When last there was sentiment for a major rule revision in college basketball, wise and wily Abe Lemons said: "Don't raise the height of the basket; lower it. In fact, get rid of baskets. Cut a hole in the middle of the floor and give points for dropping the ball in it. That way we'll all be recruiting dwarfs, going up to 'em and saying, 'Hey there, little feller, want a Cadillac?' "
Watching Virginia lose to Alabama-Birmingham Thursday night in the NCAA Mideast semifinals brought that to mind. Probably, what the Cavaliers did at the start of many plays--position Ralph Sampson on a wing, 20 feet from the basket--made strategic sense. Coach Terry Holland's postgame explanation was plausible.
But it looked weird, like a giraffe walking a tightrope. Here was a 7-foot-4 guy, very likely the most mobile man his size in the game of giants, who shoots down at the basket when he's within eight feet of it, way too far from home. Poaching on point-guard territory at times.
At its wit's end over how to get Sampson the ball inside, where he can make his sport unfair, Virginia decided to let him dissect the UAB zone from afar, spot the weakest area close to the basket and flash to it. Hiding Ralph from the defense is what Holland called it, and once the initial sense of goofiness wore off, the absurdity of anyone that tall wearing short pants and a tank top getting lost, heads nodded in agreement.
Different look for the defense, different angle of attack. Out of sight from his primary chasers for precious seconds, Sampson darts for the unguarded area, gets a pass at the moment he arrives and the Cavaliers coast, kick Gene Bartow's rocket launchers and their own lethargy.
The Cavaliers were out of sync so much of the night, too shot-happy when the situation demanded patience, one or two more passes, too cautious when they should have gone hell-bent for Ralph down low. Very likely, Virginia lost the game early, when UAB played Sampson almost straight up and nobody passed to him.
Several times near the beginning, the first Cavalier to touch the ball forced it toward the basket instead of swinging it around to Sampson for a higher percentage shot. Craig Robinson had six turnovers and two baskets for the game. And when Sampson did get the ball, he was a Ralph-step out of his range when he let it fly.
"Our big guys were not very patient," Holland admitted after the 68-66 loss. "They put it on the floor (too soon) or took the quick shot."
Of Virginia's 10 longest shots the first half, Sampson took four. And missed 'em all. Two were from beyond the free-throw line; one was a 14-foot hook. And his 21 rebounds for the game were ringing evidence of his dominance, his point potential had Virginia been bright enough to feature him better.
"It surprised me a little," Bartow said of Sampson's being so far from his natural turf. "But he's such a great athlete. Against Tennessee, he didn't get the ball much, so he went out a bit farther. Maybe that was the game plan. It did surprise me a little."
And so did Holland's being called for a technical at what could have been an even more pivotal moment than it was. Virginia lost the ball during a scramble Holland thought should have ended with a UAB foul. While he was darting off the bench and screaming ("I just said, 'Come on, you gotta call 'em at both ends' ") the Blazers fumbled the ball out of bounds.
Had Holland stayed tame, Virginia would have had the ball. All the Blazers got, however, were the two free throws, Donnie Speer then charging on the gift possession. But those foul shots gave UAB a five-point lead with just under seven minutes left in the game, and Virginia never got closer than one.
There was one valid alibi for Virginia: the absence of injured guard Othell Wilson, which, as Holland candidly admitted, "slows us down at both ends of the court . . . doesn't open the lanes to rebounds (because of his penetration)."
Today, 15 or so hours later, was time for introspection.
"From my standpoint," Holland said, "I can't expect anything less than all wins--and the national championship."
What he got was 30-4.
Is Holland satisfied he's used the player of his dreams as well as possible?
"Yeah," he said. "We've been over and over it. What's the best thing for him? What's the best thing for us? And they're not always the same. Overall, we have to be extremely pleased."
Will there be another chance? Will Sampson opt for the pros instead of his senior season?
"Don't know yet. I'm still suffering from the loss."
Publicly, Sampson stretches most decisions until they can wait no longer. But Holland said, "I think I'll know very quickly . . . It'll be a feeling more than him saying for sure what he's going to do. But I think he does send out signals. He knows what he wants to do fairly quickly, but he likes to keep his options open in case something changes."
So Holland's recruiting priority is "a big man" whether Sampson stays or scoots.
"We're playing a pat hand almost as far as next season's concerned," he said, being positive about Sampson and referring to the loss of just one key player, Jeff Jones. "We have a better chance of hurting this team (by not being selective) with our recruiting effort than helping it."