Let's look back: It's New Year's Eve as 2014 approaches, and Virginia's men's basketball team sits at 9-4, fresh off a 35-point drubbing at Tennessee. The team appears to be treading water, where they have been most often since Ralph Sampson's departure: somewhere between a cellar-dweller and a run-of-the-mill Power Five program. But then the clock hit midnight, and everything changed.
Fast-forward over three years, and the Cavaliers have just suffered their first double-digit loss since that Tennessee game, and a panic is slowly arising in a fan base that's not accustomed to back to back losses.
Hold it right there. Instead, 'Hoos fans should be feeling calm, patient, and grateful.
If fans take a moment to remember where the team was just three years ago, a last-second home loss to a talented Florida State team and an overtime loss at the Oakland Zoo should not be cause for alarm. Even at this point last year, Virginia was on their way to a 2-3 start in ACC play, with losses to mediocre Florida State, Georgia Tech, and Virginia Tech squads and no marquee road win like this year's team grabbed at Louisville. Last year's team ended up as top seed in the NCAA Tournament.
Sure, this team doesn't have a first team All-American like Malcolm Brogdon to lead the resurgence. But the team is still rated fifth on KenPom.com, a highly respected advanced metrics site, which is cause for optimism.
Virginia fans have quickly learned all too well that seasons are made and broken in March where anything can happen, and coach Tony Bennett's defensive system will keep the team close in every game.
Virginia fans must also stay patient. Expectations for this season had to be re-calibrated after the dismissal of Austin Nichols. No program can lose arguably their most valuable player after the graduation of a signature class and expect to maintain the same level of play.
With how close the losses have been, having a talented player like Nichols playing big minutes in a struggling frontcourt would have this team at 14-1 or even 15-0. The team was constructed as if Nichols would play a big role, and to fault coach Bennett or the players for how this season plays out would be an unfair standard.
Fans must stay patient as players like Mamadi Diakite and Jarred Reuter face an accelerated development schedule. Patience until the end of this season will quickly be rewarded: with London Perrantes the lone expected departure after this season, a senior-laden team with incredibly talented underclassmen should have Virginia back as a top-five team next season.
Most importantly, fans must maintain perspective and continue to be grateful for where the program is situated. Since New Year's Day 2014, no Power Five program outside of Kentucky has won more games than Virginia's 91. But while blue-bloods like Kentucky and Duke pile up wins as expected, Virginia's dominance is the only one that exudes inexplicable brilliance.
The traditional powers of college basketball have produced sustained success through the modern template for building a national title contender: bring in top-10 recruits and produce top-10 draft picks. Virginia has done neither, making the players, coach Bennett, and the program all the more likable.
After one NCAA Tournament appearance in eight seasons, Bennett has transformed the program into one with three combined ACC regular season and tournament titles and two NCAA Tournament one-seeds in three years. Falling short of ACC titles and Final Fours has become a failure in the eyes of some Wahoos fans that used to beg for NCAA tournament appearances.
So Virginia fans: I urge you to enjoy this young, goofy team regardless of the losses that are bound to come ahead. Just remember how fortunate we are to have an elite basketball program with an elite coach.
It's not always worse to lose with dignity than to win at Duke. Withstanding the "rocky" start this season by the high standards that Bennett has set, two things remain certain for Virginia Cavaliers basketball: the present is bright, and the future is brighter.