In the rematch at Charlottesville on Feb. 3, Virginia blasted the Heels 74-58 specifically because the Cavaliers were so confident they would win that they never had time to be non-aggressive. Wilson undressed North Carolina play-maker Jimmy Black. Robinson scored 10 late points and bottled up James Worthy. Sampson? Eighteen points, 12 rebounds, a couple of Plays.
With their brand new, helter-skelter, running, attacking style—especially on defense—the Cavs are the spittin' image of the Tar Heels. Holland admits he patterned his presses and traps and substitutions after those that Dean Smith has used for years at Chapel Hill. Now the teams are carbons—except that Holland has more players to work with. When both perform well—forget the stalls and the polls and whatever happens in the NCAAs—they are the two best teams in the land. And they are just about even. Except for one thing: Virginia has the Sampster.
Because of a schedule littered with virtual nobodies, the Cavaliers didn't know how good they were until they went to Chapel Hill for Carolina I. Carolinas I and II were the bookends of the Virginia season. In defeat, the Cavs found out they were capable of maturing into a tartar horde. With victory, Virginia became one.
"Better than last year?" says Jeff Mullins, the former Duke and NBA star who now dabbles in ACC telecasts. " Virginia is 20 points better; Sampson is 40 percent better."
There have been Wilt's finger roll, Russell's pre-game vomiting and defensive timing, Abdul-Jabbar's sky hook, Walton's circle-the-wagons arm waving. "I am the next stage of basketball development," Sampson has said. Well, excuuuuuuuuse me. Of course, he's right. But what of the Sampson trademark? Honestly, there are so many multiple defenses, staffed by so many players, being thrown at Sampson these days—the Clemson posse seemed to include that school's national champion football team, its Tiger Paws and a hundred Shawn Weatherly look-alike contest winners—that it's hard to put a finger on Sampson's singular attribute. Except he is this: seven-foot-four. And he does this: something amazingly creative, a new and different move with or against the ball, every time out. "Ralph is Willie Mosconi," says Golden State scout Tom Newell. "He's got tricks he hasn't even thought up yet." And N.C. State Coach Jim Valvano says simply that Sampson is the most influential athlete in sport. Any sport. Whew!
Holland, his herringbone jacket in place, his charcoal-gray JFK haircut just so, is one of the more attractive, yet unfamiliar coaches in the business. He's also one of the best. He molded this team around Sampson with the craft of a Gepetto. Last season Holland brought in the vest-pocket guards, Wilson and Stokes, as reserves—defensive reserves. This season, to replace the departed senior leaders, Jeff Lamp and Lee Raker, he brought in Tim Mullen and Jimmy Miller, cocky shooters both. The underclassmen have loosened up the Cavs with a youthful jocularity and created a relaxed atmosphere instead of a "moody" ( Holland's word) one.
"I guess I am having more fun," Jones says. "I actually smiled on the court against Louisville. And before this season I swore I'd never give a high five." Now he deals digits with the best.
With quickness and depth at hand, the Cavs have ditched their deliberate half-court, stand-and-shoot offense, which allowed opponents to collapse and swarm around Sampson even more than they do now. Suddenly Virginia's game is an open-floor swirl of motion. The Cavaliers don't wait for the game to come to them anymore; whipped on by the resourceful and intimidating little ruffian, Wilson, they go out and get it. Obviously, living well is the best revenge. Last week, if that Wittenburg shot had dropped and Robinson's hadn't—Sampson's 24 rebounds aside—the Cavs might have lost twice.
Now all that's left for Virginia is to survive the filibusters in this stall-ball season, win the national championship and wait on pins and needles for yet another Sampson decision on whether to stay in school. "That'll probably be like Christmas shopping," Sampson says of turning pro. "I'll see something I like and that will be it."
In the meantime, yes, Santa Claus, there is another Virginia.