Here Virginia is again, seemingly without much basketball talent save for the large fellow with the name like old spice and the soft-spoken coach with the wicked genius for strategy. But Olden Polynice has grown up, Terry Holland has put the run back into the Cavaliers, and this team of little experience may be secretly dangerous.
Virginia has not a single senior returning and Polynice, the 6-foot-11 junior center, is one of only two real veterans. What the Cavaliers have is a collection of still emerging youths who may combine to create some of that funny old Cavalier desire, the kind that can make them a good team when it is least expected.
"We're a blue-collar team," Polynice said. "We don't have any great stars. We're just a bunch of guys who work hard. No more necktie."
Throw in the return to the running game, abandoned last year for lack of depth, and what they may have is serious upset potential in the Atlantic Coast Conference. They are picked to finish anywhere from sixth to fourth and they will get their first test Saturday at 1 p.m. at Capital Centre when they meet Houston, their nemesis in the 1984 Final Four, 49-47.
The curious chemistry of the Cavaliers involves two front-court players who went to the Final Four as freshmen, Polynice and Tom Sheehey; three back-court players who started part time last year, junior Tom Calloway (4.1 points), sophomore John Johnson (2.7 points) and sophomore Darrick Simms (6.7 points); and two potentially revitalizing freshmen, Richard Morgan and Lance Black, last year's "Mr. Basketball in Texas." Mel Kennedy, the sixth man last year, who averaged 7.9 points and ran second in voting for ACC rookie of the year, will start at forward.
It may not sound like a juggernaut, but there is no accounting for Virginia's teams. It should be noted that the Cavaliers' Final Four appearance in 1984 came from a team with few discernible stars -- the year after Ralph Sampson.
"It's an interesting mix," Holland said. "It's unproven, of course, but it's interesting. The good thing about young guys is that sometimes they're so inexperienced they don't know what they're doing when they play well. They just do it and don't worry about it."
There is one considerable question mark, however, and that is the back court, just as it was last year. Without the talent to run, the Cavaliers went to a half-court game that kept them in some contests, but could not avert the mediocre record. Every game was close, and the Cavaliers lost quite a few, finishing 17-16 -- and 3-11 in the ACC.
There were some good stretches even so. Virginia beat Georgia Tech and Arkansas, among others, and made it to the NIT quarterfinals. A lot of the uncertainty and inconsistency may be gone, so Sport magazine ranks Virginia 18th in the country and Sports Illustrated puts them at No. 32.
"Last year we were playing not to lose," said Sheehey, a 6-9 junior who was Polynice's main help last season, averaging 10.3 points. "There was doubt every game about how we'd play. We never knew. This year we're more confident, more relaxed, and we're having fun."
The Cavaliers don't seem nearly as concerned about the back court as outsiders do, but it is a crucial component in a league that has Mark Price and Bruce Dalrymple at Georgia Tech and Johnny Dawkins and Tommy Amaker at Duke, among others.
"We have to grow," Holland said. "Actually, I think our back court compares favorably with the rest of the country. But in our league, it's tough."
Simms will become a starter at shooting guard with Calloway at point, and seems to have blossomed. His three-point play with 35 seconds left gave the Cavaliers a 56-55 victory over West Virginia in the first round of the NIT.
The most important addition seems to be Morgan, nicknamed "Speed," who could be the jump starter the Cavaliers need. He averaged 26.9 points last year at Salem (Va.) High, and will get considerable playing time, taking over Kennedy's role of first off the bench.
"He does everything at 150 miles an hour," Polynice said.
With the back court still to develop, the leadership rests with Sheehey and Polynice, and possibly Kennedy. Gone from last year's team are 6-8 starting forward Jim Miller, 6-5 guard Tom Mullen, 6-6 forward Dan Merrifield and 6-0 guard Kenny Johnson.
"I know I've got the responsibility," Polynice said. "So I'm trying not to laugh as much. When I first got here I was laughing all the time. Say hello to me and I'd laugh. Not anymore."
Polynice came back stronger, a better free throw shooter, and generally a little more mature after last year's exhausting season. In addition to Virginia's troubles with inexperience, he underwent a trying student honor court appearance in which he was acquitted of a cheating charge.
Despite some triple-teaming, he managed to double his scoring average, to 13 points a game, and is eagerly awaiting the return of the running game, which should make him even more productive and take some of the defensive pressure off.
Despite some of the more optimistic predictions for the Cavaliers, they still must be considered one of the darkest horses in the talent-laden ACC, where a return to the ill-fated half-court game could mean a return to mediocrity.
"We don't want to get locked into that again," Holland said. "We had to play it too close to the vest; there was pressure every game. It was only good enough to keep us in the game. If we have to do it again we'll be no better than .500."