Sunday, January 16, 2011

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Young Cavs learn from craziness

DURHAM, N.C. -- This place is great because of how much you can hear.

The students at Cameron Indoor Stadium are right on top of the court, which means they're right on top of press row, which means more than just the obnoxious shots at officials and boorish jabs at opposing players are audible.

You hear actual conversations. Concerns. Thoughts-to-selves. And during the first half of Duke's game against Virginia on Saturday, this is what you could hear from the Duke student section.

"What are we doing?"

"This is not OK with me."

"I thought we were going to come out on fire, p----ed off, and win by, like, 25."

That's notable. Don't forget that, Virginia fans, because not a ton of teams -- especially teams this young -- come in here and elicit comments like that.

But this place also is famous for what you can't hear. And eight minutes into the second half of this one, when Nolan Smith slammed home that fast-break dunk to cap Duke's first sustained rally of the game, you could not hear your neighbor.

You could not hear your own thoughts.

All of it drowned in the din.

How did UVa's 42-33 lead in the second half turn into a 76-60 Blue Devils' victory? We needn't bother so much with X's and O's.

All we had to do was listen.

"This is the ultimate home-court advantage," UVa freshman swingman Joe Harris said. "They got that lead, especially when Nolan Smith had that dunk, the place just went deaf. It was insane. From that point on, they got the momentum -- and it escalated from there."

In other words, everything got faster. Louder. More intense. And those set plays that were working so well in the first half? They started getting rushed. Those passes that found their targets early? They started getting picked off and turned into points at the other end.

There is no great shame in this. In 2005, when Virginia Tech visited Cameron for the first time as a member of the ACC, the young Hokies were caught up in the same maelstrom and embarrassed, 100-65. But two years later, that same core of players -- Zabian Dowdell, Jamon Gordon, Coleman Collins -- came in here and won, 69-67. Something similar could happen for Harris, KT Harrell and UVa's other talented youngsters.

You have to feel it once to know what to expect.

"It's definitely a learning experience for us and for me, because we've got a lot more games ahead of us," Harrell said. "We've got to realize that it's a game of runs, things like that are going to happen. They're going to get dunks. The crowd's going to go crazy. We've just got to learn to keep our heads and keep playing."

As much as they'd warned themselves about that, the Cavaliers couldn't recover once things started to turn. In the words of coach Tony Bennett, they "fractured."

They also admittedly got a little awe-struck.

"I know me especially, I was kind of a Duke fan when I was younger," Harris said. "Not as much when I got older, but when I was real young, watching Jay Williams and all those guys. All their games were always on ESPN, so I just grew up watching all the games at Cameron Indoor.

"To finally get in here and play, it's obviously a great experience. The fans lived up to all the hype that they have. They're as crazy as any fans we've seen -- by far."

But the fact that the Cavaliers could instill trepidation in that fan base -- if only for 30 minutes -- speaks to the fact that they have talent and potential. The next step is to mature and embrace the atmosphere.

"I love playing in here," forward Will Sherrill said. "I like when the fans get loud. There were a couple of buckets that Duke made and it got really rocking in there. I like that. I don't know if some of the guys, it got to them, but that's the challenge, to stay composed and remember what we do every day in practice."

Sherrill, you might have guessed, is a senior. Some day, those other guys will be too.

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