Game On!

Jack Looney

Last year, UVA basketball fans lost their collective minds over the Cavaliers’ dream season, which included the team’s first ACC regular season title and tournament championship in nearly 30 years, and an impressive run in the NCAA Tournament that ended in a heartbreaking loss to Michigan State in the Sweet 16. This year, fans’ love affair with Coach Tony Bennett and the team is only burning more brightly after the Cavaliers again clinched the ACC regular season title following a victory Monday night over Syracuse. Despite their success, the Cavs have dealt with criticism that their defensive style of play is “boring,” overcome injuries to key players including Justin Anderson, who broke his pinky February 7, and London Perrantes, who broke his nose in a collision with teammate Malcolm Brogdon on February 22, and kept on playing when he broke it a second time a week later. These guys have grit and grace. Is this the year they’ll go all the way?

Five things you need to know about Justin Anderson’s fractured pinky

University of Virginia basketball star guard Justin Anderson suffered a fractured pinky finger on February 7 when the Cavaliers played the then No. 9 Louisville Cardinals. His injury was a major blow to the team and created cause for concern among the Wahoo faithful that his absence would hurt the team’s chances of making a deep run in the NCAA Tournament. Here are five things you need to know about Anderson’s injury.

  • Learning to go without Prior to his injury, Anderson led the team in scoring and three-point shooting with 13.4 points per game and a three-point field goal percentage of 48 percent. During their first three games after losing Anderson, the Cavs average margin of victory was a mere 5.6 points. But during the last four games the team has played, that margin has rebounded to an impressive 17.5 points. The numbers say the team is learning to play without its best player. Will Anderson’s return help or harm the team’s newfound chemistry?
  • If we lose, so what? With a 28-1 record—the best start in school history—Virginia has secured the ACC title and currently is ranked No. 2 nationally. When Anderson was injured, many Cavaliers fans worried that the team would lose a few games while it struggled to find its new identity with its superstar forward on the sidelines. Despite some close games, the Cavs maintained their winning streak. Even if Virginia loses its final regular season game and exits the ACC Tournament early, the team is still NCAA Tournament-bound. The real question is whether it will receive the tournament’s No. 1 ranking in the East.
  • Entertainment factor is lost One critique of the UVA team is that it’s boring to watch. Head coach Tony Bennett uses a slow, methodical half court offense to beat his opponents, depriving fans of the fast-paced, high-flying offense that would keep them on the edge of their seats. The Cavaliers as a team average only 65.8 points per game, which puts them at 213th of 351 NCAA Division I basketball programs. They average a total of only 60.2 possessions a game, which is the fourth from last in Division I. Many believe that Anderson is the one player on the team capable of providing entertainment value.
  • A little rusty When Anderson returns, expect him to be slightly off his game for two reasons. One, he’ll have gone a month without playing or practicing at full speed, so there will probably be a few kinks to work out before he and his teammates get back into the flow of things. Two, his fractured pinky is on his dominant hand, the hand he shoots and often dribbles with, and finding the rhythm of his jump shot may initially be a challenge. Anderson has also been blessed with large hands that allow him to palm the ball as he goes up for a dunk or layup, and the pinky, believe it or not, is essential to having control over the ball. Anderson’s pinky probably won’t be at full strength, so don’t expect him to look like his old self right away.
  • Bad news for the Cavs, good news for Justin? There is a slight chance that Anderson won’t be back in time for the ACC tournament that begins on March 10. If the Cavaliers lose without him on the floor, it could be good for Anderson because it would show his value to the team. If Virginia exits the ACC tournament early, expect Anderson’s NBA draft stock to shoot up. NBA scouts look at these things when evaluating a player for the next level. It also doesn’t hurt that Anderson showed tremendous improvement from last season to this season: His scoring average increased from 7.8 points per game to 13.4 points per game, his field goal percentage improved from 41 percent to 48 percent and his three-point percentage increased from 29 to 48 percent. —Elijah Hawkins

Coach Tony Bennett is "an incredible person who happens to be an extraordinary basketball coach," said Barry Parkhill. Photo: Jack Looney

Tony Bennett’s secret weapons:
Consistency and character

Other than members of his staff and the team itself, few people have had the chance to watch the Tony Bennett phenomenon more closely than Dave Koehn, the game announcer known as the Voice of the Cavaliers.

“Truly, it was a pretty dark time for Virginia basketball when Tony got here,” said Koehn, who began announcing games in 2008, a year before Bennett arrived to take the helm of a struggling program that hadn’t made it past the second round of the NCAA tournament since 1995. “He had to change the entire culture,” said Koehn, who remembers the first pre-season interview he did with the young coach. “He laid out a game plan of how this was all going to happen,” Koehn recalled. “I just looked back at my notes from six years ago, and it was amazing. Almost to a T, things have played out according to his script.”

The key to the success of that script, Koehn said, has been Bennett’s consistency and long-term vision.

“I think a big part of it was he never had an expectation this thing was going to happen overnight. Character has been a big thing for what he’s looked for when he’s recruited. His system requires such complete buy-in that you’ve got to have the right pieces.” And while Bennett may have had some doubts in the early years, before last year’s dream season, “He always stayed the course,” Koehn said.

Barry Parkhill agrees.

“Tony is building our program for longevity,” said Parkhill, who was a star player for the Cavaliers in the early 1970s, went on to a professional basketball career and now works in development for UVA athletics. “I’m so happy for Tony, his staff and players. I know how hard they work, and obviously they’re doing an extraordinary job as a basketball team but they’re extraordinary off the court as well.”

It’s the on-court magic and off-court character that has ignited an almost worshipful love for Bennett among fans.

“Coach Bennett has got his act together. He’s a rising star, and an absolute godsend for the program,” said Jeremy Sharp, a UVA alum who drove 17 hours each way to watch UVA in the NCAA tournament round of eight in 1995 and said he’d drive that far again in a heartbeat to watch this team on the road. “It would be so much fun to see them get that far or farther. This is the most talented team since then.”

Koehn said he believes this year’s team has the chance to win it all.

“There’s something to be said for knowing how to win and expecting to win,” he said. “Last year, we kicked the door down. This year, it’s, ‘We belong here, we expect to be here.’”

Anthony Gill goes up to block a shot by Virginia Tech's Devin Wilson during the Saturday, February 28 match-up at John Paul Jones Arena. UVA beat Tech 69-57. Photo: Jack Looney

In defense of defensive play

When ESPN.com ran a recent article titled “Is Virginia’s style bad for the game,” some UVA fans scoffed, while others just laughed.

“At some level it seems like a witch hunt. I think it’s silly. If this program is bad for basketball, I don’t know what’s good for basketball,” said game announcer Dave Koehn, known as the Voice of the Cavaliers. “We have true student athletes who are excelling in this unbelievable fashion. It’s one of the biggest breaths of fresh air that you see in sports.”

Former player Bobby Stokes, who played for the 1976 ACC championship team and is now a local family practitioner, isn’t worried about the criticism.

“Defense wins games,” he said, recalling that Coach Terry Holland, for whom he played, was similarly defense minded. “We played a methodical offense with hard defense like these guys do. A turtle should be our mascot. It’s a tough defense, and I think as you play tough defenses, no matter who you go up against, you can be in the game. And if you’re in the game, anyone can win.”

That’s certainly proven true as UVA battled through a series of games after losing star player Justin Anderson to a broken finger in early February. The margins of victory were slimmer in Anderson’s absence—at least initially—but even that changed, as the team destroyed Wake Forest 70-34 on February 25 with the signature strong defense coupled with better shooting percentages, and then went on to defeat Virginia Tech and Syracuse.

The powerful defense is “a throwback to good basketball,” said Stokes. “For those guys to keep people under 50 points a game is just unbelievable. Everything is so fast-paced and shot-oriented, with the three-pointer and the running style offenses that it’s nice to see people have pride on defense and be able to shut people down.”

Photo courtesy of Corks & Curls

University of Virginia Basketball, 1906

UVA basketball was born in the 1905-06 school year, the first collegiate hoops squad in the South. The team was created and led by legendary coach Henry “Pop” Lannigan (center, back row), who had joined the University in the fall of 1905 as an associate director of athletics and its first full-time trainer. Lannigan also led the University’s first track and field team, and helped coach boxing, football and baseball as well. His basketball team reportedly went 8-2 in the inaugural season, winning its first-ever game against the Charlottesville Y.M.C.A. 30-9. It was reported that the Cavaliers (as they were referred to beginning in the early 1920s) won an amazing 290 of 380 games during Lannigan’s years as coach. In 1957 he was inducted into the College Basketball Hall of Fame. Lannigan was the heart of UVA athletics until his retirement in 1929. Lannigan passed away at his home in Charlottesville on Christmas Eve 1930. The University’s track and field facility is named in his honor. The University of Virginia Cavaliers will mark 110 years of college basketball in 2016. —Coy Barefoot, author of The Corner: A History of Student Life at the University of Virginia 

Correction: This post was corrected to reflect that the Cavaliers will mark 110 years of college basketball history in 2016.

Jeff Lamp and Ralph Sampson were stars of the 1980-81 Cavaliers team, which made it to the Final Four. Photo courtesy of UVA

Wa-Hoop-Wa!

Looking back at the top five seasons in UVA basketball history

Virginia basketball is back on a stage that seemed forever out of reach, the memories of the Ralph Sampson years fading into almost folklore status over time.

After making 12 NCAA Tournament appearances in a 15-year period from 1980 to 1995, a run that saw the ’Hoos finish out in two Final Fours, three Elite Eights and two Sweet 16s, UVA basketball went through a long decline, playing in four NCAA Tournaments in the next 18 years, and winning just one game at the Big Dance.

Seven of those seasons ended at the ACC Tournament. One, 2008, had the Cavs playing in something called the College Basketball Invitational.

The resurgence that began in 2014 with Virginia’s first ACC Tournament championship in 38 years and first 30-win season since, yes, the Ralph Sampson era, has rolled on with a season-long Cavalanche that has had the ’Hoos near the top of the national polls for the better part of 2015.

Where does the current run rank in the annals of UVA basketball history? Good question.

1980-1981 (29-4, 13-1 ACC, Final Four)

The Cavs started 23-0 in Sampson’s sophomore season, spent a month at No. 1 in the national rankings, and overcame a late-game slide (three losses in five games, the last an 85-62 loss to No. 20 Maryland in the ACC Tournament semifinals) to reach the Final Four for the first time in program history. The opponent, old foe North Carolina, avenged a pair of regular-season losses to the Cavs, who went on to defeat LSU in the final third-place game in NCAA Tournament history.

1975-1976 (18-12, 4-8 ACC, ACC Tournament champion)

Terry Holland’s second season as head coach became the foundation for the success that followed, though it didn’t look that way for the longest time. The Cavs were the sixth seed in the eight-team ACC Tournament field in 1976, but in three glorious days in Landover, Maryland, Virginia defeated third-seeded North Carolina State, second-seeded Maryland and top-seeded North Carolina to earn the program’s first-ever NCAA Tournament bid.

1983-1984 (21-12, 6-8 ACC, Final Four)

The first post-Sampson year started off strong (UVA was 10-0 around New Year’s), but the wheels started falling off in ACC play. After a first-round ACC Tournament loss to Wake Forest, Virginia seemed destined for the NIT, but received a controversial at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament, and ran through the East Regional, defeating Syracuse in the Sweet 16 and Indiana in the regional final, then taking eventual national runner-up Houston (with Hakeem Olajuwon) to overtime in the Final Four.

2013-2014 (30-7, 16-2 ACC, ACC Tournament champion, Sweet 16)

Coach Tony Bennett’s fifth season got off to a slow start, with home losses to VCU and Wisconsin, and a 35-point beatdown at Tennessee on Dec. 30. The sting of that defeat seemed to ignite the ’Hoos, who rolled through the ACC with a 16-2 regular-season record, then brought home the first ACC Tournament championship in 38 years with a win in the final over rival Duke. Virginia earned a No. 1 national seed and made the program’s first Sweet 16 in 19 years before being upset in Madison Square Garden by Michigan State.

2014-2015

Building on the success from the deep run in March last year, the current Cavs seem to be on track for another No. 1 national seed, and will take with them into this year’s NCAA Tournament the experience of having played several do-or-die games. The ceiling for this team depends on the availability of All-America candidate Justin Anderson, who went down in the Feb. 7 win over Louisville with a broken finger. Assuming Anderson returns before the Big Dance, Virginia is a betting favorite for the Final Four, with fans salivating over a chance at No. 1 Kentucky.

Chris Graham is the co-author of Mad About U: Four Decades of Basketball in University Hall, a book published in 2006 that chronicles the history of University of Virginia basketball in the U Hall era. He has covered UVA sports since 1995.