Virginia begins preparations Monday for the NCAA West Regional struggling to correct obvious problems that could prevent the Cavaliers from advancing to the final four.
Some of their difficulties aren't new. In the past, Virginia has tended to ignore Ralph Sampson during key stages of games. And without Sampson as part of the offense, Virginia has trouble scoring consistently.
Against North Carolina State in the ACC tournament final and against Washington State in an NCAA tournament game Saturday, Sampson's supporting cast slipped badly. At a time when the Cavaliers need at least one other consistent player besides their 7-foot-4 center, no one is stepping forward.
Othell Wilson, usually Virginia's second-best player, played poorly against Washington State. He missed important foul shots in the final moments and was without a field goal for the game's first 22 minutes.
A key member of the supporting cast, forward Tim Mullen, has missed the last two games with a knee injury. There is some hope he may play Thursday against Boston College, and that would bolster Virginia's woeful outside shooting. But at this point, he's a longshot to participate.
Ultimately, however, it may be that Virginia lacks enough quality players around Sampson to win the NCAA title that has evaded him during his previous three collegiate years.
This may be especially true in the front court, where Sampson alone seems to be concentrating on rebounding. The smaller Washington State players outrebounded the Cavaliers easily, even though Sampson led both teams with 12.
If Virginia shoots as poorly as it did Saturday, and can't rebound well enough for second shots, the result will be low point output and close games.
Washington State presented a blueprint for other Virginia opponents to copy. The Cougars surrounded Sampson with two men, who rarely left the vicinity of his bellybutton. Sampson's teammates made little effort to get the ball to him under these circumstances. The result: he took only one shot in the second half and scored just two points in the last 20 minutes.
"We decided to see if the other four people could beat us," Coach George Raveling said.
Raveling's strategy failed because his team didn't play particularly well, but Virginia is likely to face other opponents with more ability, teams good enough to beat Virginia if Sampson is left out of the offense.
Like Washington State, Virginia opponents may elect to slow the pace, trying to limit the Cavaliers' fast-break baskets and allowing their defense to surround Sampson. Raveling went so far as to say that sometimes he covered four Virginia players with three of his own men.
Virginia forward Craig Robinson and guard Rick Carlisle both are in shooting slumps, accenting Mullen's absence. Jim Miller, the Cavaliers' best shooting forward, is erratic enough to keep him from being a heavy factor in the offense.
Coach Terry Holland's best hope is that Boston College will decide to run with Virginia, which would relieve the Cavaliers of having to win that game with their struggling half-court offense.