Can Virginia do it again?
That's a primary question on the eve of this week's Atlantic Coast Conference tournament.
Virginia, which finished sixth last year and then put down North Carolina State, Maryland and North Carolina to win the tournament, showed remarkable consistency in a 77-68 upset of Maryland Saturday night.
The Maryland loss gave the unpredictable Terps a fourth-place finish and the toughest draw for the tournament starting Thursday at Greensboro, N.C.
The Terps will play fifth-place N.C. State at 8 p.m. Thursday, with the winner facing regular season champion North Carolina at 7 p.m. Friday. In the other brackets, Wake Forest plays Virginia at 1:30 p.m. Thursday, followed by Clemson against Duke.
Wake, which lost its final three league games, tied Clemson for second place. A draw yesterday rewarded Wake with the No. 2 seeding. Duke and Virginia each finished at 2-10, but Duke got the No. 6 seeding by virtue of two early season wins over the injury-racked Cavaliers.
But, now Virginia is playing as it did for the final six weeks of last season, patient offense and an aggressive, team defense.
Maryland, which had won six of seven games prior to Saturday night, appeared on the way to consistency.
But Maryland showed a lack of mental preparedness Saturday night as Virginia out rebounded the Terps, 38-24. When Maryland beat Virginia earlier, the Terps had 41 rebounds, more than any other opponent accumulated against the rugged Cavaliers this season.
"The one thing I thought we would do was beat them on the boards," said Maryland coach Lefty Driesell. "The big thing about rebounding is desire."
But Driesell scoffs at the idea of the loss to Virginia will hurt his Terps that much in the draw. 'If we're going to win the tournament, we're going to have to beat North Carolina either the second day or the third," said Driesell about losing a chance at being in the bracket opposite the Tar Heels.
But Driesell contended that the Virginia loss gave Maryland a record that will hurt the Terps' chances for an at-large NCAA bid. Maryland is 19-7 overall, fourth in the ACC behind North Carolina, and Clemson and Wake Forest, both with 8-4 ACC marks.
Clemson is ineligible to go to the NCAA tourney. Wake finished at 20-6 overall including a loss at home to Maryland. A victory at Virginia Saturday would have made the Terps 20-6 too, including seven wins in their last eight game. Wake dropped its final three games.
Adding to Maryland's uncertainty is the status of Steve Sheppard, who's nursing an achilles tendon injury. He will practice today and whether he can play Thursday will be determined by how well he can run. He has not practiced for a month, and he has been fitted with a special sneaker to lessen the stress on his injury.
Meanwhile, in Virginia, there are changes.
A year ago, Virginia coach Terry Holland contended his team was playing the most consistent basketball in the league going into the tournament. This season Holland is not so sure of winning.
The reasons: There's more pressure this year, both self-inflicted and from the public, and injuries have made a set line-up impossible and kept the Cavalier's from gaining any confidence and consistency until the last two weeks.
In that span, Virginia 10-16 on the year, beat Clemson at Clemson, lost to North Carolina by two point at home regular season final.
"For 120 minutes (the length of three games) the way we play is the best," said Holland. "If we played a 120-minute game, we know we will win. But somebody may get hot and beat us. For 120 minutes we're a great basketball team this year, but I can't guarantee we'll be there. But I won't bet my money against it."
A year ago, the Cavs were a second-half team. This season they were tentative after intermission. But, with star guard Billy Langloh and freshman forward Mike Owens back from injuries, Virginia fans have reason to be optimistics.
So. Langloh could only smile when he ran onto the University Hall floor and saw this sign Saturday:
"You still have three ACC victories to go.