Virginia is a team with no seniors, a center named Old Spice or something to that effect, and a coach who takes to his sickbed every so often. Ralph Sampson is just a photo hanging on a wall and the Cavaliers are in decline, or so they once said. And if that's true, then Olden Polynice is a brand of aftershave.
Some slouches the Cavaliers turned out to be. A team that was judged to be not much in preseason instead has flourished with a collection of juniors and sophomores, and along the way, has become the Atlantic Coast Conference's fourth-place team.
Virginia (18-8, 7-6 in the ACC) visits Maryland at Cole Field House today (1:30 p.m.) in a meeting of two social climbers playing their final games of the ACC regular season, and the contest may say a lot about which team is climbing faster.
Right now, it would seem to be Virginia, which is reasonably certain of an NCAA tournament bid. For Maryland (16-12, 5-8), the game represents a potential make-or-break shot at an NCAA berth, as well as the final home game for all-America forward Len Bias and fellow seniors Jeff Baxter and Tom (Speedy) Jones.
Virginia Coach Terry Holland says this has been a year of lefts and rights, the hooks and jabs that routinely make up an ACC season worsened by the fact that Duke, North Carolina and Georgia Tech are Nos. 1, 3 and 4 in the country. Funny he sees it that way, since Virginia may be the sucker punch of the ACC.
"The knockout punches in this league will leave you reeling," he said. "Maryland has had a few, and they're an example of a team that's managed to recover. We've managed to avoid them."
Instead, the Cavaliers have administered a few. Among their upsets, they handed then-No. 1 North Carolina its first loss of the season, and went on to beat 18th-ranked N.C. State last week. In their previous meeting with Maryland in Charlottesville, the Cavaliers won, 70-49, the Terrapins' worst loss of the season
If there is a key to Virginia's success this year, it is ultimately a front court team of juniors that Holland calls his "two-year project," with an eye on next season.
There is Polynice (16.5 points a game), the junior who rivals North Carolina's Brad Daugherty as the most dominant inside player in the league. And there is Tom Sheehey (9.4), the tough-guy forward who takes up so much room he needs his own zip code. And there is Andrew Kennedy (8.7), a junior college transfer at the other forward who held Bias to a relatively harmless 19 points in their previous meeting.
"We know we weren't highly regarded coming into the year," Polynice said. "We've always been underdogs. But now we're in a position to determine our own position. We don't say, 'Oh no, we can't beat these guys.' We don't think of ourselves as underdogs anymore, that's the biggest difference."
It should be noted that Virginia is a team with a history of doing more when it is expected to do less. The Cavaliers' glory year was 1983-84, when they reached the Final Four the season after Sampson left, going 17-11 in the regular season before losing to Houston in overtime in the tournament.
With an NCAA bid seemingly forthcoming, the Cavaliers have few worries for the moment. If there is one, however, it might be Holland's health. The abdominal ailment that forced him to be hospitalized twice last season flared up again briefly this Christmas. It has been diagnosed as blockage of his lower intestine caused by scar tissue resulting from previous addominal surgery.
"I feel fine, there are no problems," Holland said. "I just have to stay that way. It's something that kicks up from time to time. You just hope it doesn't happen in season, that's all."
What Virginia doesn't want to do going into the ACC tournament is lose some momentum to Maryland. Should the Terrapins lose to the Cavaliers, their chances for an NCAA bid would markedly decrease. North Carolina's 78-65 loss to N.C. State on Sunday did not help matters. Had the Wolfpack lost, it would have given the Terrapins a chance to tie N.C. State for fifth place with a victory over the Cavaliers. Instead, the Terrapins are locked in sixth place and will meet the third-seeded team in the ACC tournament.
The Terrapins' first-round opponent depends on the outcome of Sunday's games in which Duke (11-2) plays host to North Carolina (10-3) and Georgia Tech (10-3) plays host to Clemson.
If Duke and Georgia Tech both win Sunday, then Duke would finish in first place and Maryland would play North Carolina, which would fall to third place. If Duke loses and Georgia Tech wins, then a three-way tie would result, and North Carolina would claim the top seed by virtue of head-to-head victories over the Blue Devils and Yellow Jackets, with second and third place determined by a coin flip. Maryland would play the loser of the coin flip. If Duke loses and Georgia Tech loses, then North Carolina would claim top seed and Maryland would play the Yellow Jackets. If Duke wins and Georgia Tech loses, then Duke would finish first, North Carolina would be second and Maryland would play third-place Georgia Tech.