Prepare for the most stunning sentence you’ll read this week (sports division): On Tuesday night, fourth-ranked Virginia will host ninth-ranked Virginia Tech in men’s basketball.
Why, that’s not surprising at all, you say, because Virginia entered this season ranked fifth and has been a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament three times in the previous five years and is just darned good. Virginia Tech, for its part, was 15th in the preseason polls and has nonconference wins over Purdue and Washington. Combined, they’re 29-1, with Tech’s one loss coming by one point at Penn State.
Fourth vs. ninth? Sure, sounds about right.
Consider, though, reading that same sentence, say, 10 years ago. It seems foreign now, but that’s when Virginia was wandering aimlessly through the wilderness, the last year of Dave Leitao’s coaching reign that ended at 10-18, the Cavaliers’ worst record since LBJ was president. NCAA tournament bids these days might seem like the program’s right. But Leitao’s final season marked the 10th time in a dozen years that the bracket was announced without the Wahoos.
Ten years ago, Virginia Tech was where it always seemed to be since it first fielded a team a century before that: Nowheresville. Seth Greenberg makes a fine television analyst and was, by Blacksburg standards, a decent coach. But the 2008-09 season was Greenberg’s sixth with the Hokies. Total NCAA appearances, before or after: one.
That context gives Tuesday night’s goings-on in Charlottesville a feeling that this is special. It’s not news by now that Tony Bennett has built one of the nation’s most durable and desirable programs — and one historic loss in the NCAA tournament doesn’t change that. Buzz Williams’s program isn’t yet to Virginia’s current level, and maybe it never will be. But considering that Williams has as many tourney appearances in the past two seasons (two) as the previous seven Hokies coaches had in 27 years, well, then, this isn’t the norm.
“Both programs, I believe, respect each other,” Bennett said Monday.
Rightfully so. But could they always say that?
Bennett’s program is so established that it’s hard to remember how wayward Virginia seemed for so long. Part of that is because the Cavaliers have history, what with Ralph Sampson and Terry Holland and the matchups with Georgetown and Patrick Ewing — cover-of-Sports Illustrated stuff.
Those memories, though, obscure how far the Cavs had fallen.
Bennett’s Cavs have posted winning ACC records in seven straight seasons, including two years in which they went 16-2, and last year, when they went 17-1. In the 11-year span in which Pete Gillen and Leitao oversaw the Wahoos, they combined for three winning ACC records.
Gillen was an established winner at Xavier and Providence before he failed at Virginia. Leitao was a top assistant to Hall of Fame coach Jim Calhoun at Connecticut and made the postseason three straight times as coach at DePaul before failing at Virginia.
Bennett had never held a coaching position east of Wisconsin, and his only head coaching work had been at Washington State. This was the guy who was supposed to rediscover the best Virginia basketball could be?
“I think Coach will be an early-entry Hall of Famer,” Williams said of his counterpart Monday.
If you find someone in the coaching fraternity who doesn’t respect Bennett’s on-court product and off-court comportment, point them out, please. We need to grab them by the shoulders and give them a good shake, then splash water on their face. No, Bennett’s Cavaliers haven’t yet advanced to the Final Four. Yes, they will spend most of this season being harassed in opposing gyms about Maryland Baltimore County, the No. 16 seed to which they lost — historically — in the first round of the NCAA tournament a year ago. Whatever. Virginia basketball has never been as consistent — night-in and night-out or year-in and year-out — as it is right now.
So here they are, unbeaten and ranked fourth in the country, with a marquee game at No. 1 Duke set for Saturday. And it seems, well, normal.
“Thankful for the spot we’re in,” Bennett said. “It means up to that point you’ve progressed nicely.”
And for all that, Bennett’s revival of Virginia might be the second-most remarkable turnaround on display Tuesday night. When Williams left Marquette for Blacksburg in 2014, the most obvious question was, “Why would Williams leave Marquette for Blacksburg?” Marquette had history and a recruiting base in Chicago. Virginia Tech had . . . a strong football tradition?
Predictably, Williams’s first team struggled, going 2-16 in the league. By that point, in 11 seasons since moving to the ACC, the Hokies had a conference winning percentage of .379. Might make hoop heads in Blacksburg long for, say, Ace Custis and the old Metro Conference.
Actually, Custis’s junior year of 1995-96 — when the Hokies had moved from the Metro to the Atlantic 10 — produced Virginia Tech’s most recent top-10 ranking: eighth. The Hokies responded to that by getting pummeled at George Washington and falling back to 13th — and they hadn’t reentered the top 10 since.
Know when their most recent top-10 ranking was before that? That would be never.
So here is Williams, with what amounts to his best team off to its best start. That Virginia leads the nation in scoring defense is all but expected, given Bennett’s style and his team’s commitment to it. But look at Virginia Tech, fourth in that category.
“They’re men,” said Notre Dame Coach Mike Brey, whose team lost to the Hokies on New Year’s Day.
“Defensively, they’ve always been solid,” Bennett said. “But they’ve taken that step where they make it tough.”
So that’s what this will be Tuesday night: tough, for either team. Virginia boasts a scoring margin of 22.6 points per game, bettered by only Duke and Gonzaga. And look who’s next: Virginia Tech, at 21.9.
Coaches will tell you that rankings don’t matter, and they don’t. They’re conversation pieces.
But when you’re able to write that fourth-ranked Virginia will host ninth-ranked Virginia Tech, feel free to assign some meaning, because this game should be more than just a referendum on who has the advantage in the early-going of the ACC. It should be a reminder that these programs haven’t always been at this level, and it wasn’t that long ago that such a meaningful matchup between the two of them — one with regional and national implications — would have seemed inconceivable.