If they don't start producing soon, the Virginia Cavaliers might run out of time to recover.
If No. 10 Virginia keeps falling in the Atlantic Coast Conference standings and becomes a bubble team when the NCAA selects its 65-team tournament field next month, the Cavaliers' predicament could be traced to the night of Jan. 31, when Maryland erased a nine-point deficit with 3:22 left and shocked Virginia, 91-87.
Virginia followed by losing a close game at No. 24 Missouri. But that was merely a warm-up for an embarrassing collapse at North Carolina State, which might have solidified serious NCAA tournament consideration by pummeling the Cavaliers on Wednesday, 85-68.
"I think we were outhustled by N.C. State. They wanted it more," said coach Pete Gillen, whose team has lost four straight games. "We got out-toughed, outhustled and outworked."
Despite playing without starting freshman small forward Julius Hodge, who was serving a one-game suspension for elbowing Maryland point guard Steve Blake in the back of the head in the closing moments of Sunday's loss in College Park, the soon-to-be-ranked Wolfpack dispatched Virginia with ease.
It makes one wonder if Virginia is about to go on a slide similar to Maryland's 1-5 skid last season, which followed a stunning overtime loss to Duke at Cole Field House. It makes one wonder if, despite having top-drawer talent like center Travis Watson and guard Roger Mason Jr., the Cavaliers (14-6, 4-5 ACC) are the most overrated team in the Top 25.
The Cavaliers have been unprepared to play on too many occasions, especially on the road.
"We've had some problems, but you can't feel sorry for yourselves. We have character and we hope to show that character," Gillen said. "Are we going to give up or are we going to come out swinging?"
Virginia's postseason future depends on the answer.
Taunting and TV
Maryland coach Gary Williams points to the power of television as a prime reason for the spate of incidents that have marred college basketball - most recently in the ACC.
Earlier this week, the league suspended Hodge and reprimanded Clemson coach Larry Shyatt and Virginia assistant Walt Fuller for violating the league's sportsmanship code.
Shyatt had to be restrained from going after Duke forward Dahntay Jones during last week's game, after Jones allegedly taunted the Clemson bench following a Tigers timeout. Fuller charged down the sideline in last week's loss to Maryland, after freshman point guard Keith Jenifer and Watson became entangled in the Terps' huddle during a timeout.
The Hodge incident was the most glaring. Hodge, who committed his fifth foul and was assessed a technical on the play, said he was retaliating for receiving an elbow to the neck from Blake earlier in the game.
Hodge also might have been responding to a shot to the stomach by Blake in the first meeting between the teams Dec. 30. That contact happened amid a cluster of players in the corner of the court, and did not draw a foul. Hodge dropped to one knee and needed a few moments to catch his breath.
"These kids have grown up watching ESPN. What does ESPN show? They always show confrontations," Williams said. "Most kids now get their information from headphones and television. They don't get it from books. They don't learn about how Wilt Chamberlain was involved in like one fight in his whole career, despite getting beat on every game. When I was growing up, we imitated what we read. Now kids imitate what they see.
"Part of being a great athlete in any sport is to walk that fine line where you're a tough, physical player, but you don't go over the line and hit somebody. With television, there are replays, and that stuff gets shown over and over. Hodge's hit was so obvious that action had to be taken. Basketball should be physical. Good teams play physical. That shouldn't be taken away from the game. But the outside stuff, the taunting, hopefully that will stop."
Duke junior center Carlos Boozer probably has been the best big man in the conference all season, and Blue Devils coach Mike Krzyzewski added to Boozer's recognition by naming him tri-captain this week. Boozer, who is averaging 18.3 points and a team-high 8.3 rebounds and leads the ACC with a .597 shooting percentage, joins Jason Williams and Mike Dunleavy. ... Duke leads the nation in scoring with an average of 91.5 points. Maryland ranks eighth (83.1). ... Three of the nation's top assist leaders are ACC point guards. Clemson's Ed Scott is second with 7.8 per game. Blake is fourth with 7.3, and Florida State's Delvon Arrington is 10th with 6.9. In addition, Duke's Chris Duhon ranks 16th with 6.1, and Georgia Tech's Tony Akins is 27th with 5.7.