Luke Neer WINA Sports
Friday at 7:30 Virginia Men’s Basketball tips-off the Corpus Christi Challenge where they’ll face Southern Methodist. Non-conference tournaments haven’t been kind to the Cavaliers over the past few years. Last November, Virginia was unable to punch a ticket to play at Madison Square Garden for the NIT Season Tip-Off because of a home loss to Delaware. Tracking back to Mike Scott’s senior season, the Cavaliers’ one loss in the non-conference schedule came to a below average TCU team in the Paradise Island Jam. And three years ago, Virginia dropped two of three games in the Maui Invitational.
Seniors Joe Harris and Akil Mitchell saw the court on each of the tropical trips, and were the two lead scorers for the Cavaliers in last year’s NIT loss to Delaware. Needless to say this weekend there’s extra incentive for the 4th years especially Harris. “For me personally, it’s very important. I know we haven’t done well whether it was in Maui my first year, the Virgin Islands my second year, and then we didn’t even get a chance to play in the NIT preseason tournament last year,” Harris said. “For us to go in and win a tournament would be huge, and it’s something that I personally think we should accomplish.”
So what is it about these early season tournaments that causes disparity in results? Is it an atmosphere issue, as fans are often sparse in neutral court settings? Is it the vacation feel of playing on an island that causes teams to come out flat? Do the rims clank just a little bit harder in Paradise? Or perhaps it’s the confusion of returning to a huddle where coaches are decked out in Aloha shirts rather than suits.
Historically, Cavalier fans are no strangers to letdown in these min-tournaments. 77-72 still stirs up nightmares for UVA basketball lovers (the final score of Virginia’s loss to Chaminade in 1982 during the Maui Invitational). There must have been something in the water that day for Ralph and No. 1 Virginia to fall to a university the size of a large high school.
But Virginia isn’t necessarily an anomaly in early season tournaments. Upsets are frequent and final score lines tend to be closer than the norm. For example this past Monday Dayton took down No. 11 Gonzaga in Maui. And last night in the Bahamas, No. 2 Kansas had to hold on in the final minutes to overcome Wake Forrest.
However for some reason this year feels different for Virginia. The sand is still white and the gulf is still blue in Corpus Christi, but it’s a mainland tournament. And from a basketball perspective, the current Cavaliers appear to be a more consistent group who will rarely fall to lesser opponents in 2013-2014. SMU, Texas A&M, and Missouri State are the other teams involved in the Challenge. Though manageable foes, the Cavaliers will certainly be on their toes opening up against a 5-1 SMU team coached by Larry Brown.
The fact that Tony Bennett has such a below average mark in tournament play since arriving in Charlottesville still baffles me. But I think this year will be different. The Cavs are due. Too much depth, too many offensive options, and plenty of motivation to put an end to early season tourney woes.