A year ago at this time, Colin Ducharme wondered if his basketball career was over. He had just finished a season in which he averaged a mere seven minutes per game as a redshirt junior for Pete Gillen's Cavaliers. The real world beckoned, thanks to the physics degree the University was weeks away from bestowing upon him.
Twelve months later, Ducharme has traded in his room on the Lawn for a spot in the paint at Longwood College, a school of 3,300 in the appropriately named town of Farmville, Va. This weekend at the NCAA Final Four in Minneapolis, he will be honored as the Division II Player of the Year.
"At this time last year, I had no idea what I was going to be doing," Ducharme said. "Basketball [season] was over, and it was a really tough season personally. There's no way I would have ever predicted this."
At 6-foot-9, 250 pounds, Ducharme was simply the most dominating inside presence in Division II this season. The Richmond native scored 19.6 points per game, led D-II in rebounding with 15.8 boards per game and finished second with an average of 4.2 blocks. Along with a handful of fellow Division I transfers, he led the Lancers to a 23-8 record, a 19-game improvement on last year's 4-22 mark.
In his first two years at Virginia, Ducharme played a limited but important role for Jeff Jones' last Cavalier teams. But a broken ankle forced him to take a medical redshirt his junior season and by the time he got back on the court last year, the Gillen era had begun without him. Ducharme spent most of the 1999-2000 season watching from the bench, as an influx of young talent presented Gillen with too many players, too little playing time.
Ducharme enjoyed watching the Cavaliers move back toward the national spotlight last year, but watching was all he was able to do. At the end of a season that was frustrating, trying and just not much fun, he knew it was time to move on.
"I just wanted to be happy," Ducharme explained. "That was the central reason. I would never regret the decision I made to spend four years at Virginia. I had a great time there. Even with basketball, I would say that I've come away with, for the most part, really good memories. But by the end of that season, it drained me. I thought a change had to be made. I figured I'm too young to be feeling like this."
In all honesty, can you really blame him? Ducharme and onetime classmate Willie Dersch were more or less left twisting in the wind as a result of the coaching change. Recruited for Jones' system, they never quite fit Gillen's hyper-athletic brand of basketball. (At the same time, though, Gillen deserves credit for being straight with Ducharme, telling him last spring that he couldn't promise the 2000-01 season would feature any more playing time.)
Unfortunately, situations like this are relatively commonplace in today's college basketball marketplace. When programs move up the national ladder, somebody's bound to get left behind.
Ducharme, however, didn't have any time to devote to such overarching meditations. He wanted to play ball for at least one more season. Transferring to another Division I school would have required sitting out a year, by which time Ducharme's collegiate eligibility would have expired. If he wanted to play college ball for another season, he would have to drop down a level.
After reading in the paper that Longwood already had a trio of former Division I players, Ducharme's interest was piqued. He called Longwood coach Mike Leeder at home one night to ask about the school and the program, and was a Lancer in about a week.
Playing basketball at Longwood instead of Virginia, Ducharme gave up chartered flights for six-hour bus rides. He played in gyms that seated only a few hundred people against conference rivals like Lees-McRae, Belmont Abbey and Limestone. For a while it felt odd to watch his former Cavalier teammates on television, knowing that he would be sitting next to them if not for one decision.
But as he grew more comfortable in his role as the biggest player in the Carolinas-Virginia Athletic Conference - a teammate nicknamed him "the Shaq of the CVAC" - Ducharme began to make a home at Longwood. And he found what he had been seeking for two years. Basketball was fun again.
Ducharme also opened the door to the possibility of a future in pro ball. He is the lone Division II player invited to the Portsmouth Invitational Tournament, a pre-draft camp where he will join Virginia senior Donald Hand and dozens of fellow NBA hopefuls.
Ducharme freely admits the much weaker competition he faced this season in D-II played a huge role in his sudden explosion. On the other hand, this year at Longwood he displayed an outside shooting touch and a talent for passing he never had at Virginia. After all, he is no longer the 19-year-old sophomore Cavalier fans remember from three years ago. He's been improving ever since then, even if he saw barely any game time at Virginia and played in obscurity at Longwood once he got back on the court.
"I'm trying to pursue professional options, but what options I have, I have no idea because I haven't played in a pro camp," he said. "I haven't talked to any scouts. I'm going to explore that arena and see what's there."
Yet whatever happens with his basketball future, Ducharme knows the change was what he needed.
"Even before [this] season started, I knew I had made the right decision in terms of my happiness," he said.