It's true—absence really does make the heart grow fonder.
After all, Virginia forward Jamil Tucker is far from an all-star. For his career, he has averaged a modest 7.4 points and 3.1 rebounds per game.
However, as Virginia basketball continues to struggle out the gate, fans can only hope to see the senior swingman return to the lineup as soon as possible. Otherwise, the season might be over before it even begins.
Tucker is perhaps a player tailor-made for new coach Tony Bennett's system. More so than anyone else on the roster. Bennett bases his offense on players making shots, and Tucker is clearly the best shooter on the team. For his career, the big man has shot over 40 percent from behind the three-point arc and would provide a pivotal cog in an offensive machine that is clearly struggling early on this season.
Instead of emerging as a leader for this developing team, though, Tucker has taken an indefinite leave of absence. While few details exist to explain why this leave has taken place, what we do know is that he has, once again, began practicing with his teammates. Even if he remains absent on the sidelines.
The rumors were that Tucker would return for Virginia's ACC/Big Ten Challenge contest against Penn State and yet 40 minutes passed without even a sighting of the 6-9 forward.
The situation worsened last Monday, when the Cavaliers took on Auburn. Not only did Tucker not make the trip, but Virginia's only true frontcourt player, Mike Scott, got a high ankle sprain that kept him out of the game.
In many ways, it was truly miraculous that Virginia was able to hold on in the game and even take a one-point lead with 7.7 second remaining. However, poor defense in the final seconds gave the Cavaliers the result they deserved, even if it was not the one they wanted.
The Cavaliers stand at 4-4 heading into exams this season. Three of the four losses have been very close, decided by a combined nine points. With an offense struggling to find any continuity, fans cannot help but wonder if Tucker's offense could have been the difference between 4-4 and 7-1.
Still, it is important to keep things in perspective. Tucker was never a defensive specialist, so it would be hard to know just how many minutes he would get in Bennett's system if he continued to let his opposite number score. Tucker is also limited in his offense; he certainly can shoot the three, but he has very little inside game, and that one-dimension could be taken away by most college coaches.
However, Tucker represents what this team desperately needs: a spark.
Rebuilding a team is not easy—just look at Bennett's face. The former Wazzou coach must be thinking "What have I gotten myself into?" when he watches this team. Sure, Virginia is capable of playing solid basketball for stretches of time. It quickly fades away, though, when the chips are down and the pressure is up.
The old adage goes that winning teams find ways to win and losing teams find ways to lose.
Well, Virginia is a losing team. Ever since the Cavaliers took on Syracuse nearly two years ago to lose only their second game at home since the John Paul Jones Arena opened, the wheel fell off of the Virginia bandwagon.
The Cavalier team simply does not believe it can win these games. Certainly the players want to, but mentally they cannot get over that hump. Even Sylven Landesberg, Virginia's best player by far, cannot seem to achieve that level of success he had last season.
Virginia is a team that continues to take one step forward and one step back, leaving the coach, the players, and the fans in agony.
Will Sherill, an unknown walk-on, provided a boost earlier this season when his 18-point outburst helped lead Virginia to a win over Cleveland State. That joy has faded, however, and there is a vacuum of leadership at the moment to replace it.
Can Tucker be that new spark? Probably.
Will it last? At this rate, we may never get to find out.