After two months of a steady diet of slowdowns and low-scoring games, Virginia should be contemplating a potential basketball feast Thursday night featuring fast breaks and loads of points.
So why aren't the Cavaliers overjoyed?
The answer is simple. The player who makes Virginia's running game go, guard Othell Wilson, still is hobbled with an injured right thigh. And without him, the Cavaliers may be better suited for a deliberate game.
Wilson is expected to play against Alabama-Birmingham tonight at 10:40 p.m. EST (WRC-TV-4 will pick it up in progress at 11:25; WEEL-1310 will carry it from the start) in the NCAA Mideast Regional semifinal, but Coach Terry Holland said his tenacious guard "can't be expected to go much longer than he did against Tennessee Sunday (22 minutes)."
The two teams in the other semifinal, Minnesota (23-5) and Louisville (21-9), have no such injury problems. Their 8:08 matchup will feature Louisville's quickness against the Gophers' height, in the presence of 7-foot-3 Randy Breuer.
Wilson suffered a deep thigh bruise against Clemson in the first round of the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament and has been undergoing extensive treatment ever since. He wasn't expected to play Sunday, but with the aid of a battery-operated device that eased the pain, he was able to help the Cavaliers defeat the Volunteers.
Still, he didn't move very quickly in that game and Holland said he isn't much more mobile now. But Virginia officials say he can't do any permanent damage to the thigh by playing on it.
Wilson is Virginia's No. 2 scorer, the playmaker on the fast break and, with the possible exception of reserve guard Ricky Stokes, the Cavaliers' quickest player. Holland likes to use both Stokes and Wilson at the same time, but said today he probably wouldn't be able to do that Thursday because of Wilson's status.
Virginia (30-3) also will miss Wilson defensively. Alabama-Birmingham's best player by far is 6-4 guard Oliver Robinson, who averages 21 points a game, shoots 53 percent and has taken almost twice as many shots as any other Blazer. Guard Jeff Jones, not blessed with outstanding quickness, will guard him at the start, an assignment that would go normally to Wilson.
"A box and one is in our game plan," Holland said. "We used it one other time this year (against Tennessee). Robinson is very good and we have to control him."
UAB Coach Gene Bartow, trying to become the first coach in NCAA history to have teams from three different schools in the final four, has constructed a running, pressing team. He said his Sun Belt Conference champions would do "very, very little" differently for this game, despite the presence of 7-4 Ralph Sampson, who has a distinct physical advantage over UAB's alternating centers, 6-8 Donnie Speer and 6-10 Norman Anchrum.
Bartow utilizes a three-guard offense frequently, which will accentuate Virginia's height advantage. Says Holland: "It will be a matter of who can control the game first, their small guys or our big guys."
This is only the fourth year UAB has played basketball, a remarkable building job by Bartow, who left a stormy situation at UCLA to come here. This season, his team has lost only to De Paul, Wichita State, Missouri, Georgia and, in its only loss at home, to Virginia Commonwealth.
Now he has a marvelous opportunity to bring his budding power some national attention. UAB (24-5), which has won 11 straight, made everybody sit up by defeating Indiana, the defending national champion, 80-70, Saturday. Now, on its home court in front of a vocal, partisan crowd, the Blazers are catching a former No. 1-ranked team struggling to regain its midseason efficiency without its best guard.
Of course, Sampson has the ability to offset the handicaps presented by Wilson's injury. Holland admitted he had never seen Sampson take charge quite like he did in the final 10 minutes against Tennessee, when he refused to let Virginia lose despite horrendous foul shooting.
And, at least once, Bartow has shown an inability to properly defense a big-time center. When Bartow was at Memphis State, he tried to stop UCLA's Bill Walton in the NCAA championship game with just one man, Larry Kenon. The result: Walton missed only one of 22 shots and scored 44 points.
"We aren't going to use the same kind of defensive strategy on Sampson this time," Bartow said with a slight smile.