Thursday, January 12, 2012

Are the Wahoos for Real?

Daily Onions is known to open up its space to outsiders to state their case for a team that might not normally get a lot of ink here. Last year, we had Carter Jordan talk about why Tennessee was one of the most exciting teams in the nation (Well, at least the post was well-written). In preparation for tonight's ACC Showdown of Virginia and Duke, Carter's brother Chas, a 1999 graduate of UVA, breaks down the 'Hoos hot start. (Daily Onions Editor's note: Any post that makes basketball comparisons to dating girls, references Hoosiers, and mentions Steve Stricker and Bruce Hornsby is a must read...enjoy!)

With an AP ranking of 16 and a Coach’s Poll ranking of 17, things are looking pretty good for Virginia fans and Tony Bennett’s squad.  However, an  RPI of 39 and an SOS of 139 leaves most outsiders still unsure of how the Hoos truly stack up.  If you’re a Virginia fan, the mere fact the Cavaliers are ranked in the month of January is akin to out-kicking your coverage and somehow snagging a girl out of your league  - it’s new and it feels great, but you’re still scared to get too excited for fear of the unknown and the potential letdown.  Wins against Michigan, Oregon, and LSU should look better and better as the seasons wears on, but anything less than a very solid performance in ACC play could leave UVa as this year’s Virginia Tech. 

Should Virginia finish in the top 4 of the ACC, make the NCAA tourney for only the third time since 2001, and possibly make a surprise run to the Sweet 16?  Sure. that’s absolutely within reason.  Tonight’s game against Duke might not prove the best case study as all bets are off at Cameron Indoor.  The Dookies have struggled as of late and will be looking to right the ship, and with UVa now relying on a couple of doe-eyed freshman to actually contribute, the Cameron Crazies will likely wreak havoc on the newbies.  Yet regardless of the outcome in Durham, there are several reasons to think the Hoos have a reasonable chance to post their first meaningful season in quite some time.

Bennett’s Pack-the-Line Defense
Bennett has UVa in Top 25; first time since '07 (AP)
It’s taken some time to implement the defense his father perfected, but head coach Tony Bennett appears to have the system in place. Bottom line, if you can’t play defense for coach Bennett, you might as well find a new home....the borderline outrageous number of transfers during his first three seasons serves as proof.  While fans sometimes complain the style is boring to watch (not as bad as Norman Dale’s requirement of 5 passes on offense before a shot), the pack-the-line defensive style strives to reduce the total number of possessions in a game.  Everything gets slowed down, possessions get extended, and the game ultimately ends as a low scoring affair.  How low?  Virginia ranks 2nd in the nation allowing a measly 50 points per game, and so far this year, opponents are averaging a paltry 39% shooting - again, good enough for 2nd in the country.  No matter what, Virginia’s tough, hard-nosed defense will certainly keep them in a vast majority of their games this season.

Mike Scott
After three seasons of inconsistency (averaging 10 points by way of 20 one night and 0 the next), Scott appeared to right the ship last season.  He got out of the gate and remained consistent throughout the first part of the season - then, a foot injury ended what was shaping up to be a solid season.  With any injury and subsequent layoff, the fear is always that the player won’t be the same, or, in this case, that last season was a fluke and the Mike Scott of old might return.  Not so.  Scott has picked up right where he left off and continues to be a double-double machine.  In UVa’s win over Miami, he literally carried the team on his back, racking up 23 points in a 52-51 victory (no other Cavalier scored more than 6 pts - can you say game ball). 

Veteran Leadership
UVa starts two fifth-year seniors, one senior, and a junior.  In essence, this ain’t the first rodeo for Virginia’s core nucleus of players.  As the season progresses, the Wahoos are likely to face some form of adversity (two players - one a former starter - transferred during the winter break), and the upper classman will play a key role in holding things together.  Veterans likely Sammy Zeglinski have the experience to make big plays in key situations (he knocked down a huge three late against Miami), and given their style of play, the Cavaliers will likely find themselves in a whole mess of tight games.  Oftentimes, the difference in close games comes down to the team with experienced players who can and will make the big shots when it counts most.  So far, it appears Virginia’s veteran players are doing just that.

Can the Hoos get a win over Rivers and Duke tonight?
Still not convinced?  
We’ll, you’re probably not alone.  With only nine scholarship players on the roster, it’s no secret Virginia is extremely thin.  The Hoos start one freshman, and had to remove the redshirt status from Paul Jesperson after KT Harrell and James Johnson jumped ship in December.  Throughout the season, points will be at a premium for UVa since such a thin line up leaves little margin for error.  If guys like Zeglinski and sophomore Joe Harris fail to show up on the same night, Virginia will struggle to find point production.  So, while their defense can keep them in just about any game, the lack of consistent scorers also makes just as susceptible to being upset by just about anyone - see exhibit A:  a squeaker over Towson who entered the game against Virginia on a 31-game losing streak.  

So, has Virginia truly arrived?  Probably not quite yet.  Are they on their way?  Absolutely.  How will Wahoo fans know when to start expecting a perennial winner?  I suspect it’s when UVa earns some street cred and the crowd at JPJ arena starts to feature some big-time celebrities.  As a Wahoo fan buried in Wildcat country, it seems like that is at least one way to measure a program’s viability.  Sure, John Grisham was at the Miami game, and Steve Stricker stops by occasionally to cheer on his good friend Tony.  Heck, even Bruce Hornsby catches a game or two.  Something tells me that’s not quite the followers recruits get geeked about.  Here in Lexington, Lebron was seen all over town during the lock out, and the Wildcats’ stable of prized recruits played pickup with all sorts of NBA all-stars.  Jay-Z even caught the Louisville-UK game (also rumored to have spent NYE at a new club in town.  Gotta love the irrational exuberance of Wildcat fans.  Like the guy who wrote Empire State of Mind would spend NYE anywhere but the Big Apple!)   

Maybe that type of buzz is for days to come.  At this point, simply being in the national conversation is a huge step forward, and hopefully that’s just enough noise to stir Hoos fans from their slumber and get them believing again.

#17 Virginia is at #6 Duke tonight at 9 pm ET on ESPN.

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