Virginia's ranking as the best college basketball team outside Chapel Hill is more a tribute to Ralph Sampson's reputation than it is an accurate reflection of the team's ability. Even the Cavaliers' coach, Terry Holland, says, "Record-wise, we're better than expected. But we have not been world-beaters or a perfect team at all. I think we will be better by the end of the season, but right now we're still looking for our identity."
"I'm still wearing the padding on my finger," said Sampson, who missed most of three games last month with a broken ring finger on his shooting hand. "But I'm comfortable with it, it's feeling pretty good. I could shoot more, I guess, but there's no sense in me doing anything different. We're getting the points we need to win."
With Sampson taking only 11 shots a night, scoring only 15 points, Virginia yet is undefeated in 11 games and ranked No. 2 and 3 in the polls. Searching for the 12th victory, Virginia comes to Capital Centre on Wednesday night to meet Digger Phelps' worst Notre Dame team since his first in 1972. The Irish are so small, so undermanned and so young that Digger last week figured his only chance of beating Kentucky was to sit on the ball and hope the run-run-run Wildcats slipped into a coma of boredom.
Kentucky won in overtime, 34-28. That's better than 94-29, which is how bad Indiana beat Notre Dame in Digger's first season. So three nights ago, Notre Dame thought to slow it down again--only Missouri forced the action and produced a 92-70 victory.
"Kentucky sat in a zone and didn't chase them," Holland said. "But with Missouri, Notre Dame got behind and had to play quicker. We don't expect Notre Dame to hold the ball out on us. They like to keep the pace fairly slow because they have young players and are trying to get them good shots to build their confidence."
The coach is a diplomat. Get him some striped pants and a rep tie. Make him ambassador to some alien land, such as Texas. There's a difference between young and "young." For instance, Notre Dame's "young" players are losing to people named Murray State. Virginia's young players can't lose for winning.
Outside of Sampson, Virginia's important players this season are fellows who last year were (a) scoring six points a game, or (b) going to the senior prom in their high school letter jackets.
Jeff Lamp, an all-America forward, and Lee Raker, a three-year starter, are gone, leaving Sampson to win the weekly big games in the Atlantic Coast Conference. Certainly, Terry Holland spoke excitedly about freshmen--such as Jimmy Miller, a 6-foot-8 forward, and Tim Mullen, a 6-5 guard--but no one took the coach seriously.
Even Holland, on Page 6 of the Virginia press guide, said, "There is a lot of work to be done before we can be considered national contenders. We'll be depending on a lot of youngsters, and I'm sure we'll have to take our licks early in the year. But I think it will be just a matter of time before we become a good basketball team."
That time may have arrived early. This week's work will tell, for after playing Notre Dame here, Virginia goes to Chapel Hill on Saturday.
This much is certain: Virginia is not the same ol' Virginia.
Heroic, Lamp and Raker were; quick afoot they weren't. Whether or not Holland can replace these worthies in pressure situations will determine Virginia's ultimate success. It is easier to say he has found people who can run, jump and react faster.
Virginia's defense, a coach said, last year picked up the offense 18 feet out. This season, the quicker Cavaliers contest the ball 25 feet away. The difference, then, is that teams that once worked for the good 15-footer now must sweat to get an 18-footer.
The extra quickness comes from three players: the freshmen Miller and Mullen, along with junior forward Craig Robinson, once inconsistent but now scoring 12 points a game instead of the 5.3 of last year.
Put them with senior hustler Jeff Jones and mercurial Othell Wilson (averaging 15 points now, not last year's six), and suddenly Virginia is not a half-court, set-it-up-on-offense, wait-for-'em-on-defense team. Now Virginia runs a lot, and its greater array of defenses includes a full-court press.
"We're not a big team," Holland said. "So we have to create turnovers."
Virginia stole the ball seven times a game last season; it is averaging 10 steals this time.
As for not being "a big team," Holland must mean he has only one fellow over 7 feet 3.
Robinson and Miller, the forwards, are 6-8, which is pretty good size if you bump into them in your living room. At 7-4, Sampson is big enough and gifted enough to do anything he wants in basketball. After Sampson's freshman year, Red Auerbach wanted him for the Celtics; last spring the Dallas Mavericks offered him a cowboy hat full of oil and gold and lots of thousand-dollar bills.
Instead, Sampson chose to stay at Virginia. Some might have thought he did it in order to have an incredible scoring season. If he went to Holland and demanded 40 shots a game, thereby ensuring a 40-point average, the coach could only have said, "How about 50 shots?"
Of Sampson's 11 shots a night, he makes six. He is averaging 11 rebounds and four blocked shots.
"Ralph, I think, is looking to give the ball to the young guys to help their confidence," Holland said. "He's passed off probably more than he should, but he realizes his time to score can wait."
It can wait, anyway, until Saturday afternoon in Chapel Hill.