Wednesday, December 16, 2015

shots in the arm

It's sort of a miniature holy grail of sportswriting to be able to call a turning point in a season right as it happens.  Sportswriters give it a shot all the time.  Cover a 162-game MLB season and you'll probably call eight different turning points as the season wears on.  It's easy to do after the fact, but not so easy in the moment; you'd have looked like a lunatic if you'd woken up on New Year's Day 2014 and made UVA a 1-seed in your bracketology.

I'm willing to give it a shot right now, though: beating West Virginia in Madison Square Garden sure as hell looks like a launchpad for the season.  To be honest, so far this hoops team has looked like they've had trouble getting out of third gear.  Putting a nasty ol' hurt on Lehigh doesn't do it for anyone.  Two struggles in two road games (and one loss) against decent but bubbly opponents doesn't scream Final Four - it says "seven seed."

MSG isn't a road venue, but it's a tournament-style venue.  And West Virginia is more than a tournament-style team.  They have really eye-popping efficiency numbers on both offense and defense.  There are things they do better than everyone in the country.  They play in what is probably the toughest top-to-bottom conference in the country (Boston College is doing the ACC no favors in this regard.)  At worst, beating them by 16 in a neutral venue is going to be worth one full seed in the selection committee room.

I think it did more than just move UVA from a 3 seed to a 2, though.  UVA took WVU's best shot, and it was a good one.  The Hoos were reeling, thanks to the Mountaineers' pressure, unable to pass the ball or rebound on defense - two of the most fundamentally simple things in basketball.  Then suddenly they punched back.

Tony told reporters that his halftime message wasn't elaborate: either you'll respond, or you won't.  Is that trust or what?  Up to you, guys.  Whatever you want to do.  Before halftime, it was a legitimate question to wonder if UVA's UVA-ness was taking a vacation this year.  After halftime, the mojo returned from the beach and went back to work, and like most teams before them, WVU found the bucket a mile away and ten inches wide.


UVA doesn't just have a football coach, it now has a whole staff.  Most of that staff is still in Provo, but Bronco Mendenhall wisely brought on (or kept) a few East Coast connections.  Marques Hagans (WRs) is the lone holdover.  Shaun Nua (DL) actually comes from both worlds, having worked with Bronco at BYU in the past but coming more directly from Annapolis where he was on Ken Niumatalolo's staff.  And best of all, UVA snapped up Ruffin McNeill, idiotically fired from East Carolina where his 5-7 record this year was used by their AD (which is no longer Terry Holland, in case you were wondering) as an excuse to win a political power struggle.

McNeill isn't likely to stay long.  Two, three years is the most likely cap.  Sooner or later, some AAC or CUSA team will find itself looking for a head coach.  McNeill will be on short lists maybe even as soon as next year; he was absolutely a success at ECU and other southeastern schools would be stupid to keep him off their short lists.  Western Kentucky isn't going to hang on to Jeff Brohm forever, FAU hasn't gained much traction, Charlotte just went 0-12....McNeill is going to look awfully good to some AD somewhere.  He's 57, so the window is just beginning to close, but it's best to assume he's a short-term staffer.

Nevertheless, ECU's loss is UVA's gain.  McNeill is said to be one of the most top-notch people in the industry, and, y'know, just look what he did at ECU.  Four bowl seasons out of six, and a ten-win season.  He can do some of his most important work right this week while the rest of the staff is preparing for the Las Vegas Bowl.  He and Hagans can give the BYU boys the East Coast high school grand tour.  And whatever he did to beat VT twice, maybe he can transfer some of that mojo too.

Speaking of which.  I sort of hate to begin comparing Mendenhall to Justin Fuente and the Blacksburg crew, but it's inevitable - hired in the same year, the competition and measuring-up is impossible to avoid.  Fuente retained a lot of Frank Beamer's staff and filled out the rest with Memphis coaches.  Both schools are taking a prudent approach.  UVA effected a near-complete overhaul, while VT held on to successful coaches (ol' Bud, Torrian Gray) and jettisoned ineffective ones - that is, most of the offensive side of the ball (li'l Shaney in particular), keeping only Zohn Burden, who produced some pretty good WRs this year.  Fuente brings a badly needed fresh start on offense for VT; Mendenhall brings an even more badly-needed discipline hand to Charlottesville and a large cadre of unified, trusted staff to reinforce the message.

From here in December, though, not even a month from the introductions, I'm willing to predict Bronco outlasts Fuente.  It's largely a question of expectations.  VT fans were mad because Beamer kept going to crappy bowls and almost losing to UVA.  If both programs go 8-5 for the next three years, just take a guess which fanbase will be happier about that.  Fuente needs to put VT in the ACC CG repeatedly or it won't be enough - and if he does produce multiple ten-plus win seasons, rumors will swirl once jobs like Arkansas or Texas A&M open up.  And he'd better not lose to UVA more than once in the next four years.  I think VT fans could handle a loss (as long as it's not in 2016) but if he allows Bronco to put UVA on equal footing with the Hokies in the state, it won't sit well.

But forget the next couple years, just the next couple months will be interesting to watch.  UVA football offseasons are fun again.  I hardly paid attention to recruiting efforts this year, for example - why bother, when there's so little guarantee that a commitment in May will sign in February?  As usual, finals break sucks for sports fans, but Saturday marks the end of boring times - UVA fans can watch one of the marquee basketball games of the year and then root for their coaching staff in a bowl game (which is liable to be a three-hour advertisement for UVA football) and then let the fun begin Sunday when Bronco and co. become full-time Hoos.

1 comment:

BostonHoo said...

I wondered if Fuentes would lower VT's already low academic standards and sure enough he did. He just brought in two JUCO guys who were committed to Memphis. Now, if you can't get into Memphis after high school and must go JUCO you know that you are not one of the brighter bulbs in the chandelier. I wonder how much academic integrity VT is willing to sacrifice in order to win games. So far it looks like a lot but I think even VT has its limits.