Story Links

Jan. 26, 2000

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. – For many young basketball players, the dream to play at the collegiate level often starts at an early age. It begins in playgrounds and backyards all across America, as would-be hoopsters act out their own late-game situations while playing the role of their favorite player. They count down the seconds out loud and follow with their own play-by-play call as they fake an imaginary defender before taking the game-winning shot. If the shot does not fall, there almost always seems to be a crucial foul which saves the day and provides one last chance. It may take four or five attempts, but the star player always leaves a winner.

By high school, the glory days of imaginary playground heroics begin to take shape as possible reality. Top high school players emerge as college standout hopefuls, and it no longer becomes a question of when or how, but where. For many adolescents with a future career in college basketball, the ultimate goal remains to play in the ACC. On Wednesday, January 5, Virginia’s four freshman and two transfer players reached a moment many people begin dreaming about shortly after they first learn to dribble a basketball. On that night, the Cavaliers hosted nationally-ranked Duke University in their first ACC game of the season, and for those six players it symbolized the culmination of a long, arduous journey.

“I have always been an ACC fan, and through the recruiting process, I basically knew I was going to play in the ACC,” said freshman guard Roger Mason. “Big games are what I like. This is what I worked for in the summer time, and this is why I work hard in practice–for moments in the ACC when I am on the floor. The biggest thing I want to do is try to help our team win the ACC title. Everything else, including my personal goals, are left aside.”

The opportunity to play in the ACC served as one of the biggest reasons freshmen Roger Mason, Majestic Mapp, Travis Watson, and Jason Rogers, as well as transfers Stephane Dondon and Keith Friel all committed to Virginia. Since the minute they set foot on Grounds, the older players and entire coaching staff have instilled upon them the importance of the 16 annual ACC games. Though most of these six newcomers began preparing for their first ACC contest the minute they committed to UVa, the official training began back in August. Over the past six months, they have played two exhibition games and 12 non-conference regular season contests, all in an effort to prepare for ACC play.

“The first non-conference games at home do not compare to the ACC games. It is a new level, and it is basically like a new season. The crowd, the coaches, and the players are all into it more, and we just have to keep it up. Each game is going to be an individual battle, the coaches stress that and all the older guys stress that. We have to come with that approach every game.”

After playing two conference games, the Cavaliers had a respectable 1-1 record. In the season’s first ACC matchup, Virginia suffered a heartbreaking overtime loss to then seventh-ranked Duke. Though the Cavaliers fell short in their bid for a major upset, the game proved UVa could compete with the ACC’s top-tier teams. Looking to avenge that tough setback to the Blue Devils, Virginia hosted Georgia Tech three days later, and the game proved a tale of two halves. Down by one point at halftime, the Cavaliers erupted in the second half, outscoring the Yellow Jackets 47-28 en route to a convincing 18-point victory.

For Virginia’s four freshmen and two transfer players, taking part in those first two ACC contests lived up to every expectation. The famed ACC atmosphere became a reality when Duke came to town. UVa fans erupted in a jubilant frenzy with each Cavalier basket, and at times, the crowd became so loud even the referee’s piercing whistle could hardly be heard. Georgia Tech brought one of the tallest front court’s in the nation to University Hall, and all six players got their first introduction to the ACC’s tough, physical inside game. Prior to those first two games, what they had seen and heard about the Atlantic Coast Conference could only partially measure up to actually experiencing it. With the initial anticipation of playing those first two ACC games gone, each player now looks to make their own personal statement.

“It’s been exciting, and it has been everything I expected it to be. I could get used to the atmosphere real quickly, and we need fans to support us so we can play well,” said Watson, started at center in 13 of Virginia’s first 14 games this season. “Right now, I am just trying to establish myself underneath the basket and make people respect my game.”

Unlike the four freshmen, transfer players Friel and Dondon each entered the ACC opener against Duke following much different circumstances than their fellow first-timers. Friel sat out all last season after transferring from Note Dame, and Dondon came to Virginia following two years at Collin County Community College. Friel joined the Cavaliers after playing two seasons in the Big East Conference, which also features some of the best college basketball in the country. Already accustom to the chaotic atmosphere of big-time games, he simply wanted the chance play in a conference that better suited his style of play. After waiting nearly a year-and-a-half, he finally got the chance against Duke. As the first half wound to a close, he hit his first career three-pointer in ACC competition. Now officially anointed as a member of the Atlantic Coast Conference, he looks to prove that he can thrive in this league.

“The Big East seems a lot more physical with a lot more big men. The ACC seems like, especially the way we play, the teams get the ball out and run a lot more,” said Friel. “I think that only helps my game more, and hopefully throughout the ACC season I will be able to show it.”

While Friel looks to take advantage of the ACC’s up-tempo style, Dondon attempts to absorb everything he can from his new experience. A native of France, Dondon came to the United States two years ago to play junior college basketball in Texas. He began playing organized basketball at age 16, and after only six seasons, the 6-8 junior now finds himself competing in one of the country’s top college basketball conferences.

“It is a big adjustment for me, because the ACC is one of the best conferences in the nation. Every night is a big challenge, and every team is very competitive,” said Dondon. “I am at the stage where I am still learning the game and adjusting to the ACC style of play. Hopefully with the help of the coaches, I will be ready to step in and bring more to the team.”

For five of Virginia’s six newest players, the season’s first two ACC games represented an unbelievable experience that symbolized years of hard work and dedication. For the sixth, it served as an opportunity to begin again with the hopes of completely maximizing his full potential. For every one of those Cavaliers who took the floor in an ACC contest for the very first time, it was an extremely special moment they had looked forward to since the minute they came to UVa. Yet, the first time has come and gone, and the initial awe of playing in the ACC no longer exists. As conference play nears the half-way mark, each game becomes increasingly more crucial. Now, fantasy has become reality, and it simply comes down to a matter of winning.

“The ACC is a big-time conference, probably the best conference in the country,” said freshman point guard Majestic Mapp. “Every night there is a big crowd, you just have to play hard and bring your ‘A’ game each night out. It’s do or die, which means everybody has to come out ready to play. We want every game, and we just have to have every game.”

Print Friendly Version