There is only one question that needs answering in Charlottesville this season: Can this remarkably gifted team live up to its seemingly unlimited potential?
One year ago, ranked as high as second in some preseason polls, the Cavaliers weren't ready for the microscoope under which they were forced to play. They won 17 of their first 20 games, then had a horrendous five weeks, losing six of eight games, capped by an embarrassing one-sided loss to Clemson in the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament.
Finally, away from the ACC spotlight, the Cavaliers loosened up and tore through five NIT games to win the championship and finish 24-10. Still, more had been expected. Now, a year later, it is expected again.
The centerpiece remains Ralph Sampson, the 7-foot-4 phenom who turned down a multimillion dollar contract offer from the Boston Celtics. Exactly why Sampson chose to return to Charlottesville is unclear. He doesn't like to talk about it and his freshman season provides no clues since he often appeared unhappy while averaging 15 points and 10 rebounds a game.
Nonetheless, he is back, a yar older, a year more mature and probably ready to become the dominant player he was at times last season. Most important, Sampson should have lots of help.
Jeff Lamp, who improved his all-around game almost unnoticed amidst the furor of last season, is back for his senior season and so is Lee Raker, his Ballard (of Louisville) High School teammate, who suffered with back problems all last season. Raker is as tough a player as there is inside when healthy.
The only graduated starter is Mike Owens. His spot will be taken either by Terry Gates, who gets 100 percent from his somewhat limited skills, or 6-8 Craig Robinson, who, if he gets 100 percent from his skills, will be superb.
Jeff Jones, who already holds most of the school's assist records, has a healthy knee and is back to run the offense at point guard. A year ago, Virginia often ran into trouble late because Jones and Lamp did not have the quickness to chase opposition guards. This year, Coach Terry Holland has brought in two freshmen he thinks can solve that problem, Gar-Field's Othell Wilson and Ricky Stokes, each under six feet, both quick. Stokes is the younger brother of former UVA defensive specialist Bobby Stokes.
Holland also has a number of seldom used but talented players back from last season, most notably 6-8 Lewis Lattimore, who got frustrated trying to play against Sampson in practice each day, but, like Robinson, is a gifted player.
Finally, there is Holland himself. At 39, he has proven for years, first at Davidson, now into his seventh season at Virginia, that he is one of the most intelligent coaches in the country, a man whose teams historically have played over their heads.
But last season, with all the Sampson hoopla and early high hopes, Holland was not Holland. He overreacted to a newspaper story, in which three players were mildly critical of him, by closing the locker room and suspending the players for a game. He likely had an offseason coaching. He is to good a coach and too bright a person to let the same thing happen twice.
Strengths: Sampson and the experience of Lamp, Raker, Jones; Hollands's coaching.
Weaknesses: Lack of quickness among the first five players; a tendency to get tight under pressure; inexperience on the bench.
Assessment: Taking nothing away from Lamp and Raker, the Cavaliers will rise or fall this season on Sampson's play. If he does what he is capable of, UVA will be a factor in postseason play.