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By Jeff White
jwhite@virginia.edu

CHARLOTTESVILLE — During ESPN2’s broadcast of UVa’s basketball game with Washington at last month’s Maui Invitational, announcers Bill Raftery and Jay Bilas raved several times about John Paul Jones Arena.

That was not hyperbole. JPJ, which opened before the 2006-07 season, is a magnificent facility. On game night, though, it’s a significant advantage to Tony Bennett’s team only when the arena is jumping, and that hasn’t happened a lot in recent years.

In 2006-07, average attendance for men’s basketball games at 14,593-seat JPJ was a robust 13,521. Not coincidentally, perhaps, Dave Leitao’s team went 16-1 at home.

In 2007-08, however, UVa finished with a 17-16 overall record, and average attendance at home games plummeted to 11,705. It fell again, to 10,219, in 2008-09, after which the University fired Leitao as coach.

In came Bennett, whose sideline demeanor and rapport with players differed dramatically from Leitao’s. The fan base applauded this change. Yet average attendance dipped again at home games, to 10,141, even though the Wahoos (15-16) won five more games in 2009-10 than they had in Leitao’s final season.

Cut to the present. Bennett’s second team is 4-3 after beating 15th-ranked and previously unbeaten Minnesota on Monday night in Minneapolis. UVa opens ACC play Sunday night against Virginia Tech in Blacksburg. Then come eight straight games at JPJ, starting Tuesday night against Radford.

UVa recently announced a variety of ticket options and packages for upcoming games at JPJ. Will these promotions lead to a surge in attendance this month? I hope so, because Bennett and his players deserve better.

The Cavaliers have played twice at JPJ this season, Nov. 12 against William and Mary and three nights later against USC Upstate. Official attendance: 10,003 for the opener and 7,751 for the second game.

This team deserves better. For the first time in years, the knucklehead factor in the program is non-existent, and Bennett’s seven freshmen are high-character young men who have formed the foundation of what figures to be an NCAA tournament team one day.

Bennett, after all, went 69-33, with two trips to the NCAAs and an NIT appearance, in his three seasons as Washington State’s head coach.

How soon Bennett’s breakthrough comes at UVa will ultimately be determined, of course, by his team’s performance on the court. But fans will play a role, too. The louder JPJ gets, the tougher it is for opponents to win there, and a capacity crowd is much more appealing to recruiting targets than is a half-filled arena.

UVa fans have shown in recent years that they will passionately support successful teams. See baseball, men’s lacrosse, football during Al Groh’s best seasons, men’s basketball during the inaugural season at JPJ.

That said, this is not a fan base known for its unstinting loyalty, and I say that as a UVa alumnus. Virginia faithful clamored for Groh’s dismissal, yet many fans have been reluctant to publicly support his successor, Mike London, by attending games.

In a stadium that seats 61,500, UVa’s football team averaged 45,459 fans at its seven home games this season. To me, the nadir came Oct. 30, when on a splendid fall afternoon fewer than 40,000 fans turned out to see the Cavaliers, who nonetheless upset the 22nd-ranked Miami Hurricanes 24-19.

Not so long ago, the ‘Hoos routinely won the large majority of their home games. Were those UVa teams better than the ones that finished 3-9 in 2009 and 4-8 this season? Without question. But they also benefited from the large crowds that flocked to Scott Stadium.

However fickle many UVa fans might be, it’s unrealistic to expect them to unconditionally support the school’s two most prominent teams. Both football and men’s basketball have struggled in recent years, particularly against Virginia Tech, and losing can break a fan base’s spirit. Tickets in those sports often aren’t cheap, either. But it’s also unrealistic to expect these teams to turn things around on their own.

I’ve never forgotten a basketball game I covered during the 1998-99 season, when I worked for the Richmond Times-Dispatch and wrote mostly about Virginia Tech athletics.

On Jan. 21, 1999, Tech played at Dayton, then one of its Atlantic 10 Conference rivals. Neither team was much that season.

The Hokies, headed to a 13-15 finish, were not, it’s safe to say, considered a marquee opponent by Dayton fans. The Flyers, meanwhile, had finished with a winning record only twice in the previous eight seasons, and they would go 11-17 in 1998-99. Yet that unremarkable game drew 11,661 fans to an arena that seats around 13,500.

At most schools, I realize, such support is the exception, not the rule. I realize, too, that the economy is down and that UVa has advanced to the NCAAs in men’s hoops only twice in the past 13 seasons and that students have myriad entertainment options and that tickets have been overpriced in some cases and that the reseating of Scott Stadium in 2008 produced enormous resentment among many fans.

I left the T-D in 2009 to work for UVa’s athletics department, so it’s clear where my allegiance now lies. Even as a newspaper reporter, though, I would have argued that fan support can help accelerate the rebuilding of a program.

Coaches share that belief, as you might expect. After being hired last December, London went to extraordinary lengths to win back fans who’d walked away in disgust late in Groh’s tenure. London’s efforts didn’t pay immediate dividends, as was clear from the empty seats at Scott Stadium this season, but he’ll keep trying.

Bennett has appealed for support, too. A season ago, he talked about the difference a raucous crowd can make at JPJ, “especially with the talent of the ACC. Any X-factor you can get, you need. Any little advantage is significant. So we need that.”

That was true then, and nothing has changed.

After practice Wednesday, I asked Bennett’s best player, senior forward Mike Scott, about the crowds at JPJ. When the fans don’t show, Scott said, “you’ve just got to make your own energy as a team.”

And when he comes out of the tunnel and looks around and sees a packed arena?

“It feels great,” Scott said. “The students are all here, parents, fans, everyone’s here, cheering us on. That’s like our sixth man, so I love it.”

The destination doesn’t have to be the only rewarding part of a journey. Come along for the ride.

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