In a final attempt to win an NCAA basketball championship before Ralph Sampson uses up his eligibility, Virginia Coach Terry Holland took a calculated gamble this season.
He instructed his players to all but ignore the three-point basket during Atlantic Coast Conference games. He didn't alter his offense, as most league teams did, to take advantage of the new rule. His thinking was geared toward preparing his team for a run at the NCAA title.
The Cavaliers took almost 50 percent fewer three-point shots than any other ACC team, one reason, perhaps, they did not win either the regular season or tournament championship.
"Our main goal," Holland said today, "has been to win the national title. That's what we've been aiming for the entire season. And not just because it's Ralph's last season."
Starting Saturday against Washington State, Holland will find if these preparations will pay off.
The three-point shot, and the 30-second shot clock, won't be in effect during this 2:15 p.m. (EST) West Regional game. Virginia, the region's No. 1 seeded team, will be able to play a normal game against an opponent talented enough to pull off an upset.
In the other game here, UCLA will try to shake off a lackluster end-of-the-season finish by beating unheralded Utah, which upset Illinois Thursday night. To help their chances, the Bruins' players held a no-coaches-allowed meeting this week to sort out their difficulties.
There is enormous pressure on both Sampson and Holland. They admit it. Other than an NIT championship four years ago, Virginia has not lived up to the lofty expectations created by Sampson's enrollment.
"My year was every year, not just now," Sampson said today. "This is what I want and I'm not here to lose. All I've achieved individually doesn't matter. I'll give my hardest effort every time we play the next few weeks and hope it's enough."
George Raveling, the Washington State coach, says that if Sampson loses this time around, "He'll become a victim of his ability and his height. People look at him, see he is 7-4 and so good, and expect so much. But we won't really know how good he is until he gets into the pros."
Raveling spent the day casting his players as underdogs who "no one in America except the 12 guys who I suit up" believes can beat Virginia.
But this is not an easy tournament opener for Virginia. Washington State (23-6) won seven of its last eight, one a last-second victory over UCLA, to finish second in the Pacific-10 to the Bruins. Only a one-point loss to Washington last week prevented the Cougars from winning the league title. And they've done all this without their best and tallest player, 6-9 Guy Williams, who hurt a knee halfway through the season.
"My best team," said Raveling, the former Maryland assistant who has been at Washington State 11 years. The Cougars are quick, aggressive and 10 deep in talent. They rebound splendidly and execute a confusing matchup zone defense.
But they also are relatively small. Ricky Brown, at 6-8, is the tallest starter, but one of the worst rebounders. Instead, Raveling relies on the jumping ability of 6-6 Steve Harriel, a unanimous all-conference choice, and reserve Aaron Haskins (6-8). To even things off, Raveling will start 6-7 point guard Craig Ehlo. Harriel is the leading scorer, averaging 15.4 points.
"We respect Ralph Sampson but we aren't in awe of him," Raveling said. "We think we can beat him. And we're not worried about the difference in height. We aren't going to shut him out, but we want to dictate where he shoots the ball."
Raveling and Holland both were Maryland assistant coaches at the start of Lefty Driesell's tenure. They were roommates in a small room in Byrd Stadium. "There were two beds, and one was smaller than the other," Raveling said. "Who ever got in the room first got the longer bed." Saturday, Virginia may be helped by the pace of the game. Although Raveling says it's important for the Cougars "to work some time off the clock," they still like to run. "We kind of play differently every night out," he said. "We seem to do what we have to do to win."
Without Tim Mullen (knee), the Cavaliers don't have as much depth as Washington State. Nor do they have as much quickness. But Sampson at his best can neutralize plenty of weaknesses.
"I'm looking forward to playing," Sampson said. "I don't worry about how tall my opponents are, or what defenses they'll play. I'll adjust every time down the court. I'm just keyed up and ready to go."