Minutes after accepting the NIT championship trophy in New York last March, Virginia's stoic coach, Terry Holland, flashed a broad smile as he accpeted congratulations.
He was delighted because his team had regrouped from a 57-49 defeat by Clemson in the opening round of the ACC tournament to win five games and the school's first NIT title in finishing with a school-record 24 victories.
But Holland had a better reason to be happy. He also knew that in exactly seven months, he would welcome back four starters -- ACC scoring champion Jeff Lamp, assists champion Jeff Jones, deadeye shooter Lee Raker and, best of all, conference rookie of the year Ralph Sampson.
The happy Cavaliers left Madison Square Garden that night knowing that they had an excellent shot at the national title next year.
"Even before Ralph came, we had improved each of the last four years," said Lamp. "First, we set our goals of winning the ACC title. We knew we had the potential to be a very, very good team."
And so it turned out. Sampson, the 7-foot-4 sophomore, was much improved and dominated the middle. Jones ran the attack, Lamp turned in one magical performance after another and Raker and Craig Robinson made major contributions. Reserve strong men Terry Gates and Lewis Lattimore provided good spot inside play. And freshmen guards Othell Wilson and Ricky Stokes added speed to the lineup.
So the Cavaliers won 23 straight and occupied the No. 1 ranking in the Associated Press poll before losing to Notre Dame, 57-56, Sunday on a last-second shot by Orlando Woolridge and falling to Wake Forest, 73-66, in overtime Tuesday.
"On Oct. 15 (the opening day of practice), we felt we had the potential to win every game," said Holland. "And I think any coach in the country would take a 23-2 record. We've played an excellent schedule and have done as well as we could have hoped for. Our two losses were due to two great teams and we know we had chances to win both very easily."
Last year, the Caviliers lost games to teams they had no problems with this season. Of the Cavaliers' 10 defeats, seven were by eight points or less. Two were by two points, to Wake Forest and Maryland, and another by a point, to Georgia Tech. Virginia also lost on national television at Ohio State by five points.
For most of last season, Sampson was having difficulty trying to fit it in with a Cavalier offense that was built around Lamp and Raker. At times, Virginia looked confused. Opponents tood advantage of the slow back court and were able to press the Cavaliers succesfully.
How things have changed this year. Sampson, playing with more confidence and aggression, became a force. Lamp and Raker concentrated on being the outside threats and took much of the pressure off the sophomore center.Wilson and Stokes have allowed the Virginia attack to shift into overdrive.
This year, the Cavaliers beat Ohio State by 16. They split two games with much-improved Wake Forest but crushed Georgia Tech twice. Virginia beat Maryland in the final seconds, 66-64, in the first meeting and will attempt to do it again when it plays host to the Terps today in the regular-season finale for both teams.
Holland would like nothing better than to whip Maryland twice in the regular season. But he is more concerned with getting his team ready for the ACC tournament next week at Capital Centre.
"We've lost our last two games on the road and we have a big one left against Maryland," said Holland. "Emotionally, this is a big game for our seniors ad I'm sure they'll want to play well. At the same time, we want to build some momentum for the tournament.
"We had the regular-season championship wrapped up before we played Wake Forrest and maybe we relaxed a bit. But I don't think our confidence has suffered. Right now, Maryland is back to being a good team. There isn't anything wrong with them."
Virginia used a variety of weapons to build its long winning streaks. The Cavaliers were more physical than Ohio State, outran quicker Wake Forest and N.C. State and played the patient game in fending off the delay tactics of Duke and North Carolina. If the Cavaliers had any doubts about themselves, the second game against the Tar Heels made them believers. Trailing by as many as 16 points late in the second half, Virginia rallied to win, 80-79.
But, as Lamp said, "We aren't invincible."
"Maybe our losses were blessings in disguise," Raker said. "We know we can play much better. We're having a great season but we've had to work for everything we've got. Those losses brought us back down to earth."