Sweet 16: Once elite, then forgotten, Virginia basketball is back in the national conversation

Not long ago, the Virginia men’s basketball team had trouble holding the old man’s attention. There would be an interesting season here or there, but John Risher was a fan of the Cavaliers more in football and lacrosse. Basketball was just too inconsistent, and when you’re his age, there aren’t as many hours to waste.

This season, though, something changed.

“I must say,” said Risher, a 103-year-old retired physician, “I like this team.”

So every week or two, he would climb into his car and make the drive from Lynchburg to Charlottesville, afraid he might miss something special. Casual fans and past players began tuning in, too, wondering whether they would see history.

This Virginia team, the No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament’s East Region, will play fourth-seeded Michigan State on Friday night in the Sweet 16 at Madison Square Garden. Perhaps more impressive, the Cavaliers have captured even skeptical fans’ attention, forcing them to forget about an up-and-down program that, as it drifted further from the days of star center Ralph Sampson and former coach Terry Holland, seemed content to chase 20 wins, hope for an upset or two and make the occasional NCAA tournament.

Then, about a decade ago, administrators made the first of two big gambles that changed the program’s direction. Ground was broken in 2003 on the $131 million John Paul Jones Arena, which opened in 2006 and gave the Cavaliers a basketball cathedral that ranked among the ACC’s best. Five years ago, the Cavaliers made perhaps an even bigger bet. They took their chances on Tony Bennett, a young coach who lacked star power but brought with him a long-term plan.

“You can put as much money into stuff as you want to,” said Junior Burrough, who played for the Cavaliers in the early 1990s. “But unless you have the right people, it’s not going to work.”

Peaks and valleys

Virginia basketball seemed to peak more than three decades ago, when Sampson, a 7-foot-4 phenom, became an instant star. He was a two-time winner of the John R. Wooden Award, given to the nation’s best player, and in 1984 — one year after Sampson used up his eligibility — the Cavaliers reached the Final Four for the second time in four seasons.

Then the program began a period of steep decline.

Gone was the era of 13 NCAA tournament appearances in 17 years during the 1980s and mid-’90s, and in its place was another 17-year span with four tournament appearances, four coaches and, until this week, zero trips past the NCAA tournament’s opening weekend.

The worst part, though, was that even the program’s top supporters lost their enthusiasm. And who could blame them? The Cavaliers lost 19 games during the 1997-98 season, their most since 1962-63 and the first of five seasons in nine years without a winning record. Up and down the program bobbed, with coaches Jeff Jones and Pete Gillen unable to bring stability, and even when more than 15,000 packed into John Paul Jones Arena for opening night in 2006, the project still seemed unfinished.

“They gave me a great seat. They gave me a round of applause,” Burrough said of attending another game. “But I didn’t want to be there.”

Dave Leitao, hired to replace Gillen in 2005, had two winning seasons in four years before resigning after a 10-win season in 2008-09. During the search for U-Va.’s fourth coach in a little more than a decade, athletic department officials came to a realization: Why, in one of the school’s most important sports, had they made hires expecting a quick fix?

Athletic Director Craig Littlepage and Jon Oliver, the school’s executive associate AD, adjusted their search to fit how they had pursued coaches in Virginia’s nonrevenue sports — programs that were built over time and yielded conference and national championships. Littlepage and Oliver, who through a Virginia spokesman declined interview requests for this story, decided not to fill the basketball job with a big name who would promise immediate results. Instead, they were willing to hire a builder — even if it wouldn’t be a popular hire. They considered hiring a search firm but then decided against it, preferring to target a creative name.

Oliver, a former administrator at Washington State, knew of Bennett, the Cougars’ coach and the 2007 national coach of the year. Fans wanted a splashy hire — Minnesota’s Tubby Smith or Texas’s Rick Barnes were the hot candidates — and Oliver and Littlepage did nothing to quiet such speculation.

The administrators met with Bennett, who had taken Washington State to the first back-to-back NCAA tournament appearances in school history, and sold him on the program, the arena and America’s most famous basketball conference. After his mind was made up and the deal nearly done, even Washington State Athletic Director Jim Sterk told Bennett that he was a perfect fit for Virginia — and the program a perfect fit for him.

“Yeah, that’s the ACC,” Sterk recalled telling Bennett this week. “I think that fits you well.”

Bennett said this week he was comfortable with what Littlepage and Oliver were pitching.

“This administration said, ‘We know how you’re going to build it,’ ” Bennett said. “ ‘We’ve seen it. We want what you’re trying to do, at least what you’re sharing, the vision you’re painting.’ They made me feel very confident: ‘Do it your way.’ ”

But not everyone was so confident when the Cavaliers’ new savior was introduced.

“When you hear the name Tony Bennett,” Burrough said, “you don’t give him a chance.”

‘A whole lot better’

Bennett’s approach didn’t immediately work. The Cavaliers went a combined 31-31 in his first two seasons, and four of the first six players he recruited to Charlottesville transferred. But he had already made an impression. After the 2010-11 season ended, Bennett’s bosses reassured him that, believe it or not, there was no rush.

“Don’t worry about anything,” the coach recalled hearing. “Here are the expectations; keep building it.”

Bennett met with former players, inviting them to practices and games. He explained his patient, methodical approach, which might not pull in big-name recruits but would place the Cavaliers on a solid foundation. He pointed out that even though his pass-first, defensive-minded game strategy wasn’t the most exciting — “It’s like watching paint dry sometimes,” Burrough said with a chuckle — it resulted in wins. Against North Carolina in 2010, Maryland in 2011, Duke in 2013.

“You start beating them, and you make people believers,” Burrough said.

The Cavaliers reached the NCAA tournament in Bennett’s third season after winning 22 games. They won 23 the year after. And this season, Virginia has 30 wins, climbed to No. 3 in the national rankings and won the ACC tournament for the first time since 1976.

Fans, even the ones who had once lost faith, began trickling back, wanting a glimpse at the new program. Risher, the 103-year-old fan, drove himself to Charlottesville sometimes and other times bummed a ride. “I don’t mind being a hobo,” he said.

He sat on press row and cheered, calling himself a basketball fan again and, after all these years, choosing to believe better times had finally come.

“I tell you,” Risher said, “it’s a whole lot better than it was.”

Kent Babb is a sports features writer for The Washington Post.
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