Since the Associated Press’ weekly Top 25 college basketball poll was released on Monday, University of Virginia fans have been in a state of euphoria.
For the first time since December 1982, the UVA men’s basketball team is ranked No. 1 in the country.
Following Tuesday night’s 59-50 victory at Miami, the Cavaliers have a 24-2 record, including a 13-1 mark in Atlantic Coast Conference play.
How does this year’s team compare to the Cavaliers’ dominant squads of the late 1970s and early 1980s, when Hall-of-Famer Ralph Sampson was patrolling University Hall?
Former Virginia coach and athletic director Terry Holland coached the Cavaliers to Final Four appearances in 1981 and 1984 and is still the winningest coach in Cavalier history with 326 victories in 16 seasons at the helm. Now retired and splitting his time between Denver and Wilmington, North Carolina – where he has grandchildren – Holland talked with us about his impressions of this year’s UVA team, and how life in the spotlight compares to his experiences three decades ago.
Q. Has watching Virginia this season been exciting for you?
A. Oh yeah. I love watching. Especially now that I don’t have to worry about the final outcome [chuckle].
Q. What were your emotions when this week’s Top 25 came out and UVA was ranked No. 1 for the first time since 1982, when you were coach?
A. I feel really good about the fact that things have gone this well for Tony [Bennett]. He’s just a great person and a great coach – and his kids mirror him in terms of their expectations of each other. He’s just created a great team and hopefully can sustain it for a long, long time.
Q. Virginia wasn’t even in this season’s preseason Top 25. How do you explain what they’ve been able to accomplish?
A. It shows how much the rest of us know [chuckle]. But they’re just so consistent the way they play. You know that they have a good chance to win any time they take the court. I think they have the kind of depth now that could weather injuries and other things – they play so well together.
Q. What was it like in 1981 when you were coach and UVA became No. 1 for the first time? Did it seem as big of a deal then as it does now?
A. I don’t think it did, to be honest. Part of that was that we played it down because our goal wasn’t necessarily to just be ranked No. 1 in the regular season, but to be able to compete for a national championship. And we got to compete – we just didn’t get one.
No. 1 is just something that may or may not happen at a particular time in the season. Your goal is to be playing in that game that becomes the national championship game. And that’s harder to do than to be one of the teams that was ranked No. 1 during the course of the year.
Q. What was it like in the immediate aftermath of becoming No. 1? Was there added pressure?
A. No, not really. I think most teams are looking for the same thing – just to get better each night they play and to be ready to take advantage of a situation. Becoming No. 1 [during the season] is not our goal as coaches. That’s a collateral thing that just appears.
Most of the time it just means you have to answer a lot of questions from reporters and everybody else [chuckle]. But people are excited. The first time it happened, we had a huge reaction. A lot of the alumni went over with the team to Richmond when we were flying out of there to wish us well. We were going up to Notre Dame and ended up losing on the last play of the game.
But our job is to just focus on the next game under most circumstances. But when you add a No. 1 ranking to it, it’s just a little more complicated for coaches.
Q. Sorry to bring this up, but in 1982 you were No. 1 again before losing to Chaminade University in the game that many people consider one of the biggest upsets ever. Is that still a game you think about a lot?
A. No, I don’t think about it a lot, but people do bring it up. It was obviously a great win for Chaminade. We shot poorly and they played a heck of a game. You can’t take anything away from their effort. We played OK. We just didn’t make shots – and that happens.
Q. That’s a question with this year’s team – what happens when their shots aren’t falling?
A. I think every team today uses the 3-point shot more than they have in the past. And it’s a tougher shot. I don’t think there’s any doubt about that. What’s that saying about ‘living by the sword’?
Q. It’s hard to compare teams and eras, but do you see any similarities between your No. 1 teams and this year’s?
A. No, I think the team that Tony has built is so unique that it would be hard for any team to do what they do. Most people will stay with their same style of play rather than trying to adapt to it.
Q. You had a dominant player in Ralph Sampson, whereas this season’s team is built more on the sum of the parts.
A. Our team needed a go-to guy, a guy who could control the lane area for us. That’s a little different than the way Virginia’s playing now, but what they’re accomplishing with what they’re using is so doggone good.
Q. What impresses you the most about what Tony has done?
A. I think it’s the defensive intensity that allows him to create really good scoring opportunities at the other end of the floor because they do make some really good defensive plays that end up with them in the open court and getting to the basket. They create their own opportunities out there to allow them to do what they trying to do.
Q. How important was guard play for your great teams, and what do you make of the current UVA guards?
A. The thing they have is that their guards are kind of rangy – they’re not small guys. We had some small guys and some bigger guys at the guard spots. I thought that provided us with a good ability to change our defenses and our offenses. We were able to attack the other team both offensively and defensively.
Q. Do you have any advice for Coach Tony Bennett on handling the hoopla of being No. 1?
A. Just keep doing what you’re doing. Keep your focus. But you don’t have to tell him that. He’s very focused.