NEWS- Wahoo wha? Post-season unfamous tourney a tough sell
When the University of Virginia opened John Paul Jones Arena and promised Cavalier hoops fans a fantastic athletic experience, odds are the University wasn't imagining a scene like the end of the first half of the men's game March 24.
After 20 minutes of basketball during which most of the arena's 15,000 seats were empty– including several primo courtside cushions and entire luxury boxes– the Cavaliers went into halftime losing 37-29 to Old Dominion.
Welcome to round two of the fledgling College Basketball Invitational.
Just one season after winning a share of the Atlantic Coast Conference's regular season title and prompting pundits to wonder if the 2007 UVA men's basketball team might become the best in school history, the 2008 Cavaliers finished their regular season with a 14-15 record and with no invitation to the NCAA Tournament.
In the recent past, when UVA has had a mediocre season, the team had the consolation of competing in the second-tier National Invitational Tournament, a 32-team competition whose field is selected after the NCAA announces its 65-team slate. However, that was not an option to soothe the Cavaliers' wounds this postseason, as the NIT selection committee passed over the Wahoos in favor of such schools as Utah State, the University of North Carolina at Asheville, Stephen F. Austin State, and the pride of Moon Township, Pennsylvania, Robert Morris University.
It's the first time the Cavaliers have missed both the NCAA and NIT tournaments since the last year of Pete Gillen's tenure as head coach in 2005.
But for Cavalier fans craving a shred of March Madness, there are still games to be watched. That's because UVA is one of the 16 teams that make up the College Basketball Invitational.
But not many orange-and-blue faithful seem interested in watching the Cavs compete to be crowned what some have accurately identified as the 98th-best team in the country. At last Tuesday night's opening-round game at JPJ against Richmond, only 4,022 fans showed up, the lowest audience ever for a men's basketball game at JPJ and well short of this year's regular season average attendance of 12,087.
Even though the 'Hoos squeaked a 66-64 win over the Spiders, the Daily Progress noted that against Richmond, UVA looked "as excited about playing in the CBI as a vegan at a steakhouse." Even head coach Dave Leitao described his team as "listless."
It looked as if Monday night's game against Old Dominion– with an official attendance of 6,460– would be deja vu all over again.
During the first half, referees' foul calls were audible from the top of the lower seating bowl. Individual ODU fans' cries of "air ball!" could be heard over the din of crowd chatter. The only thing that raised anyone outside the student section from their seats was cheerleaders tossing free t-shirts.
Still, at halftime, fans were surprisingly sunny.
"Of course this game means something," said season-ticket holder Tommy Everett. "This crowd is comparable to a non-conference game, and I think fans realize that for players who haven't gotten to play in the NCAA or the NIT, this is a reward."
Robert Arbogast drove his orange-clad family two-and-a-half hours from Norfolk to catch the game.
"At $10 a ticket, this is the best chance you're going to get to see ACC basketball and see guys like Sean Singletary play in person," he said.
Fans like Arbogast didn't go home disappointed.
As UVA opened the second half with a 14-2 run to take the lead, the crowd began bubbling when Jamil Tucker made a layup to put the Cavaliers up 43-41 with 16:33 remaining– the fans and the team on the bench leapt to their feet.
That roar couldn't compare to the pandemonium unleashed when, with the clock winding down to zero, fourth-year Singletary, seeking to extend his UVA career for one more game, banked a three-pointer, stole the ball at half court, made a lay-up while being fouled, and sank the subsequent free-throw to give the 'Hoos the 80-76 win– giving Singletary six points in 21 seconds.
"I could tell no difference between this crowd and 15,000," said Leitao in the post-game press conference. "People who may not have been able to sit in the lower level for two years– for $10 they can do that– makes for excited fans."
Apparently, so do excited players.