Virginia basketball suffering through pains of inexperience

Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 18, 2011; 11:55 PM

CHARLOTTESVILLE - With just more than two minutes remaining in Saturday's game at Duke, Virginia sophomore guard Jontel Evans dribbled into the lane, turned and fired a bounce pass out to the wing.

By that point, the focus that enabled the Cavaliers to build a 10-point lead against the then-No. 1 team in the country had waned. Virginia trailed by 13 and was scrambling to manufacture some small measure of positive momentum before the final horn sounded.

Evans's pass bounced between junior guard Sammy Zeglinski and freshman guard Joe Harris and out of bounds. It was Virginia's 13th and final turnover of the day, one last indignity in a contest Virginia had controlled a short while earlier. Exasperated, Evans cocked his head to the Cameron Indoor Stadium ceiling and let out a deep sigh.

"For 30 minutes, we had 'em on the ropes and we were playing great," Harris said following Virginia's 76-60 defeat. "And the last 10 minutes of the game we just kind of collapsed."

Because of its own inexperience and lack of depth - as well as the talent of its opponent - such a collapse might not have come as too great a surprise. Virginia's degree of success the remainder of the season, then, will hinge largely on how quickly its players mature and will be measurable not necessarily in wins and losses, but in the team's ability to limit such implosions from reoccurring.

On Wednesday, Virginia (10-7, 1-2 ACC) will play at Boston College (13-5, 3-1), a veteran squad that has exceeded outside expectations thus far under first-year Coach Steve Donahue. The Eagles' starting lineup includes three seniors and junior guard Reggie Jackson, the team's leading scorer (19.6 points per game).

Another senior, forward Corey Raji, is averaging nearly 28 minutes per contest in reserve.

"There's a very good basketball IQ among these guys that people probably didn't realize," Donahue said Monday in a teleconference with ACC reporters. "But they're good basketball players, and most importantly they've been through 100 college basketball games together and I think they have a pretty good feel for each other."

That feel helped the Eagles adjust relatively quickly to the new system Donahue implemented when he came from Cornell to succeed Al Skinner last spring.

The Eagles have not been a model of consistency - they lost at home to Yale and on the road to Rhode Island - but they coalesced enough to earn victories over No. 11 Texas A&M and California, triumphs few league followers would have predicted at the season's outset.

Boston College was predicted to finish No. 10 in the ACC in the conference's preseason media poll. The Eagles, who dropped a 72-71 decision at Miami on Saturday, possess a top 40 RPI.

Virginia (RPI: 131) realized some early success with road wins at Minnesota and Virginia Tech but has been less distinguished recently. It has dropped consecutive ACC games - to North Carolina and Duke - after holding leads of at least nine points in the second half of each contest.

Since leading rebounder Mike Scott (ankle) left the lineup with his season-ending injury, the Cavaliers have been outrebounded in six of eight games. Operating at times out of a four-guard lineup, the coaches have implored the team's guards to concentrate more on seeking out rebounds.

The Cavaliers were outrebounded by an average of nearly six boards in their seven losses, though they know that's just one of the areas that need to be addressed moving forward.

"Certainly, you can point to a lot of things . . . but imposing your will and being able to really in our defensive system try to outlast your opponent, whether you're at home or on the road, that takes time," Virginia Coach Tony Bennett said. "And sometimes you grasp it.

"But the second you think you've arrived, that's when you haven't. I always tell them, you're never that far away from playing a really good game on both ends of the floor and being a good team, nor are you that far away from being not so good when you let things slide."

Cavaliers note: Jackson sprained his ankle during Boston College's loss at Miami, but Donahue said Monday that Jackson "is going to be fine" and is expected to play against Virginia.

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