Saturday, March 13, 2010

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Same outcome, different feeling

GREENSBORO, N.C. -- Sammy Zeglinski remembers what it was like walking off the court for the final time last year. A couple of hundred of spectators, tops, had stuck around until the end at the Georgia Dome.

The ones who'd left were the smart ones. There wasn't a whole lot left to see.

Virginia had quit. Maybe not consciously. Maybe not unanimously. But enough of the players had checked out, enough of Dave Leitao's security and clout as a coach had dissolved, that the games no longer mattered as they once did.

"We kind of were playing without a purpose," Zeglinski recalled.

To assess where you are, you have to remember where you once were. And this time a year ago, Virginia basketball was a mess.

So for the Cavaliers, Friday's 57-46 loss to Duke in the ACC quarterfinals wasn't so much about one game or one performance or even one last-ditch opportunity for an upset. It was about a vibe that surrounded the program when it left the floor for the final time -- something strikingly different from the darkness that ushered them into last year's eventful offseason.

This was about Mike Scott sprawling on the hardwood in pursuit of loose balls, Jontel Evans poking away passes, a defense holding the tournament's top seed to 38-percent shooting. It was about effort and "pillars" and pride.

It was about presenting a united front as this rebuilding process moves forward.

In that sense, the Cavaliers succeeded.

"I think today and yesterday, we had a purpose and we came out here and put everything on the line," said Zeglinski, a sophomore guard who had the energy but not the shooting success Friday that he'd had in Virginia's first-round win over Boston College. "We played with a lot of heart."

They did. And that's a start.

Virginia Tech falls in ACC

No. 12 seed Miami 70 | No. 4 seed Virginia Tech 65

Aaron McFarling

UVa's ACC woes

No. 1 seed Duke 57 | No. 8 seed UVa 46


Less than two weeks ago, the Cavaliers seemed at a crossroads. As their losses mounted, their performances got more and more familiar -- more like the ones we saw at the end of last season.

First-year coach Tony Bennett needed to do something. What he did -- suspending top scorer Sylven Landesberg for the remainder of the year before the Maryland game because of failure to live up to academic demands -- sent a jolt through the team.

The message: Buy in, because nobody here is immune.

The sample size since that day isn't huge, but what we have is encouraging. The Cavaliers competed well against the top two teams in the ACC and they beat the Eagles, who blew them out in New England on March 3.

"When you're a new staff trying to establish your program in the direction you want ... you've got to make some hard decisions," Bennett said. "But you can't compromise on what you think the big picture should look like."

Bennett's not fooling himself. He knows the big picture still needs time to come into full focus.

"There's no shortcut to it," he said. "The formula ... is to establish the guys that you think you can build with, get a large recruiting class in the first year, follow it up with a good one, grow 'em up, then compete and take it beyond that. There's kind of stages or phases to building a program, and we're in the initial one, but I think some things revealed themselves during the season."

The last one revealed itself Friday, as the Cavs proved they were still on board with their coach. And as they walked off the court, the future looked a lot brighter than it did one year ago.

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