Sunday, December 21, 2008

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Loss leaves egg on UVa vets' faces

CHARLOTTESVILLE -- Let's talk about missed dunks for a second. Because the Virginia basketball team had two of them in the first half Saturday, and those things really get you thinking.

Is there a more deflating play in all of sports than the missed dunk? Not blocked, mindyou. Missed.

One second you're soaring toward the rim (In your face!) and the next, you're watching the ball ricochet far, far away from its intended target as the crowd groans (Egg on face!).

Saturday's game was a big, lousy missed dunk for UVa. The Cavaliers got booed off the floor at halftime, rallied to take a late lead and then lost it, falling 58-56 to Auburn at John Paul Jones Arena.

The Cavaliers are by no means a great team -- that No. 12 spot in the preseason ACC poll is looking about right at this moment -- but the Tigers are quite beatable, even for them. Mercer beat them. Dayton beat them. Northern Iowa beat them. But the favored Cavaliers couldn't, mostly because they have zero veteran presence.

Oh, they have veterans. It's the presence part that's missing. Mamadi Diane has played in more than 100 games in his UVa career. In this one, he ran around for 20 minutes and didn't take a shot. Not a single shot from a senior who once scored 26 points in an ACC game against Maryland. See anything wrong with this?

Junior Jamil Tucker played his 68th game for UVa on Saturday. He was held scoreless and grabbed one rebound.


Game story

Point guard Calvin Baker started eight conference games last year. But he often looked completely lost, forgetting the shot clock, stumbling through the lane, failing to find open teammates.

"He, like everybody else, didn't play with the same kind of passion that he needed to," UVa coach Dave Leitao said of Baker.

"When you don't, other things are missing. Decision-making is one of them. Leadership, ability to run the team, defense -- all those things suffer when you don't have the proper mindset."

The proper mindset originates with the coach, but somebody on the floor has to step in and affirm it, too. Usually that somebody is a guy who's been around, somebody who's seen bad starts lead to losses and knows how to prevent them, somebody who's earned the ears of his young teammates.

UVa doesn't have that guy right now. The Cavaliers' three most energetic players against Auburn were freshmen. Guard Sylven Landesberg put in another strong effort with 22 points and a variety of determined moves toward the rim. Sammy Zeglinski struggled with his shooting but helped lead the rally in the second half. And 7-footer Assane Sene grabbed nine rebounds and blocked four shots, a solid outing from a raw rookie.

But that's not enough. At some point, these older players have to contribute -- mostly in that always-elusive "leadership" category -- if the Cavs are going to make anything of this season.

"We were real passive as a team," Landesberg said. "They weren't beating us on talent on the first half; it was basically a mentality. They were just more aggressive. They were punking us on the boards."

Oh, yes. The boards punking. Auburn outrebounded the Cavs 44-30. That's one of those all-important effort indicators. And that can't happen, particularly at home.

Mike Scott is going to be a key to changing that. The sophomore is a big body (6-foot-8) and a good athlete, and so far he's been the team's leading rebounder. But he collected just three Saturday.

"Coach always tells me I can't play like a sophomore," Scott said. "I have to play like a junior or senior. I haven't been doing that, even in practice."

Leitao's lack of faith in the veterans was evident on the game's final play. After the Cavaliers called timeout with 14.7 seconds remaining, trailing by two, only two players touched the ball. Both were freshmen.

The result was a blocked 3-pointer. Not exactly a missed dunk, but it sure felt similar.

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