CHARLOTTESVILLE -- Three times in the past four season, Virginia Coach Terry Holland has pulled an ace out of his sleeve to save a seemingly doomed hand. Right now, he'd probably settle for a six of clubs.

Often maligned for teams that failed to live up to their potential during the Ralph Sampson era, Holland thrice since patched together teams of overachievers that won despite having undersized centers. The Cavaliers went to the Final Four in 1983-84 with Kenton Edelin in the middle. The next two seasons, Olden Polynice progressed from a weak link to an all-America candidate in the pivot as Virginia stayed above water. Last season, the Cavaliers finished 21-10 despite the loss of Polynice because seniors Tom Sheehey and Andrew Kennedy filled the hole up front.

But now the deck is stacked against Holland. Sheehey and Kennedy are gone, and Holland has suspended senior forward Mel Kennedy until at least Jan. 1 for poor class attendance, leaving the Cavaliers with no proven players taller than 6 feet 3.

"In terms of past performances, we've got nothing up front," Holland said. "But that's one of the great things about sports: When there's a hole to fill, someone will always step forward. It's always happened in the past for us."

This time, however, the hole is bigger and the potential for filling it less promising. Seven-footer John Dyslin probably will never play again because of tendinitis in both knees, and Tim Martin's 1.7 points and 1.7 rebounds per game hardly seem the answer. By elimination, 6-10 junior college transfer Brent Bair and 6-8 sophomore Bill Batts probably will get considerable playing time.

"I think I'm a much better shooter now," said Batts, whose 67 percent field goal accuracy last season came on shots primarily inches from the rim. "I'm pretty comfortable out to 12 feet, and I know I'll need to look for my shot this year."

Indeed, the Cavaliers' unproven front court is sharply contrasted by a deep, talented set of guards. John Johnson (12.0 points, 6.3 assists per game last season) returns for his senior season as one of the nation's pre-eminent point guards, and junior running-mate Richard Morgan (12.3 points) will be expected to add some consistency to his offensive game.

The presence of senior Darrick Simms, from Flint Hill, and freshman John Crotty -- whom Holland calls "the best defensive player coming out of high school I've ever seen" -- will reduce some of the 39.1 minutes per game Johnson was forced to play against Atlantic Coast Conference opposition last season and will tempt Holland to use three guards.

The odds of Kennedy returning in January seem to be increasing. When he suspended Kennedy in mid-September, Holland said the chances of the 6-5 forward playing this season were "slim, but the door is open." Kennedy is practicing with the team, and recently Johnson and Morgan predicted Kennedy would be reinstated when the deadline arrives. Holland guardedly praised Kennedy's progress, but emphasized that he cannot return before the Chaminade Christmas Tournament in Honolulu, Dec. 23-25.

"You can't suspend a player, take him to Hawaii and hope to get your point across," Holland said. Without Kennedy, sophomore Mark Cooke (1.3 points, 0.7 rebounds per game) and freshman Kenny Turner will split time at small forward and the Cavaliers will continue to try to plug the holes. "With Mel, I felt very confident about our chances this year," Johnson said. "Now, I just don't know." SCHEDULE

November: 27, vs. Columbia at Investors Classic at Virginia, 9 (Citadel vs. Rhode Island, 7); 28, Investors Classic at Virginia, 7 or 9.

December: 3, UNC-Wilmington, 7:30; 6, at Connecticut, 3; 9, Dayton, 7:30; 12, at Arkansas, 3; 18, vs. Old Dominion at Richmond Times-Dispatch Invitational, 9 (Richmond vs. Virginia Commonwealth, 7); 19, at Richmond Times-Dispatch Invitational, 7 and 9; 23, vs. Oklahoma at Chaminade Christmas Classic in Honolulu, 11 p.m.; 24, vs. Georgia at Chaminade Christmas Classic in Honolulu, 8:30; 25, vs. Chaminade at the Chaminade Christmas Classic in Honolulu, 1:30 a.m.

January: 2, at Villanova, 7; 6, Radford, 7:30; 9, Duke, 4; 10, Clemson, 4; 16, at North Carolina, 9; 20, Maryland, 7:30; 23, Georgia Tech, 4; 27, at Virginia Tech, 7:30; 30, Wake Forest, noon.

February: 1, Jacksonville, 7:30; 3, at N.C. State, 7:30; 7, at Houston, 4; 14, North Carolina, 4; 17, at Duke, 7:30; 21, at Clemson, 3; 25, at Georgia Tech, 9; 27, N.C. State, 4.

March: 2, at Wake Forest, 7:30; 5, at Maryland, 1:30; 11-13, at ACC Tournament in Greensboro, N.C., tba.