If one thing can be said about the Virginia men's basketball team this season, it's that the team definitely remembers and has learned from their tough losses last year. The Cavaliers appear committed to prevent some of those bad memories from happening again and for the first time this season, they have an opportunity to seek revenge.
When Virginia rolls into Madison Square Garden tomorrow at noon against St. John's (3-1), the teams squaring off both will be very different from the ones that participated in the 95-68 thrashing of the Cavaliers (4-2) at U-Hall last year.
"The Virginia team we're facing is much improved," Red Storm Coach Mike Jarvis said. "They have more depth, good overall size and they're very athletic."
The combination of those things should allow the Cavs to keep pace with its opponents, something they struggled a lot with last year. Against St. John's, for example, Virginia fell victim to a 22-7 run to close the first half and was outrebounded 58-27.
While there is no guarantee of how Virginia will perform tomorrow, it is doubtful that with Colin Ducharme and Travis Watson in the middle, St. John's won't double the Cavs' rebounding.
"They pushed us around pretty good last year," Cavalier Coach Pete Gillen said. "I think we're a little bigger and stronger. We've closed the gap, we'll see how much."
A large part of the Red Storm's offensive threat last year was in the hands of Ron Artest and Tyrone Grant, both of whom have graduated. Instead, St. John's will depend on Bootsy Thornton and Erick Barkley to lead the team.
"Erick is off to a great start," Jarvis said. "The one area that he's still struggling with is shooting the three. Other than that, he's great. I think he's one of the best point guards in the country, at both ends of the court."
While St. John's is off to a solid start this season, it also hasn't had much of an opportunity to prove its ability this year.
"It'll be a pretty good game," Jarvis said. "I'm looking forward to it. It should give our guys more of a challenge then they've had against some teams this season."
The Cavaliers, meanwhile, have struggled as of late with their shooting.
"I just think we're not taking good shots," Gillen said. "We're taking threes with a guy in our face. We've got to get in the gym more and work harder. Our percentage isn't bad but we've got to do a better job."
The Cavs also are coming off a tough loss to Minnesota, where the seasoned veterans did not contribute as much as Gillen said he hoped they would.
But tomorrow's game might provide the Cavs with the motivation they need to get on track again. In addition to the revenge factor, the game at Madison Square Garden is also somewhat of a homecoming. Virginia guards Majestic Mapp, Donald Hand and Jason Dowling are New York area natives, while forward Willie Dersch is from Floral Park, N.Y.
"We beat them pretty badly at their place," Jarvis said. "They're looking to come into Madison Square Garden and play hard, since for some of their guys, it's a homecoming. It's a game that will have a lot of meaning and value for both teams"