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After Strong Start, Plenty Left To Prove

Thursday, September 11, 2008 11:41am
By: Accsports Staff



February 7, 2006

CHARLOTTESVILLE -- Now that Virginia has surpassed its 2004-05 ACC win total and given every indication that it will rise above preseason predictions of last place in the conference, what is there left to prove?

A lot, actually.

The crowds have started to return to University Hall, and UVa officials feel it is critical for coach Dave Leitao and his crew to sustain some momentum as the Cavaliers move into their new, 15,000-seat arena next year.

During down times, Virginia has had trouble filling the 8,392-seat University Hall, but the Cavaliers don't just need to keep the fans they have. They need to increase their fan base, and the best way to do that is with a winner.

The Cavaliers have a small margin for error. There's no assurance that they will finish this season with a winning record, an accomplishment that almost certainly would be accompanied by a postseason bid, but they have put themselves in that position.

A hard-fought 75-73 victory over Wake Forest lifted the Cavaliers to 4-1 in ACC home games. They have conference home games remaining with Virginia Tech, Boston College and Maryland.

One week into February, the Cavaliers were 11-8 overall and 5-4 in the ACC. Give them a 12th win against Division I neophyte Longwood, which comes to U-Hall on Feb. 18, and, if they can win their other home games, that would guarantee a winning record.

If Virginia were to contend for an NCAA bid, a couple of road victories would be required. Starting with a trip to College Park, Virginia had road games remaining with Maryland, Florida State, Clemson and North Carolina.

An NCAA bid might be unattainable, given the Cavaliers' four non-conference losses, three (Arizona, Gonzaga, Western Kentucky) on the road. Most glaring was a Dec. 7 home loss to Fordham, 62-60, when UVa point guard Sean Singletary was declared a no-go at late afternoon.

The Rams, coached by one-time N.C. State star Dereck Whittenburg, entered that game at 1-6. They've gone 9-5 since that point, but the NCAA selection committee likely will not look favorably on the Cavaliers' loss, even given the circumstances of Singletary's absence. Not long after its victory over Virginia, Fordham lost by 36 at Notre Dame.

Backup point guard T.J. Bannister played seven minutes in the Fordham game, almost all of them in the first half, and there since has been another flare-up of the injury problems that caused him to miss the first four games of the season. He played briefly in the next two games, missed the next six, played in the next five, and had missed another two heading into UVa's trip to Maryland.

It's unclear if Bannister had a "sports" hernia or a more conventional injury, but he elected to have surgery in September and not continue to receive the injections that got him through the 2004-05 season.

At his best, Bannister is limited offensively, but he is good at distributing the ball off the break, and he gives the Cavaliers the option of moving leading scorer Singletary off the ball. Presumably, Bannister will return, but for how long?

With Bannister sidelined, the Cavaliers are reduced to seven able-bodied scholarship players, including two post players, Tunji Soroye and Lauris Mikalauskas, who are foul-prone and limited offensively. That's what made UVa's 47-25 rebounding advantage over Wake Forest even more amazing; it was achieved with Mikalauskas and Soroye playing 23 and 13 minutes, respectively.

LEITAO STILL JUGGLING SCHOLARSHIPS

Virginia isn't the first team to overachieve with a limited bench. In fact, that may be one of the factors in the Cavaliers' surprising season. Leitao frequently can be seen berating his players for mental mistakes, but they're never out of the game for very long.

Virginia either signed or received commitments from five players in the fall, and now it has taken a pledge from Ryan Pettinella, a 6-9, 235-pound post player who spent his first two college seasons at Pennsylvania. Pettinella said he has been "promised" a grant by UVa, although there's a chance he'll have to pay his own way for one year.

Since all eight of Virginia's current scholarship players are underclassmen, the addition of six scholarship players would put the Cavaliers over the NCAA's limit of 13 for men's basketball. Of course, they'll get down to 14, but how?

The UVa coaches recruited Pettinella in good faith, so they must know something. Two fall recruits, Georgia swingman Solomon Tat and Georgia forward Andy Ogide, were not announced as signees. In Ogide's case a letter was signed, but UVa was hesitant to make his signing public, because the letter arrived after the signing date. Presumably, it would prove to be binding.

Tat's coach, Linzy Davis, has said he is 99 percent certain that Tat will enroll at Virginia in the fall, but the UVa coaches have learned from their dealings with Soroye that visa issues sometimes can become dicey when Nigerians are involved. Of course, there also is the possibility that one of the recruits will not qualify academically.

Pettinella will give Virginia a fourth post player, which would have been helpful this year. He wasn't even a starter at Penn, but he had enough promise to attract the attention of former Cincinnati coach Bob Huggins when he received his release from the Quakers.

In fact, Pettinella took summer-school classes at Cincinnati for five weeks last year, before Huggins was ousted. Pettinella later enrolled at Monroe College, a two-year program near his home in Rochester, N.Y. Pettinella is not playing this year, which will give him two years of eligibility beginning next season, provided he obtains an associate's degree and doesn't run into any NCAA complications. 

MEDIOCRITY DANGEROUS FOR RYAN?

A showdown is brewing over the UVa women's basketball program, another of the tenants at the new John Paul Jones Arena. With more than 600 victories to her credit, coach Debbie Ryan seemingly has earned the right to bow out on her own terms, but things were getting ugly at midseason.

After jumping to an 11-1 start, the Cavaliers had lost three games in a row and had fallen to 13-7 before a three-game swing against No. 6 Maryland, No. 2 Duke and No. 1 North Carolina. The first two games were on the road and the third at University Hall, where Ryan's squad is 0-4 in ACC games.

Virginia administrators have their eye on former UVa star Dawn Staley as Ryan's eventual successor, but Staley, successful in her coaching debut at Temple, was coveted by Miami last year and likely will continue to draw attention from others.

Ryan is in her 29th season, but she's still in her early 50s and seemingly in good health, after a scary battle with pancreatic cancer. Any efforts to dislodge her would seem cold-hearted when viewed in that context, but her program no longer is a major player on the national scene.

In the past five years, Virginia has moved aggressively and hired new coaches in men's basketball, men's golf, women's golf, men's tennis, women's tennis, baseball, softball and field hockey. The message in those sports: Mediocrity will not be tolerated at UVa.