For the Virginia Cavaliers, it has been four long seasons since their last trip to the NCAA tournament.
In fact, Virginia has been through more coaches (three) this millennium than they have trips to the Big Dance (two).
Still, hope springs eternal—in Charlottesville hope is spelled S-C-O-T-T.
Mike Scott, the senior big man, has even caught the attention to the ACC media. The Cavaliers were pegged to finish fourth in the 2011-12 conference.
Scott had been a talented player on the Cavaliers' roster since the moment he set foot in the John Paul Jones Arena. However, being a leader and working hard were traits that Scott had to learn on the job.
Scott admitted that he sometimes settled too much early on; he was not taking the opportunity to teach others. Last year, with so much youth on the team, Scott knew he had to do his part to lead. His help led to consecutive victories on the road against Minnesota and Virginia Tech.
It looked like the Cavaliers were finally going places—until Scott needed surgery on his ankle. Suddenly, Virginia went from the precipice of evolution into a quagmire of frustration.
Meltdown in a Hurricane
Despite almost no post presence, the Cavaliers battled throughout the ACC season. They finished seventh with a sweep over the Hokies that probably kept Virginia Tech out of the NCAA tournament.
As they headed into the ACC tournament, the Cavaliers won four out of five games. They were 16-14 and looked to be positioning themselves for a potential NIT bid, especially after a good showing against Miami.
During the game, Virginia battled with the Hurricanes and began turning what looked to be a close game into a blowout. They secured a secured a 10-point lead in the final minute—then watched the lead evaporate. It was one of the biggest collapses in the history of the program.
The reason was clear: No one was willing to step up and make the big free throws when they were needed.
It was not hard for Virginia fans to remember Scott calmly sinking those free throws in Blacksburg—prior to his season-ending surgery—and to wonder what could have been.
Lofty Goals for Mike Scott
Well, wonder no longer. Virginia is back and they have more than just Scott—they have expectations.
Scott is expected to be the same double-double machine who was averaging just over 15 points and 10 rebounds per game before his surgery. Those are lofty goals—particularly for someone that has been in rehab for so long.
Since last December, Scott has had to wait patiently. He watched Virginia's struggles against Miami and was unable to help. As he developed bad eating habits and his weight went up, the frustration mounted.
Now Scott is back and, thanks to Subway sandwiches, is even leaner than before. He has a great deal on his plate as a team leader.
Prior to the season, he admitted that nerves would be a factor. That seemed obvious with his three-of-nine performance from the floor during a season-opener against South Carolina State.
If he can round into form, he has the pieces around to him to make some noise.
An Increase in Team Talent
Fortunately for Virginia, other players were thrust into roles—and forced to grow in them—because of Scott's injury.
Joe Harris, a freshman at the time, learned not only to play out of position, but how to carry the offense.
Center Assane Sene, often a liability on offense previously, learned to catch the ball better. He put up some of his best offensive numbers to date.
Sammy Zeglinski and Jontel Evans solidified their point guard skills and provided some great three-point shots throughout the season.
While Scott can certainly make their jobs easier with his return, they must still contribute. Bennett's philosophy is based on everyone playing a role in the pack-line defense.
Virginia must continue to outwork their opponents, even with the increase in talent.
Returning to The Early Magic
The Cavaliers have Scott, but his return is not enough.
Now Virginia must work to recapture the early magic of last season and build upon it. They must prepare for adversity and handle it even better than they did before.
Otherwise, Virginia's collapse last year against Miami will pale in comparison to what the Cavaliers have before them now.
Nothing will be given to them. Even with the newfound respect, Scott and his teammates need to earn it. That process begins now.