The third Friday in March broke over Charlottesville, Virginia, the same way I imagine it does over a lot of places this time of year: rainy, cold, and full of anticipation. The University of Virginia men’s basketball team headed into its first-round matchup with the 15th-seeded Belmont Bruins—a surprise qualifier after having upset Murray State 88–87 to win the Ohio Valley Conference—as a heavy favorite. Prior to a minor late-season swoon (a heartbreaking road loss to Louisville earlier this month, a minor upset at the hands of UNC in the ACC tournament last week), UVA had spent much of the 2014–15 season widely regarded as the second-best team in the country, behind the comically dominant Kentucky Wildcats. While no one in Charlottesville is thrilled at the prospect of facing an always-dangerous Michigan State in the second round, the Cavaliers’ bracket is fairly inviting, and hopes are sanguine for the team’s first Final Four trip in 31 years.
I started teaching at the University of Virginia this past fall, and the above paragraph is the most I’ve ever known about any college basketball team going into an NCAA Tournament in my life. I’m an enormous professional basketball fan who loves the NBA with a compulsive intensity that borders on sickness, and yet prior to this year I’d never really gotten into college basketball, or even really gotten it. That isn’t to say I don’t watch—I get as wrapped up in the tournament as anyone. But my viewing has always been less about rooting than dispassionate scouting. I watch the teams with the kids who are going pro.
Last year I watched Kansas to check out Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid, Oklahoma State to check out Marcus Smart (drafted by my Celtics!), and Kentucky to check out pretty much everyone. Aside from when there have been bracket-related, um, “spoils” in the offing, I’ve rarely watched a major college basketball game with a rooting interest, other than Whoever’s Playing Duke.
For college hoops true believers, therefore, I haven’t just been watching the sport for the wrong reasons—I’ve been watching it for the worst reasons. For most of my life college basketball has basically been an inconvenience: It was fun watching Wiggins play against Jabari Parker last year, but I would have rather been watching him play against James Harden. While I’d like to say this is a purely ethical stance, it’s at least as much cultural happenstance. I grew up in the northeast where, the occasional Hail Mary and quirky hockey tournament aside, college sports are far outstripped in popularity by pro sports. As an undergraduate I went to NYU; in my personal memory “college” and “basketball” evoke an unfortunate series of overpriced trips to Midtown to see the Knicks.
But, this year, I’ve paid a lot of attention to UVA basketball: I’ve gone to games at John Paul Jones Arena, I’ve watched games at friends’ and colleagues’ houses, at bars, at home by myself. It has been a remarkable season, and a remarkable conversion experience, if not always an easy one.
UVA plays a brand of basketball that an untrained eye is tempted to brand as “boring,” a facile if not entirely inaccurate description. Academics like to talk about methodology, and the UVA men’s team is a model of method. Its style of play tends to inspire vague and deeply unsexy backhanded compliments like “efficient” and “mistake-free.” Periodically throughout the season I’ve tried to think of NBA analogues and come up short. In their bland, oppressive excellence they recall the mid-2000s Spurs teams; in their smothering defense and numbingly low point totals, the mid-1990s Knicks. But the Cavs don’t have a star as historically transcendent as peak Tim Duncan, nor a figure as harrowingly charismatic as a Starks, or a Mason, or an Oakley.
UVA plays a defense called the “pack line,” a version of man-to-man that constantly moves to seal off driving lanes and prevent access to the paint (Grantland’s Brett Koremenos offers an excellent primer here). For teams that lack preternaturally sophisticated ball movement—which is most college teams—the pack line produces a sort of war of attrition each time down the court, long possessions in which opponents either turn the ball over or, in the best-case scenario, settle for a low-percentage shot. The pack line was developed by UVA coach Tony Bennett’s father, Dick Bennett, but the 2014–15 Cavaliers have brought it closest to apotheosis, a cruelly dominant perfection. Twice this season UVA doubled the score of an ACC opponent, beating Georgia Tech 57–28, then Wake Forest 70–34.
For a spectator the pack line is an acquired taste. As a general rule if your team’s trademark set sounds like something that inspired Knute Rockne to invent the forward pass, you don’t come to games expecting to see the Showtime Lakers, or the “7 Seconds or Less” Suns. One of the things most fans like best about basketball is, you know, baskets, and the most brutal aspect of the pack line isn’t watching the Cavs play it, it’s watching everyone else play against it. But contrary to myth, UVA isn’t some recalcitrant brick factory: The team’s adjusted offensive efficiency—there’s that word again—scrapes into the Top 25 of Ken Pomeroy’s rankings, and sweet-shooting big guards Malcolm Brogdon and the currently convalescent Justin Anderson can fill it up with the best of them.
Learning to love college hoops has been an uneven and still incomplete process for me, but there have been times where I’ve really felt like I’ve finally gotten it: the electric atmosphere at the Louisville game I attended, where this happened; the way the energy of Charlottesville shifts drastically on game days; the way the team’s shining success, in some small way, helped take the edge off of a school year that has been rife with public trauma, from tragic losses to its student body to Rolling Stone’s explosive, hugely controversial investigation into campus sexual assault. UVA students and alums love their school in a way I might have been cynical about before actually witnessing it, at JPJ Arena and everywhere else: It’s open-hearted, generous, productive. In the wake of another horrifying incident earlier this week, the speed and care with which UVA students rallied to support a classmate who’d been left bloodied by law enforcement was moving and by now expected. UVA students care about each other, and this extends to the folks who play for their sports teams: after all, why shouldn’t it?
When I filled out my NCAA bracket this year, like I have every year since middle school, it was a new experience. Unable to disentangle reason from sentiment, unsure that I even should, I chose a UVA vs. Kentucky final, the matchup I’m most dreading. If it happens, the national media narratives will be sanctimonious, cheap, and predictable: UVA the public Ivy that plays the “right way,” Kentucky the mercenary phenoms twirling John Wooden’s coffin.
But I really like Kentucky—I like their players, and I like John Calipari, and respect him in a one-eyed-king-of-the-blind sort of way. I want to watch nine McDonald’s All Americans play on a team together; I watch basketball for basketball’s sake, not to flatter my own fantasies of self-worth. In any other situation I’d be rooting for the Wildcats, and if UVA goes out earlier than I’d like, I’ll be rooting for UK immediately. Until then I’ll hope to be watching Karl-Anthony Towns, Willie Cauley-Stein, et al. try to break the pack line on April 6, and I’ll hope to watch them fail. And of course, no matter what happens, I’ll hope to watch them play for the Celtics next fall.