said Bush.
UVA fans’ hopes have certainly been raised with each new coaching hire, but after inconsistent results and a failure to build the foundation for a national powerhouse program, the last two coaches—Pete Gillen and Dave Leitao—departed. Forty-four-year-old Bennett, UVA fans hope, is different. The lucky charm. The coach who might actually take the Cavaliers all the way to the top, if not this year, then someday soon.
“It’s totally Tony’s vision and talent that’s brought everybody together,” said Frank Birckhead, who’s been attending UVA games since he was a kid in the early 1960s, when games were played in Memorial Gym. A season ticket holder for decades, Birckhead has watched coaches come and go, and he’s delighted with what Bennett has accomplished. “He’s perfect for Virginia,” he said.
The highly-touted and very young coach came to UVA in 2009 with a huge contract—$1.7 million a year plus a $500,000 bonus—and the expectations that came with it. Now in his fifth year, Bennett Ball, a style of basketball that feels more like the Big Ten than the ACC, is officially rolling, and heading into Saturday’s game against Syracuse, UVA fans were confident the team would get it done.
“This team is really gelling right now,” Bush said, two days before the game, happy he’d be watching the match-up live rather than at home on his couch.
“It’s more nerve wracking to watch on TV,” he said. Better to follow the high-stakes game “shoulder to shoulder with 15,000 fans rather than two fat pugs.”
UVA Assistant Coach Jason Williford, who played for the Cavaliers under Coach Jeff Jones in the early to mid-’90s and joined UVA’s coaching staff soon after Bennett’s hire, also felt good about the team’s chances for a win.
“The chemistry with this group is very similar to the group I played with in ’94-’95,” said Williford in an interview the night before the Syracuse game, recalling the year he was team captain and the Cavs reached the Elite Eight in the NCAA tournament.
Victory over Syracuse, he said, would depend on UVA’s ability to effectively handle the New York team’s playing style.
“We haven’t seen this kind of zone,” said Williford, who also cited Syracuse’s “tremendous size” as a potential challenge for the Cavs but expressed optimism that the Cavaliers’ depth and consistency would prove difficult to overcome.
“It’s hard when there are seven guys that are pretty good,” said Williford, noting that different players have stepped up to take leadership roles in various games. “For us, you don’t know who that guy is,” he said.
In the Syracuse game, one of those guys was sophomore guard Malcolm Brogdon who came on strong during the second half to score 17 points. Multiple players helped the team go seven for 11 on three-pointers in the second half.
It’s that depth that fills Bickers with hope that this team, with this coach, could go farther than even the Sampson-era team.
“I feel that this team actually may have more weapons,” said Bickers in an e-mail an hour after the decisive victory over Syracuse.
Bush, too, was rejoicing in the victory and had particular praise for senior Joe Harris, who hit a three-pointer after struggling earlier in the game.
“It was clear that he was having an off night offensively but he kept on shooting,” said Bush in a post-game e-mail. “There was a huge surge of energy in JPJ after that shot because people love that kid.”
Bickers, who watched the game from home after foregoing season tickets this year due to a busy travel schedule, said the victory has only fueled his belief that the Virginia team has a good shot at winning it all.
“I like our chances because every member of the team is so unselfish and they all give 100 percent on every possession, no matter the score,” he wrote. “If we continue to play hard with confidence, then I really like our chances in the coming weeks. Defense wins championships, and there’s no team out there that’s playing better ‘D’ than our guys.”