The media requests kept coming: the cover of Sports Illustrated, national TV spots, reporters flocking to Charlottesville to talk to the 1980-81 Cavaliers before the most anticipated season in program history. But when People magazine requested a photo shoot with an image of 7-foot-4 center Ralph Sampson standing with his head through the basketball hoop, former UVA head coach Terry Holland drew the line.
“We said, ‘No, we’re not going that far,’ and our guys rallied around Ralph and tried to protect him from the press,” Holland remembers. “It worked to our advantage, in a way, because no one had to feel jealous of the publicity.”
Instead, the defending NIT champions—led by returning veterans Jeff Lamp (the No. 15 pick in the 1981 draft), Lee Raker and sensational second-year center Sampson—directed their energy onto the court, amassing a 23-0 record before a February loss, and continuing on to play in the program’s first Final Four. Many have called it the best season in program history—until now.
While this year’s Cavaliers haven’t graced the pages of People magazine yet, they know all about the hype accompanying their season-opening 19-game win streak. After winning the ACC regular-season and tournament titles last spring before losing in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament as a No. 1 seed, this year’s squad entered the year ranked ninth in the nation in ESPN’s preseason poll.
Some pundits—and a few Cavalier players themselves—thought that ranking might be underestimating sixth-year head coach Tony Bennett’s team. And they were right. What seemed like a squad with question marks, particularly how to fill the holes left by graduating fourth-years Joe Harris and Akil Mitchell, has morphed into a powerful team that is off to its best start—26-1—since 1980-81.
This year, UVA held the nation’s No. 2 ranking for multiple weeks and owned the best record in the expanded ACC—arguably the most difficult conference in the country—throughout the season. Whether the games are broadcast on ESPN, the ACC Network or local radio, announcers can’t help but compare this year’s team to 1980-81. Sampson himself has appeared more frequently in the JPJ seats this season, Virginia basketball’s most iconic figure merging the past and present.
According to several former players and coaches, as well as members of this year’s team, the similarities between the two squads extend beyond wins. But the differences are also there, including how the postseason might play out. Can this year’s Hoos return to the Final Four after a 31-year absence? Can they capture that elusive national title?
Regardless of the outcome, one commonality can’t be denied: Excitement over Virginia basketball has again reached a fever pitch, and the program built by Bennett shows no signs of slowing down.
For UVA basketball fans, a return to the top has been a long time coming. While the Cavaliers earned three consecutive No. 1 seeds in the NCAA tournament between 1980 and 1983, their dominance began to fade after a second Final Four appearance in 1984. Several mid-’90s teams had success, but nothing like the early ’80s and today.
Much of that ’80s success came at the hands of Sampson. The Harrisonburg native arrived in Charlottesville in 1979 and played a solid first year. But 1980-81 saw his emergence as a star, helping lead a fast-paced offense that stifled opponents.
“We had a unique offensive team because we had Ralph,” Lamp says, explaining that with Sampson often drawing the double team in the center other players were left open (and Sampson, with his height advantage, could easily find them—or shoot the ball himself). “Defensively, a lot of the other teams’ coverage revolved around Ralph, so we were able to gamble a bit more. We were able to funnel players into the center and with Ralph back there, we had huge help.”
The team’s depth didn’t hurt, either. Aside from captains Raker and Lamp, a returning All-American, the roster including the talents of third-year Jeff Jones (whose son is on the current team) and speedy first-year point guards Ricky Stokes and Othell Wilson.
Sampson shifted the spotlight onto those teammates whenever possible, a characteristic that UVA athletics director Craig Littlepage (an assistant coach on the 1980-81 team) sees today as well.
“1980-81 was most notable in how Ralph approached the game: he didn’t want the attention on himself; he wanted it on his team,” Littlepage says. “That’s how this program under Tony is now—it’s all about how the team does, and understanding that on a given night, one or two or three will step up and have significant roles in the team’s success.”
This year’s Cavaliers don’t have one dominant player like Sampson; rather they have a talented, deep roster, as evidenced by the fact that six different players have led the Cavaliers in scoring on a particular night and five players are averaging at least seven points per game.
“We never know who it’ll be that night,” fourth-year Darion Atkins says. “If one guy steps up, we go to him and we try to be unselfish. That’s the beauty of our team: We have a bunch of guys that can do different things.”
That depth, combined with Bennett’s famed pack-line defense, which has led the nation in scoring defense throughout the season, has frustrated opponents. And just as with the 1980-81 team, as the wins have mounted, so has the attention, a realization that both teams’ coaching staffs and players tried to ignore.
Sports Illustrated and the Hoos
A fixture on Sports Illustrated covers in the early ’80s, Virginia basketball made its return to the SI spotlight in March of this year.
“We really didn’t think about [the spotlight],” Raker remembers. “We were building on winning the NIT and we really expected a lot of ourselves. We never talked about [the win streak]; we were trying to keep that in perspective and worry about who we were going to play next.”
When the media descended, Sampson noted how the UVA staff kept it under control. On his arrival in Charlottesville, Sampson says the media office was “maybe 1,000 square feet, with one or two people. But over the next years, it grew into a whole building and staff.” That staff limited player interviews to Wednesdays so the student-athletes could focus on academics and basketball.
While player interviews are more frequent these days, Bennett preaches that same mentality to his squad, reminding them that the next opponent is what matters, not the number of wins, records or media coverage.
“We don’t really look at rankings,” third-year Evan Nolte says. “Coach Bennett told us a quote from a junior golfer, ‘If there are expectations, that just means you’re close to something great.’ The only pressure we feel is holding ourselves to a high standard and being able to play the way that Coach wants us to and doing the things we need to do to win games.”
Still, whether it was pressure or a lesser performance, both Cavalier teams suffered last-minute defeats to end their win streaks. For the elder squad, the game at Notre Dame on Feb. 22, 1981, was a tight battle between the Cavaliers and the 11th-ranked Fighting Irish, led by All-American senior Orlando Woolridge. “We had the game won, until Woolridge hit a fadeaway baseline jumper, a very difficult shot, and it shocked us, like ‘Man, we lost. Unbelievable,’” says Jim Larranaga, then an assistant on Holland’s staff and now Miami’s head coach. Incidentally, Larranaga’s Hurricanes nearly ended UVA’s season-opening win streak at 12 games after pushing the Cavaliers to double overtime before losing 89-80.
And like it or not, the streak might’ve played a role. “In some ways, so much focus was on the winning streak and being ranked No. 1 that it may have taken away from just playing well,” Lamp says. “In retrospect, if we had lost early on, that probably wouldn’t have been a bad thing.”
For this year’s Cavaliers, the undefeated buildup culminated in ESPN’s College GameDay broadcasting live from Charlottesville on the day of No. 2 Virginia’s battle with fourth-ranked Duke. “That stuff is fine, but it can’t distract you,” Bennett says of the buzz, noting that it’s nice for fans but shouldn’t steer the Cavaliers away from remembering what had gotten them to that point.
UVA stayed focused, leading by as much as 11 in the second half, until the final minutes, when a barrage of Duke 3-pointers sealed a six-point Blue Devil victory. “There definitely is pressure that comes with being undefeated,” Brogdon said afterward. “You want to win. You want to keep it going.”
While the 1980-81 squad lost several more games, they made a strong run in the NCAA tournament, losing to UNC in the Final Four—a team they’d beaten twice earlier in the season in memorable match-ups that the former players and coaches recalled as their favorites of the year.
This year’s team rebounded well after their loss, beating UNC in Chapel Hill two days later. In the postseason, they’ll hope for another top seed, and to advance further than last year’s team. If this isn’t the year for a Final Four return, the good news is that Bennett has built a powerhouse program that seems poised to dominate for years to come.
“I don’t see why this team couldn’t continue to play the way they play, every year,” Holland says. “I think they’ll do an excellent job in recruiting—you’ve already seen the jump in the recruiting impact … he’s going to be able to get a very good player who wants to play his style of play and graduate from UVA”
“As long as Coach Bennett is there, it’s hard for me to envision them dipping off much,” Joe Harris, now playing for the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers, says. “If he keeps bringing in these talented, hard-working guys who buy into what he wants—maybe there won’t be years they start 20-1, but I think they’ll consistently be at a high level and in the top tier of the ACC.”
1980-81 versus today, who would win?
“It’s hard to compare eras, but we didn’t have the 3-point line or shot clock … I do know this, I would’ve hated playing this year’s team the way they D it up—they would’ve given me fits. I do think, given the kind of shooters that we had and with Ralph in the center, the 3-point line would’ve been big for us, because we had such a presence in the center with Ralph. It was difficult for people to guard him one-on-one, so once you double-teamed him in the post we were a good passing team. But I wouldn’t have wanted to play this year’s team.”
“Both teams would be very tired and beat up by the end. It would be a real test, because they won’t back down and we wouldn’t either. I’m not sure who would win —whoever could make more shots. They’d try to keep us from running and we’d try to keep them from being methodical. If I were walking out there with Ralph, I’d definitely think we were going to win, because that’s what we thought every time we walked out.”
“Well, my first response is it would be a very low-scoring game, because both coaches played very conservatively. It would be a game in the 50s. But I think it would come down to who executed the best in the closing minutes: who makes their free throws.”
“I think that the 1980-81 team was unique in that it was a team that started the year with those high expectations, being No. 1 in the country, the odds-on favorite for a conference or national championship.
This year’s team has moved its way up the ladder, having high expectations to start the year, but not being the No. 1 team in the country. But with what they’ve done, they’ve ascended into an admirable position. A lot of work is yet to
“I’d like to think it’d be a great game and maybe two overtimes at least and that Lamp or Raker would make a three, which they never had a chance to do in college, to win the game.”
“Everybody has those questions over the years as far as comparisons of players, coaches, teams. But I don’t think you can do that. I’d say our team was much more dominant than this team and we would’ve killed them, but this year’s team will tell you they’re better. … It’s not fair to this current team to try to compare to our team, because it’s a different time and era—it’s unfair to compare.”
Virginia Basketball: Then and Now
Players and coaches from the 1980-81 team weigh in on their team and share their impressions on the today’s program.
Center Ralph Sampson, on the impact of national and fan attention on the team in the early ‘80s:
“There were no cell phones—it was a whole different era. No one walked around with a phone in their pocket, so I was a normal student as much as I could be. We rode the buses to class or drove to class With U Hall, it’s not like where everything was a seat – it was a bench. If the bench had room for ten, there might’ve been 20 people crowded in the aisles. The student section was rabid in U Hall.”
Craig Littlepage, UVA athletics director and assistant coach for the 1980-81 team, on the basketball program’s long-term outlook:
“I think the goal is to have sustained success at a very high level with all of our sports. [in basketball] it’s tough to do and if you look around the ACC, UNC and Duke have done just that with very few exceptions over the past 35 years or so, but there was an era where Wake Forest was the hunted, a point where Maryland was at top of the ACC, and other programs were in that very admirable position. It’s a tough thing to do to get to this point but it’s an even more difficult thing to sustain it. And to have that level of high achievement over a long period of time—that’s what makes it fun. That’s what the true test of a competitor is and Tony Bennett has that kind of competitive fire—that’s what he came to the UVA to do.”
Forward Lee Raker, on the differences between this year’s team and the Cavaliers of 1980-81:
I think because of our personnel, we were faster-paced. We would look to run—when you have a 7-foot-4 guy in the middle getting a lot of rebounds, that gives you that luxury. It creates a lot of opportunity to push the ball up and play a faster pace. The year before Ralph got there, we were much slower, more along the lines of being more patient. [This year’s team] makes everyone work against them on both ends of the floor—they wear them down on both ends. After a while, the guys they’re playing against just get tired and can’t execute on either end.
Guard Jeff Lamp, on dealing with the media spotlight:
“Well there was a ton of attention, but it’s all kind of relative. By today’s standards, it was nothing – we didn’t even have ESPN or SportsCenter highlights. Certainly not Twitter or anything like that. But for us in terms of the interviews and newspapers, it was what we knew. For us to be on the cover of Sports Illustrated—that was huge. Again, it’s all relative now, but that was a big deal. It kind of added to the overall aura of what we were trying to do. If these guys went back to our era, they’d laugh at the amount of attention.”
Ralph Sampson, on what Tony Bennett is building at Virginia:
“He’s the perfect fit for UVA basketball. He’s building something special and it’s taken him 5 to 6 years to do that. I think Tony is building that type of player who will have the academics but also athletic culture. He’s very defensive-oriented and definitive. I don’t think Tony will recruit a blue-chip kid who’s one and done; he doesn’t want those type of players. He’s building a program that will have solid citizens who will play and perform in his system. And he has great assistant coaches.”
Former UVA Head Coach Terry Holland, on what he and the team did to kick back and have fun:
“I can tell you that we had a great time with those kids in 1980-81—we were always pulling practical jokes on each other, coaches on the players and vice versa. I had a gorilla costume that I brought out every Halloween to scare the women’s basketball team and then come up with something to deal with our varsity team as well. We had a lot of fun together.”
Jim Larrañaga, Miami Head coach and former UVA assistant, on the 1980-81 season:
“Whenever you have a player of Ralph Sampson’s caliber, you’ll get a lot of attention for the individual, but when Ralph was also surrounded by terrific players, we were one of the preseason favorites, along with North Carolina, both in ACC and national rankings, and we played like that. We had two games against UNC in the regular season that were very memorable. The game at Chapel Hill, which they talked about a lot this week because Virginia had not beaten a UNC team in Chapel Hill since 1981, and I remember that game being like a highlight reel. One great play after the other – Ralph was great, Jeff Lamp, Ricky Stokes, Othell Wilson and UNC’s players—Al Wood, James Worthy and Sam Perkins—were all fantastic that night. It was an OT game and a one-point victory for us. I remember that being a tremendous win and then we got them again in Charlottesville later in the year, in February. I think we won by 14. But then, we had to play them in Philly in the national semifinals/Final Four, and they beat us. So even though it was a spectacular year, we ended up losing in the Final Four. That left a bitter taste in our mouth.”
Guard Jeff Lamp, on what he thinks Tony Bennett is building in Charlottesville:
“I have as much respect for Tony Bennett as a coach and a man as anyone I know. I’ve been fortunate to have some interaction with him in the summers with one of the programs we do with the NBA Players Association—he’s a great man and I’m so happy for his success. It looks like he’s getting to the point where he can recruit the type of players he wants and that’s always a new coach’s problem, especially in the ACC, to make your mark recruiting and find guys who are willing to play defense. It looks to me like the way they play and the level of success that they’ve had over the past few years, I think he’s laying a strong foundation to have a great program for as long as he wants to be there. I think the way that they play, if they end up getting Joe Harris-type players consistently and people that are skilled and talented offensively, I think the sky is the limit. I think he’s done the hard work of the building and now he’s got good kids who buy into it – great players, athletic, talented players, so I’ll be anxious to see how this season plays out. I’m very proud to have been a UVA Cavalier given where they are now and what he’s doing with the program.”
Terry Holland, on the end of his team’s 23-game winning streak to start the 1980-81 season:
“We ended up losing to Notre Dame in a really close game where we led almost the whole time and right at the end, it fell apart on us. That was the first time I saw our team feel the pressure of being the hunted. Up until then we were happy where we were and having fun. We ended up losing three games before the season ended, including Notre Dame, and then we lost to UNC in the national semifinals. They were a team we’d already played twice and I think that’s a bit of an advantage for them. You hate to run into a team like that at that time of the year because the advantage is somewhat with them. Al Woods was unstoppable—we tried every D we had and we couldn’t find a way to stop him.”
Jim Larrañaga, on comparisons between the 1980-81 UVA team and this year’s team:
“I’d say the similarities begin with the head coach. I think Terry Holland and Tony Bennett have a similar defensive philosophy—they both were coaches that believed in protecting the basket. Tony’s teams do the same thing, night in and night out, the defense and offense don’t change. The biggest difference: they don’t have a player like Ralph this year—they have a lot of very good players, but I don’t think any will be first team All-American whereas Ralph was that and national Player of the Year. And Jeff Lamp was right behind Ralph. I think Virginia has a group of guys who are very, very unselfish and very team-oriented and have bought into Coach Bennett’s style.”