Did the good folks at Cavalier Sports Marketing know something the rest of the sporting world did not? When they decided to put Stephane Dondon on the cover of the first game program of the season, did they know the senior forward would respond with the best game of his career?
Last season, his first since coming over from the community college ranks, Dondon scored just 3.4 points per game, showing only hints that he could emerge as an important cog in the Virginia wheel. But in Friday night's rollicking win over Long Island, he led the Cavaliers with 17 points, finished second on the team with six rebounds and tied for second with three assists. Throw in a block, two steals and that charge he drew in the first half, and you've got a hell of a game from a relatively unlikely source.
"Stephane's playing very well," Cav coach Pete Gillen said. "He's had two terrific games - the last exhibition game and this one. We're thrilled with the way he's playing."
In last week's exhibition finale, Dondon had 17 points in just 25 minutes on perfect 7-for-7 shooting, but Long Island coach Ray Martin said his squad was not looking for Dondon - or any one player in particular, for that matter - to be the thorn in its side Friday night.
"To be honest with you, we didn't know about him as much," Martin acknowledged.
Why would the Blackbirds have paid much attention to Dondon? The scouting tapes they got from last season showed a 6-foot-9, 236-pound forward with athleticism and a decent shooting touch, but one who seemed tentative most of the time, still adjusting to the speed and intensity of top-level Division I basketball.
The boys from up North must have been mighty surprised, then, when Dondon practically took over the game for five minutes in the first half.
He started off with a three-pointer from the wing. He swatted away a Blackbird layup attempt, igniting an easy Virginia fast break. He drew a charge in the paint. He sunk a jumper from the corner. He grabbed a defensive rebound. He found freshman J.C. Mathis under the hoop with a deft pass from the top of the key. He drove the baseline and drew a foul. He was all over the place.
"Stephane played exceptionally," said Virginia sophomore guard Roger Mason Jr., the only player who had more assists than Dondon. "He was inspired. He was telling me before the game he was ready, and I could see it in his eyes."
Virginia cruised into halftime with a 29-point lead, but the Blackbirds came out in the second half with two quick baskets, forcing Gillen and his assistants to call a timeout and yell at the Cavs to "wake the hell up."
Dondon was one of the ones who heard the bell. On Long Island's first possession after the Cavalier timeout, he picked up a steal at midcourt. A minute later, he pieced together a four-point play after a three in front of the Virginia bench, then hurled himself headlong out of bounds in pursuit of a loose ball on the Blackbirds' subsequent possession.
The man wearing No. 4 for the orange and blue Friday night was a far cry from the hesitant player who last year seemed to just float around the perimeter in hopes of getting a pass. At times Friday, Dondon was nearly Rodman-esque, at least when it came to forcibly inserting himself into the action.
"That's the most important thing, to be able to play with intensity," Dondon said. "In order to play in [the ACC], you have to play with a lot of confidence and aggressiveness."
Toying with the Long Island Blackbirds - a team expected to finish 10th in the vaunted Northeast Conference - and holding your own in the ACC are two very different things, as Dondon no doubt knows well. But if the season opener is any indication, the senior from Toulouse, France, may be ready to seize a starting role and help the Cavs make his senior season one to remember.