Despite the claims of many observers that Virginia's best basketball was played in January and February and that the team is struggling now, the players insist that they can still win the NCAA title.
The Cavaliers (26-3), soundly defeated by Maryland, 85-62, in the ACC semifinals weren't too sharp in their second-round NCAA victory over Villanova, either. But they survived, 54-50, to earn a 7:08 p.m. East regional semifinal date with Tennessee (21-7) at the Omni in Atlanta Thursday. Notre Dame (23-5) meets Brigham Young (24-6) in the other East semifinal at 9:38.
"People say we've been having problems, and it's obvious we haven't been playing with consistency we did in the middle of the season," Virginia point guard Jeff Jones said. "We just need to concentrate a little more on what we're doing. When you take everything into account, the teams we've played, the defenses against Ralph (Sampson) and Lee's (Raker) injury, we've done pretty well.
"We wrapped up the ACC title so fast, maybe we relaxed a bit and said to ourselves, these games don't means as much," Jones said. "But we know we have to improve to stay in this tournament. Every team is tough now."
The Cavaliers rolled to a 23-0 record this season and the top ranking in the AP. Then a last-second shot by Notre Dame's Orlando Woolridge ended the streak, and the loss showed everyone that Virginia was mortal. Wake Forest used the same tough, sagging man-to-man defense to stymie the 7-foot-4 Sampson and won in overtime. Three games later, Maryland routed Virginia in the ACC tournament.
In those losses, the one thing that stood out was the Cavaliers' inability to get the ball inside to Sampson, who is shooting better than 57 percent from the floor. An opponent's tight defense was an invitation for the other Virginia players to shoot, but Jones, Othell Wilson and, at times, Jeff Lamp seemed reluctant to try.
Jones admits the Virginia coaching staff has told him to be "more offensive-minded in the tournament."
"No one has told me to go out and just shoot more," Jones said, "but to concentrate on penetrating more and be aggressive in looking for the shots."
Raker, regarded as the Cavaliers' best long-range shooter, has been operating at less than 60 percent efficiency.
The Virginia staff has not been pleased with the play of 6-9 forward Craig Robinson and replaced him Sunday with senior Terry Gates. Robinson is more offensive-minded, but Gates is a scrapper underneath and can help Sampson on the boards.
Raker suffered a bruised thigh during a collision in practice six weeks ago and developed calcium deposits. He had not practiced, but came in against Villanova to score nine points, seven of them in the second half.
"Lee's coming off the bench and playing with that injury was truly unbelieveable," Coach Terry Holland said. "We didn't expect him to play that much (18 minutes), but Raker and (John) Pinone, the Villanova center, are the toughest guys you want to see on the basketball court. I wouldn't want to be in the middle of them."
Raker said the leg was very painful before the Villanova game, but was something he had to live with.
"I wouldn't have missed the game for anything," Raker said. "This could have been our last game and I wasn't going out sitting on the bench."
Holland is expected to start Gates and Wilson Thursday with Robinson and Raker in reserve.