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Column: Five Years Later, Much Has Changed For The Wahoos

Some 1,827 days ago, UVa fans woke up equal parts excited and also nervous as could be. A year after the sport’s greatest failure, the Wahoos were on the verge of its most incredible comeback. Tip off of that title game against Texas Tech wouldn’t come until after 9 p.m. on the east coast but it might as well as been a 48-hour day the way it felt until things (finally) got going in Minneapolis.

The more I think about it the more I think: It feels a lot longer than five years ago right now, doesn’t it?

This isn’t a column about taking shots about what’s gone wrong. It’s not about trying to find the reasons why and all that noise, either. No, this is a column lamenting the distance between then and now, as easily the sport’s two best programs over the last two years prepare to square off in what on paper at least looks like a championship game for the ages. It’s the kind of game UVa used to be in.

Like the man said: Life comes at you fast.

The Cavaliers went into U.S. Bank Stadium five years ago tonight with not only a top-five defense but one of the nation’s absolute best offenses, too. No. 2 overall in adjusted offensive efficiency per KenPom, UVa would finish top 20 in effective field-goal percentage, turnover percentage, 3-point percentage, and non-steal turnover percentage, top 10 for the last two in fact.

Lost in so much of the “conversation” about UVa’s offense this year and especially late in the season is that it wasn’t always this way. Sure, the Wahoos play slow and maybe it’s certainly been a rough go way too often, don’t get me wrong. But it’s not like there’s a lack of proof in the record that the Hoos can score and do so efficiently.

What’s always been so funny to me about that title game is that the naysayers, because of the relative strength of the two defenses therein, said at the time that it would be a snooze fest. An 85-77 overtime thriller later, they didn’t seem to have any of those complaints.

I mean, Virginia scored 85 points (68 in regulation) against the best defense in the country that year. It was the best performance by a title winning team in the KenPom era. And it was not out of character for that team or the program at that time. If you really let all of that sink in, it makes the last few seasons (and this one especially) hard to square.

The road from there to here: How in the world was that thing paved and how in the world do you get back there?

Tony Bennett and Co. have a lot more to deal with these days than just recruiting. But at its most basic level, the big picture hasn’t changed. The effectiveness of how UVa went about doing it combined with the realities of the talent level of those in the uniform both have, though. And that’s where the Cavaliers find themselves as the true offseason begins in earnest after a champion is crowned tonight.

Looking at what Purdue and UConn have done, it’s hard not to think about when Virginia was a stalwart who, year in and year out, seemed to be in the mix for No. 1 seeds and postseason pressure. And that point is worth appreciating even without attempts at inflaming or trolling: This is just the way things are and the totality of what’s facing the program.

It takes a long, long time to “build a program that lasts,” as Bennett said when he was introduced as Virginia’s new coach. It doesn’t take too many misses in recruiting or too many lackluster results on the floor to lose the grip on that rope.

All in all, what UVa is facing in portal and HS recruiting, in scheme re-evaluation, and in forging a new path ahead are problems those in the offices at JPJ are not only very aware of but are likely obsessed with solving. It’s fair to say that nobody wants to be back in football stadiums playing basketball games again more than they do. But, yet, that truth changes little for those for whom this day five years ago felt like the new normal…until it wasn’t.

With two spots to use in the portal now, and perhaps more depending on how things shake out this week, the roster makeover that appears to be so badly needed in Charlottesville may be closer to happening than we think. And it doesn’t take “much,” all things considered.

Case in point: Not all that long ago, Dan Hurley’s bunch finished 16-17 and 15-8 before going 21-10 in 2021-2022 with a first-round exit. Purdue was 18-10 in 2020-2021 and finished its season with two losses in a row before a pair of stellar seasons ended abruptly (though last year’s defeat at the hands of a No. 16 seed sure has connected the Boilermakers and Hoos in obvious yet intriguing ways).

Point is, it doesn’t take long to get going once when you’ve got it going right.

When it fits, it fits.

UVa fans sure do know a thing or two about what that looks like. They hope to one day see a morning like they did five years ago tomorrow and again feel the joy that comes with it.

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