Six Things You Need to Know About Virginia Basketball

Ben GibsonSenior Analyst IDecember 18, 2009

CHAPEL HILL, NC - FEBRUARY 07:  Sylven Landesberg #15 of the Virginia Cavaliers goes to the basket against Deon Thompson #21 of the North Carolina Tar Heels on February 7, 2009 at the Dean E. Smith Center in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

They say time heals all wounds, but can it solve Virginia basketball?

The Cavaliers are at the end of their nearly two week break for exams to take on the UNC-Wilmington Seahawks this Saturday.  Of course, whether people will actually see it is another question entirely.

You see, Charlottesville is being hit with some major Christmas cheer.  Around 20 inches of snow are predicted to fall within the next 24 hours, making travel more than a little difficult.

However, as the Virginia sports website stated earlier today, the game is still scheduled to go on.  The rules stipulate that if both teams can make and at least two of the three officials, the game should be played. Since the Seahawks arrived this afternoon, it appears that this game will indeed be played. 

With a record of 4-4 overall and Christmas break here, Virginia was going to struggle with attendance regardless.  Adding about 20 inches of problems to the situation could just make the whole atmosphere tomorrow ridiculous.

It will lead us to that deep philosophical question, if a game is played and no one is there to see it, did it really happen?

Of course that question can be extended to the Virginia season so far.  If you have been too busy watching Virginia football hiring Mike London, relishing over the men's soccer national championship or simply had too much egg nog.  Here are five things you need to know about this season so far.

1. Jamil Tucker continues to miss time

The senior swing-man has taken an indefinite leave of absence from the team for personal reasons.  As a result, Virginia's depth has almost become laughable.

Tucker was no defensive guru but he has a sweet stroke and his offense has been sorely missed.  Virginia has shot a respectable 40 percent from behind the arc so far this season but in Virginia's loss to Stanford the Cavaliers could only muster a 4-of-18 performance.

Virginia needs that scoring punch Tucker provides but the mystery remains when or if that will ever come to fruition.

2. Will Sherrill is a hero

Sherrill, the unknown walk-on coming into the season, had a game for the ages against Cleveland State when he scored 18 points in a second half rally for Virginia.

Sherrill has had to step into the tremendous void of the front court and ever since his amazing performance, Bennett has rewarded him with more playing time.

In many ways, Sherrill's basketball IQ and selflessness are what make him a perfect candidate for his system.  Sherrill sets screens better than any of the bigs and he can see the floor well.  Look for him to see time if other players continue to struggle.

3. Three of Virginia's four losses have been by a combined nine points

Close but no cigar.

While the Cavaliers have struggled out the gate, most surprising is the fact that Virginia still could have won nearly every game so far this season.

Against Stanford it was a case of the Cardinal shooting 6-of-8 behind the arc in the first half. 

Against Penn State it was Talor Battle playing like the superstar that he is, particularly in the second half when he scored 28 of his amazing 32 points.  The Cavaliers had no answer and their 10 point lead vanished as did the ACC's winning streak in their ACC/Big Ten Challenge.

In Virginia's last performance against Auburn, the Cavaliers suffered from constant defensive breakdowns, even the final game-winning drive to the basket.

Virginia needs some positive momentum this holiday season or the fans will feel like they got a lump of coal.

4. Sylven Landesberg is struggling

Okay, so maybe this sounds harsh on the surface.

After all, the sophomore is still leading the team with 16.9 points per game and been the leading scorer in six of the eight games this season.

However, numbers are not always what they seem.

Much has been expected of this sophomore sensation and although his numbers have been good, they have not been good when they matter the most.

In clutch situations, the best players have to step up.  Last season, Landesberg was able to do that as a true freshman and set the NBA scouts on high alert.

This season, Landesberg has disappeared for stretches.  When Battle was going off for 32 points, Landesberg was nowhere to be found.

When Virginia had a chance for the comeback, Landesberg was missing free throws at the line.  The charity stripe was his playground last season, through eight games Landesberg went to the line 69 times in 2008-09.

This year, he has only gotten to the line 45 times and that has clearly gotten under his skin.

That frustration has spread to his team at the line as everyone seems to be missing freebies that are costing Virginia in these close contests.

Obviously the expectations for Landesberg is high, many of those he put on himself after becoming the ACC Rookie of the Year.  We all know that teams are game-planning around him but the same could be said of last year. 

Without a turnaround from Landesberg, Virginia will continue to struggle.

5. Jeff Jones likes Tony Bennett

It's clear that Jones did not shed many tears when former Virginia coach Dave Leitao resigned after just four seasons.  The scoring phenom in high school had become an enigmatic figure at Virginia, playing with little confidence and streaky shooting.

As a result, his minute suffered and he clearly needed a change of pace.

Well Bennett has given Jones an opportunity and you can tell that the junior seems to have a spring in his step.  As a result, he has opened up his offensive array and begun to attack the basket.

He, along with Mustapha Farrakhan appear to be the most improved players heading into this season.  The question is, just how much have they improved?

After all, despite the increased level of play by both of these players, the numbers have yet to pan out.  Last season, the two combined for nearly 11 PPG and this season they have combined for nearly 16 PPG.

Considering that both men have about 15 extra minutes combined on the floor, are the numbers really that improved?  Can these players find the consistency Virginia needs to run an offense?

Therefore, even though both of these guys clearly like playing for Bennett the question is, does Bennett like them?

6. Virginia needs to learn how to win again.

What seems painfully clear to me is that Virginia is not a confident team.

Who can blame them?  The Cavaliers have struggled the past two seasons and only three players on the roster were around when Virginia last made the NCAA tournament.

Not to mention that of those three, the only one to play significant minutes, Tucker, has yet to play once this season.

The old saying goes that winning teams find ways to win and losing teams find ways to lose.  Well that is certainly the case with Virginia.

I do not mean that the team is not trying, they certainly are.  Of course, I think they were trying the past two seasons too.  However, deep down, these players do not believe they should win.

Oh they know they should beat the smaller conference teams, but it is no coincidence that all four of Virginia's losses have come to power conference teams.  It is not simply a matter of the four teams being far superior, in reality some of these teams performed rather poorly.

Yet Virginia seems to be unable to get over that hump and prove to themselves that they deserve to win some of these games. 

It is probably something that started way back when the Cavaliers lost to Syracuse in December 2007 at home.  That was a very winnable game, one where the team was let down by their superstar Sean Singletary who struggled at the free throw line.  That loss crushed the aura of invincibility around John Paul Jones Arena, a place where the Cavaliers had only lost once last season. 

That loss opened the flood gates to close losses in the ACC to Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech, Florida State, Miami and just about everyone else.

Virginia must learn to win again and a victory over UNC-Wilmington can help.  However, it will take a sudden jolt of electricity to get this team jump started again.  Something on the scale of a blizzard.