BYU could become a victim of bad timing in the NCAA Tournament.
If the Cougars had taken on the Virginia Cavaliers a week ago, they would have encountered a team that had lost six of nine and was mired in a deep shooting slump.Now they get a team that seemed to rediscover itself in the Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament.
For the first two-thirds of this season the Cavs looked unbeatable, defeating Pitt, stomping Duke and crushing N.C. State while compiling a 17-4 record and climbing to No. 11 in the Associated Press poll.
Then the bottom fell out. After an 87-54 thrashing of Radford on Feb. 4, a mysterious shooting malady struck the team. Over the next month, they managed to beat only Fairfield, Towson State and ACC cellar-dweller Clemson.
Then came the ACC Tournament, where a fifth-place finish earned Virginia the right to face Wake Forest in the first round. The Cavs won that game, 70-66, then lost to eventual champion North Carolina - which beat them by 19 at the start of their skid - 76-71. It was the Tar Heels' closest game of the tourney.
First-year coach Jeff Jones, at 30 the ACC's youngest head man ever, said he was never worried about his team, even during its slide.
"Even when we were struggling a little bit I still felt good, because they hadn't lost their drive, their confidence," said Jones, who succeeded Terry Holland this season. "The Wake Forest game showed our players were still in it mentally, and against North Carolina we were down by 14 at halftime. A lot of teams would have caved in then."
So the Cavs, now 21-11, appear to be back, just in time to face BYU, 20-12, Thursday at 6 p.m. in the Huntsman Center. The Cougar foe is experienced, with a starting lineup of two seniors, two juniors and one sophomore, and it has a history of performing well in this tournament.
Last year, for instance, the Cavs were also seeded seventh and facing a No. 10 seed in Notre Dame. They polished off the Irish, 75-67, then lost to second-seeded Syracuse by two points.
Over the past 14 years, the Cavs have been in the NCAA Tournament nine times. Their most memorable appearance was in 1981, when a Ralph Sampson-led team encountered a Cougar squad that included Danny Ainge, Fred Roberts, Greg Kite, Devin Durrant and Steve Trumbo. In the NCAA East Regional Finals in Atlanta, Ga., the Cougs took a double-digit halftime lead, only to let the Cavs overrun them in the second half en route to a 74-60 victory. Jones started that game and scored 10 points.
The biggest difference between this team and that team is in the middle, where there's no Sampson now. The Cavs' starting center is 6-foot-9, 240-pound sophomore Ted Jeffries. BYU's 7-6 center, Shawn Bradley, admits that he has never heard of Jeffries, and with good reason: His name is not a household word. During the Cavs' slump he failed to score in double figures in 11 straight games, and he averaged just 6.2 points per game.
The guys who do the scoring for the Cavs are forwards Bryant Stith (20.0 ppg) and Kenny Turner (14.9) and guard John Crotty (15.4). That trio accounted for 50 of Virginia's average of 75 points per game.
Stith, a first-team all-ACC player, is the kind of shooter who can take over a game. Against Notre Dame in a nationally televised contest Jan. 26, Stith scored Virginia's final 19 points, including 17 in the last 3:14, to beat the Irish. In six NCAA Tournament games, Stith has averaged 22 points and shot 57 percent from the field, well above his 49 percent career mark.
Crotty has also saved his best for tourney time. In six NCAA games, he has averaged 19 points and nine assists while shooting 58 percent from the field.
But while Virginia's starting team is solid, its bench is suspect. Jones rarely plays more than eight players, and as a group the bench is averaging just 12 points per game.
Three-point shooting is another Cavalier weakness, although they haven't stopped trying to find the range. The Cavs have averaged just 30.5 percent in that department, taking 13 shots per game. BYU, by contrast, made 40 percent of its three-pointers while attempting nine a game.
What the Cavs are noted for most is defense. A physical and patient team, they were the top defensive squad in the ACC, holding opponents to 68.6 points per game on 44 percent shooting.
At the Jon M. Huntsman Center
Salt Lake City, Thursday, March 14
Seton Hall (22-8) vs. Pepperdine (22-8),12:30 p.m.
New Mexico State (23-5) vs. Creighton (23-7), 30 minutes after comp. of first game
Virginia (21-11) vs. Brigham Young (20-12), 6:05 p.m.
Arizona (26-6) vs. St. Francis, Pa. (24-7), 30 minutes after comp. of first game.
At the McKale Center
Friday, March 15
Michigan State (18-10) vs. Wisconsin-Green Bay (24-6), 12:30 p.m.
Utah (28-3) vs. South Alabama (22-8), 30 minutes after comp. of first game.
Georgetown (18-12) vs. Vanderbilt (17-12), 6:10 p.m.
Nevada-Las Vegas (30-0) vs. Montana (23-7), 30 minutes after comp. of first game.
At the Jon M. Huntsman Center
Salt Lake City
Saturday, March 16
Arizona-St. Francis, Pa. winner vs. Virginia-Brigham Young winner, 12:20 p.m.
Seton Hall-Pepperdine winner vs. New Mexico St.-Creighton winner, 30 minutes after comp. of first game.
At the McKale Center
Sunday, March 17
Utah-South Alabama winner vs. Michigan St.-Wis.-Green Bay winner, 12:35 p.m.
UNLV-Montana winner vs. Groegetown-Vanderbilt winner, 30 minutes after comp of first game.