Is this the best Virginia team ever?

Counting ACC tournament action, Virginia has now won 24 of its past 26 games against conference opponents. That nets out to a .923 win percentage, so even as my colleague Jeff Goodman continues to doggedly pick against the Cavaliers in advance of every game (just kidding, Jeff!) these numbers do compel me to ask a question:

Is this the greatest Virginia team in the program's history?

Thanks to the superb archive of box scores maintained by the good people in UVA's media relations office, we can address this question with some degree of confidence. Before we dive into the analytics from yesteryear, however, a rather more sweeping reminder is in order about the storied Virginia teams of the early 1980s.


Playing against Ralph Sampson was like being a kid and playing against your dad in the driveway. You had no chance.

"-- Jay Bilas

Between 1980 and 1983, the Cavaliers earned three consecutive NCAA tournament No. 1 seeds and posted a 37-5 record in regular-season ACC play. This run coincided with Ralph Sampson's sophomore, junior and senior seasons.

Sampson played the college game as a 7-foot-4 athlete, and I can't help feeling this distinction is too easily elided when we talk about the former Virginia star. He wasn't just a "7-footer;" he was 7-foot-4. The difference in height between Sampson and Jahlil Okafor is the same as that between Okafor and Jerian Grant.

What was it like to play against someone with Sampson's size and ability? Fortunately, one of my co-workers can answer that question. Jay Bilas arrived at Duke as a freshman in 1982-83, and in the first ACC game of Jay's career, his Blue Devils faced Virginia.

I called Jay to see if by chance he remembered that game all these years later, and before I could even finish saying hello he told me this:

"Playing against Ralph Sampson was like being a kid and playing against your dad in the driveway. You had no chance."

The box score from that game backs up Jay's memory. Sampson recorded a 36-14 double-double against Mike Krzyzewski's team, and keep in mind the game was at Duke.

Armed with our proper understanding of Sampson's impact, let's consider the great Virginia teams coached by Terry Holland in the early 1980s. It turns out each of these three teams left a distinct legacy, in part because the sport itself was experiencing enormous changes from year to year.