Thursday, February 24, 2011

the kings of unlikely

The lacrosse team is 2-0, the baseball team is 4-0, both are headed for a big weekend of games, and the basketball team is barely over .500 on the season, playing out the string en route to another likely quarterfinals exit (at best) from the ACC tournament, which they do every year. They ain't exactly making history. If they're lucky they'll get a CBI invite, which isn't even the junior NIT - it's more like the NIT's janitor. No offense to janitors. If they're really lucky they'll get a low seed in the NIT. How does a basketball team get anyone to care about the longshot chase for a 7-seed in the NIT?

By caring very, very hard themselves. You might ask, if you were a national observer: how can you keep devoting so much attention to a mediocre bunch that missed the tournament bubble about two months ago? Then again, how can you not? This is the raggediest, misfittiest UVA basketball team in recent memory. It's held together - as an on-court product, not in the intangible locker room - with baling wire, Elmer's, rainbows, and the wishes of orphans. No duct tape. Duct tape hurt his ankle in December. There's an adolescent giraffe playing center, a shooting guard playing power forward, and another shooting guard that's sort of a point guard and can only hit three-pointers when flying backwards into the Gatorade jug with the shot clock expiring. And now they're winning basketball games. In the ACC.

Consider this: This team lost Sylven Landesberg, Mike Scott, Jeff Jones, and Jerome Meyinsse, replaced them with four freshmen, and that change resulted in a likely increase in wins - assuming they can win just one of the next three. That's how you know you have the right coach.

Now we have the kings of unlikely, trying to do the unlikely. Make the postseason and the NIT. Sure, it's a longshot. North Carolina did it at 16-16, 5-11, just last season, but of course they have something we don't: the name "North Carolina." And Assane Sene is gangly and awkward, and if you look up "assane sene" on YouTube half the results are "Travis McKie posterizes Assane Sene". He is the least likely person to create his own Sportscenter highlight and he just created his own Sportscenter highlight by MANBLOCKING two Georgia Tech shots. Somehow this guy who can't catch a bounce pass ripped someone's weak stuff right out of the air not two feet away from the hand that fired the shot. In the second half, he encored by belting a Daniel Miller dunk attempt into Mongolia. If you'd asked me two years ago or last year how I felt about a team led by Mustapha Farrakhan - who had made a career of shooting 4-for-15 - I'd have seriously considered demoting the basketball team to club level. Today I exchanged Q&A with BC Interruption and they asked me how to go about stopping Mustapha Farrakhan. An unlikely team leader, an even more unlikely clutch player - and yet without a trace of irony yesterday I exhorted the inbounder to find Mu and get him the ball.

Slowly but surely, and painfully, the kings of unlikely are coming up with unlikely wins. It is nothing to anyone whether they finish with 14 or 15 or 16 of them, but the journey, to recycle a hackneyed phrase, is more important than the destination. The process is one of learning how to win - another hackneyed, overused phrase, but never more apt than when describing a team that blows lead after lead after lead and then finds itself not blowing the lead any more. ESPN's announcers may condescend to marvel at the effort given by a team headed - from their lofty perspective - nowhere, and you might be crazy to keep letting your sanity hinge on every Sammy Zeglinski desperation heave. But as long as there's effort like that coming from this team, it's not only your right, it's a sworn duty. Lacrosse and baseball will still be there when they're done.


Other things you should know:

- No, seriously, Assane Sene. He's playing like a man possessed and is Exhibit A in the case for Tony Bennett's player development skills. Easily the team's most improved player.

- Or not so easily, given Farrakhan's progression.

- The NCAA is not happening, obviously, barring ACC Tournament insanity. The NIT is also unlikely. But you know what I've been saying about unlikely. NIT bracketology is a bizarre thing to do and I'm not gonna bother, but if you're holding onto that hope, the best bet is to root for the chalk in the small-major conference tournaments so they don't take up space in the NIT. Fairfield, Oakland, Vermont. Teams like that. Winning, at a bare minimum, two more games, is also obvious. Probably at least three would be needed, including a tournament game.


Anonymous said...

Great blog. Words cannot describe how thankful I am for it. Unrelated but why do you think UVA would never host a thursday night game?

Dave said...

I suppose some UVa fans may have jumped ship by this point in the season, but among my circle, that hasn't been the case. I think we just really like this group of players. You can't help but like the scrap of guys like Sammy and Jontel, and the development of Sene into a controlled defender. This team reminds me of some of the late '80s Holland teams: at the bottom of the conference, but still giving everyone fits, and capable of winning any given game. Much more fun to have a team that I like than a team that wins but isn't likeable (I'm thinking of a couple of the Gillen seasons, with more talented teams that I just couldn't get behind).

Anonymous said...

Great article.
I've forwarded to friends who can't see past the W/L numbers.