When the 1981-82 season began, they were an inexperienced, unpredictable lot, lacking two proven scorers from a squad that last year reached college basketball's NCAA semifinals. Surprisingly strong at the start, they sputtered as the season wore on, and had more narrow escapes than a dog crossing a highway in rush-hour traffic. Yet as they prepare to play Alabama-Birmingham tonight in the third round of this year's post-season playoffs, the University of Virginia's Cavaliers sport a 30-3 record and rank second in the nation in both wire service polls.
The primary reason for Virginia's success is the presence on the team of 7 ft. 4 in. junior center Ralph Sampson, widely acclaimed the preeminent player in college basketball for the second consecutive season.
Sampson came out of high school touted as the game's next great big man, the best since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (then Lew Alcindor) and Bill Walton played for UCLA. Remarkably, he has lived up to that extravagant billing.
Players Sampson's size come along rarely. Even rarer is the giant who posseses not only the strength, stamina, and coordination to dominate the center's position, but Sampson's additional agility, ballhandling skills, and outside shooting touch. And rarer still are ''franchise'' players who, like Sampson, unselfishly subordinate their own egos to advance their team's fortunes. ''We have a team that plays well together,'' Sampson says. ''Maybe I could score more, but what good would it do if we lost?''
As it is, Sampson's statistics are formidable (16.1 points, 11.3 rebounds, and about three blocked shots per game for his career), though hardly overwhelming. What cannot be measured is the effect his presence has on a game.
Aware of performances like his 12 blocked shots against Army or his 21 rebounds against Virginia Tech, opponents must change their offenses, even alter their shots, to avoid his tremendous reach. They must also concentrate assiduously on preventing the Cavaliers from getting the ball into the pivot, from which Sampson can score with a wide assortment of shots, including graceful hooks, fadeaway jumpers, and thunderous dunks (with either hand).
In order to defeat Virginia, teams customarily fall back into tightly-packed zone defensEs, sandwiching Sampson between two and sometimes three players. That leaves plenty of room for the other Cavs to operate, and Sampson sees to it with his passing and other skills that his teammates get every chance to take advantage of that situation. ''A lot of guards have the ability to make other players more effective,'' notes Virginia Coach Terry Holland, ''but very few big men do. Ralph does.''
Still, before the season Virginia was thought to be quite vulnerable. With the graduation of shooters Jeff Lamp and Lee Raker, it appeared the team lacked the firepower and savvy to counteract, let alone take advantage of, the attention opponents paid to Sampson.
But things worked out better than expected for the Cavaliers. Senior Jeff Jones and sophomore Othell Wilson combined to form an exceptional backcourt, perhaps the best in the tough Atlantic Coast Conference. Jones brings unusual intelligence and passing skill (3.4 assists per game) to the partnership, while Wilson, with his quickness, provides penetration to the basket, peskiness on defense, and adept ballhandling against pressure tactics. A 12-point per game scorer, Wilson was an all-conference selection this season.
First guard off the bench is Ricky Stokes, far shorter than the 5 ft. 10 in. claimed in Virginia's media guide. Also very quick, Stokes often comes in during a game's waning moments to bolster the team's ballhandling and to apply defensive pressure. His two free throws enabled Virginia to survive, 54-51, against Tennessee in second round NCAA action earlier this week, and his rebound basket won a game in overtime in the ACC Tournament.
At power forward, junior Craig Robinson emerged as a decent rebounder and scorer after being so inconsistent he spent most of last season on the bench. His basket at the buzzer saved the Cavs against Clemson. Robinson is spelled by Ken Edelin, a sophomore who made the team after a tryout this fall.
Two highly-regarded freshmen, Tim Mullen and Jim Miller, man the wing forward's slot. Both are mobile, smooth, aggressive, and capable of scoring when necessary, as Mullen's career-high 21 points in a narrow win over Wake Forest demonstrated.
Throughout the season, teams tested Virginia's supporting cast and lost, usually by wide margins. Only fellow ACC member North Carolina, currently top-ranked at 28-2, managed to defeat the Cavaliers until Maryland pulled the trick on the final day of the regular season.The loss to the Terrapins dropped Virginia from the No. 1 spot in the polls it had occupied since thrashing Carolina, 74-58, in a Feb. 3 rematch.
Carolina and UVa. met a third time this season - in the finals of the ACC Tournament, won 47-45 by the Tar Heels as they resorted to a controversial stall for the game's final eight minutes.
The NCAA installed Virginia and UNC as the top-seeded teams in separate regions (the Mideast and East, respectively), so the league rivals may meet yet again, this time in the national championship game. Last year they played in the semifinals and Carolina won handily. The Cavaliers would doubtless like nothing better than to redress their losses to the Tar Heels when it would count the most, on March 29 in New Orleans.