There was a running joke in my hall last year that whenever someone would drop something thrown at them, they would be accused of "pulling a Sene."\nI'm ashamed to admit how long we kept this game going, but in all honesty, the basketball player didn't really give us much reason to stop. Seemingly night in and night out, senior center Assane Sene would perform at least one play more suitable to SportsCenter's "Not Top 10" list than any Virginia Basketball highlight reel: bobbling passes, missing lay ups, letting guys half a foot smaller than him grab rebounds over his back, etc. Sene became our lovable punching bag and when Virginia's season ended with two Cavaliers fighting for the same ball against Miami and knocking it out of bounds we were able to fight off the pain with laughter by saying it must have been Sene himself who drew up the play.
At one of our hall reunions this past fall, we all expressed cautious optimism that our basketball team would mirror the success of our surprise football squad and perhaps make a run to the NCAA Tournament. Our optimism lay firmly on the broad shoulders of senior forward Mike Scott, knowing that it would take a Herculean effort from the fifth year almost every night to accomplish our goal. At no point during that night did anyone even mention Sene, the seven-footer from Senegal - except perhaps to put an "over/under" number on his season's turnovers. We all heavily bet our imaginary monies on the "over."
Needless to say, we were all quite surprised when we watched Virginia's season opener against South Carolina State and Assane Sene looked like, well, an actual center. The development in his game during one offseason was tremendous. Before, Sene was good for a few rebounds and even better for some light comic relief, but during the game he was actively contesting shots, pulling down rebounds and finally using his stature to fight in the paint and get to the foul line.
After needing eight games last year to accumulate four blocks, Sene matched that number in one game against Drexel earlier this season. In the second game of the season, he posted double-digit points for only the fifth time in his collegiate career and was an active presence on the glass.
Most importantly, Sene became an extremely capable defender. He more than held his own against some of the nation's better big men, when he faced sophomore forward Evan Smotrycz of Michigan and the Plumlee brothers of Duke.
Sene also developed into the perfect foil for Scott, bearing the brunt of playing inside so the star power forward had more room to operate. The results on the court were undeniable, as the Cavaliers cruised to a 14-2 record heading into their Jan. 19 battle in Atlanta against Georgia Tech.
Off to a strong start with three rebounds and one blocked shot already, Assane came down awkwardly on his right ankle with just seconds to go in the first half. He left the court with the help of his teammates, and when he reemerged from the trainer's room he was on crutches. He hasn't touched the floor since. With Sene's recovery time expected to be six weeks, Virginia now faces the very real prospect of not seeing its - dare I say star? - big man on the court again for the rest of the regular season. While last year this might have only provided my hall with new joke material, after watching the Cavaliers struggle against Virginia Tech and N.C. State without Sene's presence in the middle, this year the ramifications seem a lot less humorous.
The past two games have shown that it is a real possibility that the Cavaliers' once so-promising season will derail. Since Sene's primary backup, redshirt freshman forward James Johnson, transferred for the warmer climates of San Diego, Virginia doesn't really have anyone who can adequately fill Sene's role – one which is critical to Tony Bennett's style of play.
The Cavaliers' defense ranks second in the nation, mainly because of the team's ability to prevent easy buckets by the rim and force opponents to take lower-percentage outside shots. Without the threat of the seven-foot Sene guarding the basket, teams are much more capable of sending the ball down low and taking advantage of the Cavaliers' lack of height for offensive rebounds and easy second chance opportunities.
Against Virginia Tech, 6-foot-7 forward Jarell Eddie led the Hokies with ten rebounds, while no one from Virginia reached double-digits.
The problem was even more glaring against N.C. State, when a pair of 6-foot-8 forwards, sophomore C.J. Leslie and junior Richard Howell, torched the Cavaliers for 17 points and 18 rebounds, respectively - and no, that's not a misprint. Howell actually grabbed 18 rebounds and in all likelihood would have reached 20 had it not been for a late-game foul-out.
While sophomore forward Akil Mitchell and freshman forward Darion Atkins are doing their best to make up for Sene's absence, they are both undersized and simply cannot provide his shot-altering presence.
The Cavaliers still have the majority of their ACC schedule left to play, including two games against No. 8 North Carolina, Florida State and Maryland, as well as a trip to Blacksburg to take on those upset-minded Hokies again. Unless coach Bennett can slip his players some height enhancing supplements, it's plausible the Cavaliers could plummet from the national rankings and face the undesirable situation of needing a deep run in the ACC Tournament with a rusty Sene and a tired Scott simply to make March Madness. If that thought doesn't get you biting those fingernails, then nothing will.
If you had told me a few months ago that the Cavaliers' postseason hopes would rest on the ankle of Assane Sene, I would have laughed at you and pretended to drop whatever I happened to be holding at the time. But now, I'm leading the charge to offer him daily ankle massages and bring him chicken noodle soup - and if you're a fan of Virginia basketball I suggest you do the same.
Come on Assane; Get better soon. I want to remember you for pulling a Willis Reed and leading this team to greatness despite a leg injury, not as the butt of some dumb joke.
On second thought, though, it is still pretty funny. Here, throw me something ... thunk.