Virginia Basketball's Disappearing Centers: The Big Men Who Fall Short
It seems like ages ago since Ralph Sampson took over the college basketball landscape and made the Virginia Cavaliers a household name.
Well, that's because it is.
Life post-Sampson has been pretty miserable for the Cavaliers and their fans. Despite some of the great players and great teams Virginia has fielded in the past, today's recruits are faced with these stern facts. In the 21st century, the Cavaliers have made the NCAA tournament twice.
Both times, they did not even make it out of the first weekend. Those teams were merely blips on a long road to mediocrity.
My partner in crime Allen did a good job of explaining that Virginia's success post-Sampson has been built around guard play. The only times the Cavaliers have made a run at respectability has been on the shoulders of a play-maker at point guard like Roger Mason Jr. or Sean Singletary.
Of course, when you look at the roster it makes sense. Cavalier coaches have had to rely on guards almost by default, for the Sampson shoes still loom large and have yet to be filled nearly 25 years later.
The Cavalier front-court is certainly the weakest in the ACC this season. Outside of power forward Mike Scott, Virginia does not have a legitimate scoring option in the paint. Senior captain Jerome Meyinnse is a tough kid but he is a former walk-on and a shell of an athlete compared to opposing player game in and game out.
Outside of that, Virginia has the tall but ineffective Assane Sene who is more likely to catch a cold than the basketball and Will Sherrill, a walk-on with a good mind but lackluster talent.
When you consider just how reliant the Cavaliers are on the outside shot, it is little surprise how woeful their offense truly is. With a make-shift front line, head coach Tony Bennett was lucky to gt out to a 5-2 ACC record against the dregs of a conference facing a down year.
Still, after a seven game losing streak, you would expect the Cavalier big men to be ready to try and turn things around. After all, they are getting opportunities, some of them are barely guarded.
Well Mike Scott's twitter page does not exactly bode well for the future of this program. Today he wrote that he had given up, hours before the Cavaliers tip off against Boston College.
Sure, he could have been talking about his basketball team or explaining that he had given up raw meat. However, if the quote fits, fans won't acquit.
Intentional or not, Mike Scott summarized his entire career in that tweet. He is a talented player who gets moody and unpredictable at times.
He also describes a team that has lost the mental and physical toughness necessary to compete. A team that has accepted failure and given in to what looked like such a promising season.
Scott is certainly the second best player on this team, but his inability to consistently produce has caused headaches for Bennett and the fans. Even with Sylven Landesberg out with an injury, Scott responded by going 0-6 from the floor against Duke in just 12 minutes.
When his team needed him the most, he was nowhere to be found. In the past two games, Scott is 0-13 and has as many rebounds as turnovers.
In truth though, Scott is far from the first big man to underwhelm at Virginia. He is simply walking in the footsteps of our 21st century forwards.
Take for instance, Elton Brown. Brown is perhaps one of the most hated Cavaliers of all time by the fans. Here was a kid with so much promise as a freshman, but his poor shot selection and bad attitude often led to booing from Virginia fans.
For me, his career will always be defined by the overtime game against Maryland where he went to the line with a chance to tie the score late. Brown proceeded to brick the first shot and then air ball the second one out of bounds.
Game, set, match.
Brown and his foolish Gator chop (maybe the orange and blue color scheme confused him) are complemented by other fallen stars.
Lars Mikalauskas was a fan favorite for his heart and hustle on the court, but that did not always translate to the practice facilities. He often got into minor spats with coach Leitao at the time and was ultimately kicked off the team.
Nick Vandeerlaan was a young man with a hockey player's mind attached to his body. He could have fouled out in eight minutes if he ever got the chance to play that long. His career was short lived at Virginia.
Ryan Pettinella had some post moves but he was horribly inconsistent and was perhaps the worst free throw shooter of all time.
Jason Clark was a "defensive specialist". In other words, he had zero offensive game and academics cut his career short as a big man for the Cavaliers.
John Brandenburg and Tristan Spurlock, despite these horrible front-courts, never even got a chance to play for the team. They were forced to sit on the bench and witness this big man debacle from the front row. Brandenburg transferred and Spurlock may be next in line, who could really blame him?
Then there was Tunji Soroye...need I say more Cavalier fans.
That means, in the past 10 years, the best big men Virginia can offer are Travis Watson and Jason Cain.
Now Travis Watson was a warrior, he led the ACC in rebounding for a couple of his seasons and had some shining moments. He deserves credit for playing center considering he was under-sized, but he too had some pretty boneheaded moments.
It was clear that by his senior year, things were not going well and he pretty much packed it in at points during the game. In a pre-Twitter world, I would not be surprised if he would not have tweeted the same thing if he had the chance.
The result was a souring of a rather strong reputation and the beginning of the end for coach Pete Gillen.
Jason Cain was the opposite. Here was a guy that people made a fan club for so that they could ridicule his complete obscurity his first few seasons.
Cain went from a punchline to a headline though his junior and senior season as his role on the team grew.
However, despite rocking a killer mustache, Jason Cain never averaged more than 8 points per game in a single season. He never became that consistent scoring option to complement Singletary and J.R. Reynolds in the back court.
We all had hope that Mike Scott could break this curse. With the right point guard and with the right attitude, Scott could emerge as a star and help rebuild the program.
Well, I think we all know now that was a pipe dream. Scott and this program, needs to be purged. Bennett needs to start fresh, he needs to eradicate every memory from the past decade and build his team from the ground up.
I don't know if Bennett will ever find the guy that can fill the shoes of Ralph Sampson, but, if he works hard, he can find something better. A program that can sustain success.
Hopefully the fans will give him the chance to do that.
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