Friday, March 16, 2012

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: UVa needs Zeglinski to answer call

OMAHA, Neb. - The opportunities really are endless. This time next week, he could be playing in the Sweet 16 as the darling of this event.

Or he could be signing up for a flag football league. He says he'd like to do that when the season ends.

Or maybe, if things don't go the way Virginia plans here in the NCAA tournament, he'll join some random slow-pitch softball team. The folks back home in Philadelphia will tell you that Sammy Zeglinski was a pretty strong-armed shortstop and right fielder in his high school days, even if he didn't hit a lot of longballs.

"I'm more a leadoff hitter," UVa's senior guard said. "Just get on base any way I can."

Zeglinski never has been all basketball, all the time - a fact that's probably helped him cope during a career marked by injuries, slumps, highs and lows. He's a go-with-the-flow type, a sleepy-eyed guy his roommate describes as the "king of naps," a guy who's earned praise for his leadership but isn't going to spend much time worrying about his legacy.

And that's what makes it so hard to pinpoint: What, exactly, will be Sammy Zeglinski's legacy at UVa?

*   *   *

Everyone else calls him Sam. Family. Friends.

But not us.

"SAAMMMMMMY ZAH-GLIN-SKIIII!!!" just rolls off the tongue, especially after he's hit some big 3-pointer at John Paul Jones Arena.

They call him Sammy on the official roster. They'll call him Sammy on your TV today. But those who know him best will be pulling for Sam.

"I'm not really sure how that happened," he said of the syllabic enhancement when he got to college. "Maybe it just sounds better."

*   *   *

Will the legacy be his shooting? Zeglinski is ranked fifth in school history in 3-pointers made (198). There have been some big shots over the years.

Then again, there have also been some air balls, some late missed free throws, some dark times.

"He can really light it up," junior guard Jontel Evans said. "I know he didn't shoot as well as he probably wanted to this season, but he's still a great shooter. I feel like that will be his legacy."

Or, perhaps, will it be his fortitude? Zeglinski has endured a midcareer coaching change and a series of injuries - really, aren't hip surgeries supposed to be reserved for the 65-and-up set? - to help propel this team into today's first-round NCAA tournament matchup with Florida.

"I think he's going to be remembered for his perseverance, for fighting through a lot of injuries and setbacks that he might have had at the earlier stages of his career," said his roommate, guard Joe Harris. "His toughness and his leadership, I think, will leave a lasting effect on our program."

UVa coach Tony Bennett will always remember Zeglinski's unselfishness, his willingness to defend and facilitate the other offensive players when the shots weren't falling.

Let's be honest here: Those are boring ways to be remembered.

Then again, there's always another possibility for Zeglinski's legacy: postseason icon.

*   *   *

What athlete wears unlucky No. 13? Sammy, that's who.

Not a big deal, he says. He wore No. 1 in high school, but that was already taken when he got to UVa, He wore No. 3 in AAU ball, but that's been retired by the Cavs in honor of Jeff Lamp.

So he combined them. Voila. There's Ol' No. 13, gettin' hip surgery.

*   *   *

Yeah, that's right. Postseason icon. That's what this whole bracket thing is about, right? Hero making. One shining moment. Players rising in slow motion and uncorking that shot nobody will forget.

Zeglinski's capable of it. And if the Cavaliers are going to extend their tournament stay, they'll need more than just Mike Scott and Harris delivering on the offensive end.

"When he's knocking down shots and Joe's hitting 'em, that makes us so much more effective," Bennett said. "We could probably talk forever about why a shot goes in sometimes and sometimes it doesn't, but the other parts of his game are strong."

And needed today. Florida's potency lies in its outside shooting, which means Zeglinski will be among the key defenders getting a hand up in the faces of guards Kenny Boynton and Bradley Beal.

"They shoot 25 3s a game," Zeglinski said. "If you don't contest a lot of them, they'll make more than they miss."

So could Zeglinski. He has shot 50 percent or better from beyond the arc six times this year, but he also went through a well-documented stretch in which his shots haven't splashed as often.

He's missed at least half of his 3-pointers in 11 straight games.

Today would be a good time to change that.

*   *   *

When they made the NCAA tournament, the Cavaliers had the option of ordering new shoes.

Most designs were subtle. But the ones Zeglinski was wearing in the locker room Thursday were bright orange; they'll look like highlighters on your TV today.

"Go bold," he said with a smile.

Yes, Sammy - or Sam, or Ol' No. 13 - go bold. The opportunities really are endless.

And the slowpitch softball team can wait.

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