Virginia opened a portal Monday night. The long-suffering Cavaliers didn’t knock down a door. They walked in with dignity and humility.
A year after the most painful loss in NCAA Tournament history, Virginia won a national title and joined that elite inner circle in the ACC. The champions join Duke, North Carolina, N.C. State and Maryland as the only schools to win a title while in the ACC.
That matters to Virginia. Before finally winning the championship, the Cavs were always on the outside looking in, always the foil, always the cursed, waiting for something bad to happen.
And so many times it did, all through the Ralph Sampson seasons and the loss to Chaminade, the close calls through the Tobacco Road glory years, gut-wrenching defeats culminating in last year’s horrifying loss to 16th-seeded UMBC.
Yet this year, with perseverance, calm nerves and a little luck, Virginia walked through a door it once thought closed forever. And just maybe, in the process, showed us how college basketball will look in future years.
That’s been a big discussion in recent weeks as college coaches and administrators ponder what’s on the horizon for the sport.
The NBA’s decision to open its own grassroots scouting system and high school option for players eligible for the draft will alter the landscape.
Zion Williamson streaked across the ACC like something we’ll never see again and showed one end of the spectrum for the future. His like will likely never play in college again.
But at the other of that spectrum was Virginia, a team built without one-and-done players, a team built in spite of the one-and-done players, built in the image of a coach and a university.
Virginia’s roster of upperclassmen seemed to be a throwback to another time when players stayed in college for three or four years, programs built for stability and the concept of college itself protected.
The irony is Virginia has always done that, almost to a fault, bringing in players not ranked among the elite high schoolers, bringing in players who first and foremost can survive at UVa.
That’s what we’ve lost in college basketball as schools fight and cheat over the top players in the country, players who come in heralded and coddled and enabled, not worrying about going to class or graduating on time, sometimes surrounded by people outside the program taking payments and bribes.
That’s what we’ve become.
Virginia shows us another way. The old way. The right way.
Tony Bennett doesn’t coach like most coaches. He doesn’t recruit like most coaches. And in the lowest moments and now the highest, he doesn’t act like other coaches. Bennett, throughout his 10 years at UVa, has shown remarkable diffidence while demanding strict boundaries. He lets his players play, but according to his code.
The very first year he went to Virginia, he suspended the best player on the team before the final game over academics. It sent a message.
Monday night, he won a national title with program players, mostly third- and fourth-year players that continued a trend going back to the past few champions.
North Carolina and Villanova were also teams built around players who valued college over NBA Draft status.
Virginia’s model is pure, and it goes back to the roots of college basketball and the school’s long-suffering search for national success and respect. The university was, after all, the first expansion school in the ACC, the eighth “original” member that joined the league eight months after it was formed.
But over time, the fans felt overshadowed by Tobacco Road.
While schools in North Carolina hung NCAA banners, Virginia hung two NIT banners.
And while the nation’s media fawned over Duke and Carolina, and the league brought in other former NCAA championship programs, some of which have brought embarrassment to the league, Virginia waited in the shadows.
Until Monday night.
Yes Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. And he knows where you live.
The spectre of 2018 is gone now. The ghosts of Chaminade and UMBC are forever exorcised and left in the footnotes of college basketball history.