Olden Polynice, the University of Virginia's starting center, has left the basketball team on the eve of its first Atlantic Coast Conference game, citing pressures brought on by publicity surrounding accusations that he violated the school's honor code.
In a letter delivered to Coach Terry Holland yesterday morning by Polynice's girlfriend, Polynice said he "had to get away from everything for a few days to think and to make some decisions . . . " The Cavaliers play at fourth-ranked Duke (4-0) tonight, then are off until Dec. 20. Holland said yesterday he had not talked to Polynice and did not know whether he planned to return to the team.
In the letter, Polynice, whose family lives in New York, said he was upset by a story this week in the New York Post that called his honor code trial "a sham." Polynice was cleared Nov. 18 by an honor committee jury after admitting he had turned in another student's paper for a freshman English composition course.
Polynice, writing to Holland, said: "I am really upset by what has been happening, particularly the article in The New York Post. My family saw it and it really upset them to see all those lies.
"I have to get away from everything for a few days to think and to make some decisions and mainly to just try and work things out. The way I am now I can't think straight, study or play basketball. I hate to think of missing the Duke game but I really can't help it right now.
"My exams start on Dec. 15. I need to get away from the phone so I can try to study, too.
"I hope you understand that I don't want to hurt the team or you in any way but right now I need some time to myself."
Holland said he believes the response Polynice received Wednesday at William and Mary (a 54-53 Virginia defeat) may have led to yesterday's move. Fans in Williamsburg hung banners making reference to Polynice's trial and many waved "term papers" when he was introduced. Monday, when Virginia played at Virginia Military Academy, the cadets turned their backs when Polynice was introduced. Duke students have a reputation for being tough on opposing players who have gotten into trouble.
"The New York Post story added fuel to the fire, but I think the game at William and Mary was the turning point," Holland said. "Olden was obviously distracted in that game. I think he began to sense that he wasn't handling this as well as he thought he had. He was upset by his performance. I think he felt like the controversy has been hurting the team."
The Post's sports editor was not available for comment.
Polynice, the leading scorer for the 4-2 Cavaliers with a 13.4 points per game average, scored just three against William and Mary.
Asked if he thought Polynice had left the team because he was afraid of how the Duke crowd might respond, Holland said, "Quite the reverse. I think the chance to play against Duke was a motivating factor for him. But after Wednesday night it was like Olden said, 'God, maybe I'm not capable (of handling this), maybe I'm hurting the team.' "
Wednesday, in an open letter printed in the Duke student paper, Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski asked for decorum at the Virginia game. Last year, Duke students were severely criticized after throwing women's underwear at Maryland's Herman Veal, who had been accused the previous season of sexual misconduct. After that incident, Duke students cleaned up their act.
In his letter to the students, Krzyzewski wrote: "Let's keep doing things in a first class manner without provoking an opposing player into a great night or getting the negative publicity we received last year when we played Maryland."
Holland said Polynice practiced Thursday. He said that since the story broke Nov. 21, Polynice has been "stoic. He hasn't shown us much (emotion), one way or the other." He said that although he had not spoken to Polynice, "We've gotten word that he's okay. We don't know if he's gone to New York or if he's still here. We do know he's all right. He's not sitting in a car somewhere with the motor running."
Although Polynice was scoring well and had 20 points and 10 rebounds against Richmond a week ago, he had appeared distracted in games. Holland said that had shown up in his turnovers: 23 in six games after having just 37 in 33 games last season as a freshman. Dan Merrifield, a 6-5 senior, will be the replacement starter tonight.
Since the outcome of Polynice's honor case became public, it has been a major issue at Virginia.
"I thought the controversy had died down," Holland said. "Most people have been positive lately. The (honor) committee made the decision. It (the decision) is not Olden's fault and not everybody knows all the facts."