DURHAM, N.C. – About 45 minutes prior to Saturday’s tip-off against Duke, I was doubled over on the side of the highway, ceaselessly puking out what appeared to be the remnants of several vital organs.
If you hadn’t seen what I had so desperately consumed an hour earlier at Subway — some pre-cooked egg whites slapped between a pair of time-worn, brick-hard bread imitators — you might have guessed I was just unreasonably nervous about the daunting task lying before my school’s youthful basketball team.
The Cavaliers had to face Duke that day. Not the Duke of the Greg Paulus/Josh McRoberts variety, mind you, but the one with guys like Kyle Singler and Nolan Smith taking the court. This Duke team was ranked No. 1 in the country. Even worse, this Duke team — along with all its self-righteous fans who view winning as their special right rather than a happy outcome — was pretty angry. Following a bitter road loss to unranked Florida State, the Blue Devils were ready to unleash their anger before thousands of blue-and-white-painted crazies on their home court, where they had won their last 29 games.
Indeed, beating Duke Saturday would be about as easy as convincing Dickie V that Coach K is a mere mortal.
Virginia, meanwhile, looked less inclined to pull off an upset than Nicole Richie would be to toss a 12-oz. porterhouse into her grocery cart. With their best player out for the season and the majority of their available players listed as freshmen, the Cavaliers were pegged as little more than a depleted basketball team. Moreover, only four players on its roster had ever seen action in Cameron Indoor, and that includes Will Sherrill’s one garbage minute two years ago.
They represented a program that had lost its past 13 games in that hellish little gym, part of an abysmal 8-48 all-time record there. To top it off, these Wahoos recently lost to Seattle, a Division I newcomer in search of a conference to join, and needed a buzzer-beater to take down almighty Norfolk State at home.
Then again, this was also a Virginia team that beat then 15th-ranked Minnesota and Virginia Tech on the road. They were a team that lived and died by the bipolar performances of ballers like Mustapha Farrakhan, who most recently followed a blistering 8-for-9 three-point shooting clinic in a win with a 1-for-5 display in a loss. In fact, entering the Duke game, Mu had shot 55 percent from the floor and 52 from deep in his team’s 10 wins, compared to 22 percent and 11 percent in their six losses.
True to form, the Cavaliers two-stepped to the sweet tune of Farrakhan’s twine-tickling marksmanship in the first half against the Blue Devils, as the senior guard’s 12 points helped his team hand the Dukies their largest halftime deficit of the year. But it wasn’t hot shooting that made Virginia shine in those first 20 minutes. After all, their 37.9 percent field goal shooting wasn’t much better than Duke’s 34.5 percent. It was execution on the defensive end that kept the Devils at bay.
Bennett’s men were embracing their coach’s philosophy with gusto, keeping the pack intact and closing out shooters in a display of energy and grit that robbed Duke of easy looks at the basket. No matter how much they worked the ball around the perimeter, the white jerseys frequently settled for contested three-pointers, falling squarely into the trap of Bennett’s pack-line defense. Even Kyle Singler, who has averaged about 18 points each game this season, failed to find any kind of rhythm.
After that first half, I couldn’t help but think that Duke’s predicted invincibility on that day was grossly overblown. Although I recognized the imminent threat of a Duke run, I also felt the Blue Devils’ potency could be overcome, that they were not as good as everyone made them out to be. Sure, they had won 26 of their past 27 games, but wasn’t much of that with the help of now-absent players like Jon Scheyer, Brian Zoubek and Lance Thomas? Wasn’t their best player, injured guard Kyrie Irving, riding the bench in street clothes? If the Seminoles could beat these guys, then so could the Cavaliers, assuming Duke kept up its meager shooting.
Unfortunately, the overly comfortable Cavaliers appeared to enter the second half with that fallacious assumption in the back of their minds. As those brutal last 20 minutes wore on, Virginia became less committed to anticipating and closing down shooters, allowing Duke to capitalize off open looks and open the floodgates for a deluge of deadly three-pointers. Meanwhile, Farrakhan’s sudden invisibility on the offensive end, where he threw up just one shot attempt in the second half, didn’t help. Farrakhan blamed his flakiness on his simple lack of touches rather than a lack of aggression, but as the team’s leading scorer, he should have found a way to get the ball on every possession and continue his hot shooting.
The Hoos’ hopes were dashed as soon as the gym’s roof came off at the 12-minute mark. Nolan Smith’s one-handed jam brought even the prim, deep-pocketed alumni to their feet and ignited a maelstrom of feverish screams from the Cameron Crazies that seemed to swallow the press table. Finally, Cameron Indoor had come alive. With Assane Sene on the bench with four fouls and Mike Scott looking on helplessly, the undersized Cavaliers were toast.
Virginia fans, meanwhile, can take away positives from their team’s 16-point loss in that maddening arena. Their young and undermanned team fought tooth and nail with the country’s best team in the country’s toughest arena. Recruits must be licking their chops seeing what the Cavaliers can do even with an obvious talent disadvantage. The NCAA Tournament will likely be out the window this year, but the rest of the ACC should be wary. If this team can play with anybody, imagine what more experience, a talented recruiting class, James Johnson and a rejuvenated Mike Scott will bring next year.
On another note, Cameron Indoor really is something every true college basketball fan should experience someday. Every single student in attendance dedicates himself to making the players feel like basketball gods and the opponent like basketball pariahs. Not one of them sits down, ever. Not during a play, not during a full timeout. The result is a pulsating frenzy magnified by the gym’s small size. It’s so small that when you walk in, you feel like you’re entering a high-school game. Everyone stands in line at the door, walks through the small lobby and climbs up the bleachers to find their seat. Just make sure you show up plenty early.
In the meantime, though, here’s hoping that JPJ will bring Duke back down to earth Feb. 16.