In the midst of a shellacking by the Xavier Muskateers on the hapless Virginia basketball team earlier this month, Cavalier head coach Dave Leitao decided to put junior guard Solomon Tat in the game to fill up the garbage minutes.
Likely he was hoping lightning would strike twice.
One year ago, Virginia was in this exact scenario, being blown out by Xavier, but this time on the road. Tat was brought in and exploded for 12 points in 16 minutes in front of a hostile crowd.
Okay, who knows how hard Xavier was playing on the defensive end. After all, they had a virtually insurmountable 60-31 edge at half.
Still, Tat showed promise for an injury-plagued team that needed a spark.
His reward was 16 minutes of playing time against Duke the following game. His stat line was not exactly impressive ( 0 PTs, 2 TOs, 2 REB, 1 STL) nor was it terrible. After that performance, Tat played a combined four minutes over the next four games.
Indeed, there has never been a more enigmatic figure in Virginia basketball history than Solomon Tat. A mystery that only seems to grow deeper in his junior year in Charlottesville.
Tat was the prized pupil of Dave Leitao's first recruiting class. The Nigerian star had been ranked in the top 100 of most recruiting websites and was the last name to sign on the dotted line for the Cavaliers.
Many thought he could be a solid contributor alongside emerging weapons J.R. Reynolds and Sean Singletary in the backcourt.
Leitao seemed to believe in his young prodigy—so much so, that he started Tat in the first game of the season against tenth-ranked Arizona when an eye injury limited Reynolds.
Tat's final rebound to seal the game is a moment memorialized in Virginia lore for it marked the opening of the beautiful John Paul Jones Arena.
A new era, a new arena and a new star. Or so was thought.
Problems emerged from the start.
First, visa concerns were raised over the Nigerian's eligibility to play in the United States.
Those concerns took weeks over the summer to resolve, even bleeding into practices and the regular season.
Many Virginia fans were worried that their prized recruit was going to be deemed ineligible before play even began. Even though he was accepted, Tat missed valuable time training with his new teammates and getting used to the college game.
That transition is very difficult and being away from the team certainly did not help him.
However, the biggest problem for Tat was his health.
Herniated discs in his back brought him immense pain and stiffness. This too held back his progression and is something that he has never really recovered from.
After his debut against Arizona in 2006, Tat did not reappear on the court until 11 games later against Gonzaga. It was nearly two months of time lost for the guard and that setback may have cost him the offensive firepower Virginia fans had so desperately wanted coming into the year.
Still, Tat showed that while injuries may hold back other parts of his game he can do one thing brilliantly: play defense.
Most freshmen fall in love with scoring and rebounding, but it was clear that Tat liked to play physical and incorporate sound fundamentals with a relatively strong basketball IQ.
Tat's biggest play of his freshmen year came in 2007 against Duke when his tenacious defense on Duke's Jon Scheyer forced Scheyer to throw up a prayer in overtime that hit the side of the board.
The defensive stand kept the score tied, allowing Virginia to hold the ball for the last shot. It set the stage Sean Singletary, whose game-winner would go down as one of the most famous shots in UVA history.
"Coach believed in me at that moment to make a stop," Tat said after the game.
Tat may have been limited by injuries but he had played in 19 of season's last 21 games. Virginia fans saw that potential was there.
However, the sophomore campaign for Tat and his fellow Cavaliers was something to forget.
With the exception of the Xavier game, Tat was once again dealing with a multitude of health concerns. He did not make it to the floor until December 30th against Hartford and played in only 15 games on the year.
By the end of the year, Tat was fully healthy, but not reaching the floor. Virginia coach Dave Leitao was even ignoring Tat for walk-ons in blowouts, when he could have at least given Tat some valuable game experience.
Perhaps, Leitao wanted to avoid another injury that would further delay Tat's progress. The hope was that Leitao was allowing Tat to get ready for a junior year of health and success.
Well we are now near the end of January. Virginia has played 16 games and Tat has played in only six of them, averaging less than four minutes.
The media has asked if there is an underlying reason for this decision and Leitao has constantly said it is only a personnel decision.
Tat is not a superstar and he may never even be a starter. But with a team that is desperately in need of a two-guard, why is Solomon Tat not playing?
Virginia has a horrific offense. In fact, after a 3-22 performance in the first half against Florida State, it may be historically bad.
Even worse, their defense is not much better.
It is hard to make comebacks when junior Calvin Baker is leaving three-point shooters wide open because he is frantically going for a steal.
Tat is disciplined, focused, and experienced. He may not score the ten points other shooting guards on the team could get you, but he will not turn the ball over or make the terrible decisions that others do.
He even has shown the capability to drive to the basket and draw contact, a necessity in Leitao's currently motionless "motion" offense.
Most importantly, Tat would provide defense to a team who ranks dead last in the ACC in nearly every defensive category.
If you're going to play ugly, shouldn't you use your toughest players?
Virginia basketball needs a hero right now—someone who can spark a listless team. Last year, Lars Mikalauskus returned to the rotation and provided a lift to a sagging team that was able to escape the cellar of the ACC.
Why can't Tat repeat this?
When Coach Leitao looks down his bench, I wonder what he sees when he looks at Tat.
Does he see the superstar he had so desperately hoped for that failed to pan out?
Does he see him as indicative of a first-year recruiting class that is full of character but lacking ACC talent?
Does he see a junior that is too old to build around for 2009?
Leitao has had his fair share of tough breaks as a coach at Virginia, but sometimes you have to make your own luck. You have to use what you have and currently he is not.
Solomon Tat deserves his chance to play. His toughness is everything Leitao preaches about in press conferences and locker rooms and yet it is what this team has not shown throughout this season.
Virginia fans knew this season would be rough. But they cannot root for a team that only plays hard when they're down by 20 or 30 points.
The Cavaliers need to show signs of life—they need to show progress.
Tat's career may be enigmatic, but Leitao's failure to use him this season is the biggest mystery of all.
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