January 24, 2006
CHARLOTTESVILLE -- As much as it might pain Virginia to be compared to Virginia Tech, the first half of the UVa basketball season had many parallels to that of the 2004-05 Hokies.
Tech's first ACC team was picked to finish at the bottom of the conference. The Hokies then went 8-8 in league play and won a fourth-place tiebreaker, only to miss out on the NCAA Tournament because of a poor non-conference showing.
While it may be a stretch to think the Cavaliers will get to 8-8 in the ACC, they did win three of their first four conference games in January, and they squandered a seven-point lead in the final minutes of regulation before losing to Florida State (87-82) in overtime.
The Hokies' performance last year resulted in the selection of Seth Greenberg as the ACC coach of the year, and continued progress by the Cavaliers could merit some consideration for first-year UVa coach Dave Leitao.
Alas, four non-conference defeats dealt a severe blow to Virginia's postseason chances, particularly a home loss to Fordham when point guard Sean Singletary was a late-afternoon scratch. The other losses were on the road -- at Arizona, Gonzaga and Western Kentucky.
When Virginia was struggling early and Leitao was riding his players mercilessly, there was reason to wonder if the players would be so miserable by the end of the year that they would never want to see Leitao again.
Instead, the Cavaliers starting winning, and the players started to buy into Leitao's system. Junior forward Jason Cain, Leitao's favorite whipping boy for the first month of the season, hadn't incurred Leitao's wrath in weeks.
The ACC doesn't give a most improved player award, but if it did, Cain (6-10, 212) would have to be given serious consideration. He didn't become a starter until the seventh game of the season, but he averaged 8.6 points and a team-high 7.8 rebounds through 15 games.
Cain entered 2005-06 with career averages of 2.3 points and 2.2 rebounds, but what Leitao has discovered is, Cain is athletic and has a pretty good basketball IQ. Although he remains skinny, Cain had a career-high five blocked shots in a 72-68 upset of then-No. 24 North Carolina, and he appears much more comfortable playing inside.
Virginia has three post men, including 6-11 sophomore Tunji Soroye and 6-8 freshman Lauris Mikalauskas, but Soroye and Mikalauskas have been notoriously foul-prone, with a combined eight disqualifications through 15 games. In a 54-49 victory at Virginia Tech, Soroye and Mikalauskas combined for 10 fouls in 35 minutes.
Cain, Soroye and Mikalauskas all fouled out in the overtime affair against FSU, but none of them had more than three fouls against the Tar Heels, although Carolina was relentless in its effort to work the ball inside to 6-9, 235-pound freshman Tyler Hansbrough.
Mikalauskas had surrendered his starting job to Soroye but came off the bench to score 10 points, including a pair of stickbacks that UNC coach Roy Williams mentioned repeatedly in his post-game remarks. Mikalauskas' enthusiasm could prove infectious; after dancing at midcourt with students who had crashed the floor, he admittedly broke into tears of joy in the locker room.
Against Carolina, the Cavaliers also got seven points from junior T.J. Bannister, a reserve point guard who had played in only four games until that point and scored a total of two points. Bannister underwent hernia surgery in September and, while he played briefly in December, his continued inactivity led some to believe he was in Leitao's doghouse.
Opinions of Bannister are divided among the UVa reporters who have witnessed him for two and a half years, but when he does what he does best, he can be valuable to the Cavaliers. He passes the ball OK off the fastbreak, and his ball-handling ability is much-needed on a team that averaged 17 turnovers through its first 14 games.
The Cavaliers had used shooting guard J.R. Reynolds at the point when Leitao wanted to rest Singletary, but Reynolds clearly is not comfortable there. Bannister can give Singletary a breather, and he also can enable the Cavaliers to use Singletary off the ball.
With the loss of three scholarship players since Sept. 1, the Cavaliers are down to eight, but eight gives Leitao a lot more flexibility than he had when Bannister was unavailable.
GROH: TWO FIRST-TIME COORDINATORS?
By late January, UVa football coach Al Groh had filled three of the four openings on his staff, most prominently with the return of former defensive line coach Mike London as defensive coordinator.
London returns to Charlottesville after one season in the NFL at Houston, where he coached the Texans' defensive line in the 3-4 scheme installed by coach Dom Capers. Although Capers was let go after the season, London had a three-year contract and was asked to stay around until new Houston coach Gary Kubiak could come on board.
London also had connections with the new staff at Minnesota, but he elected to return to UVa, where he also had served as the Cavaliers' recruiting coordinator. He is well-respected by coaches in the football-crazy Hampton-Newport News area, where the Wahoos have experienced little success in recent years.
While London had been touted for almost a month as the successor to Al Golden (Temple) as defensive coordinator, Groh wasn't saying much about his thoughts on a new offensive coordinator to succeed Ron Prince (Kansas State).
Groh would not even say who had called plays in Virginia's 34-31 victory over Minnesota in the Music City Bowl, but from all indications it was receivers coach John Garrett, a former NFL assistant who has been at Virginia for three years.
UVa's offense ran smoothly against Minnesota -- a fifth-year quarterback certainly didn't hurt matters -- but many Virginia fans would be comfortable with Garrett getting the coordinator's job. But that would mean elevating Garrett over quarterbacks coach Mike Groh, the head coach's son.
Mike Groh is in his first year as UVa's recruiting coordinator and seemingly has plenty to do, but Al Groh has been evasive on the subject, as if he might name co-coordinators or not name a coordinator at all. It's obvious that Groh can't name his son as sole coordinator, at least not without drawing charges of nepotism after a 7-5 season.
The older Groh said he had spoken to New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick, who had not named a coordinator after Charlie Weis took the head coaching position at Notre Dame. After the Patriots' loss to Denver in this year's AFC semifinals, Belichick later conceded that it was one of the worst moves he had made.
Groh had said he would hire an offensive line coach before he hired a coordinator. The line job went to 46-year-old Dave Borbely, who had coached Colorado's offensive linemen for the past four years. He earlier had coached at Stanford and Notre Dame.
In selecting Borbely, Groh may have rejected James Madison line coach Curt Newsome, who had been recommended by the ultra-successful coach at in-state Hampton High, Mike Smith. Newsome has extensive contacts in the talent-rich 757 area code, with some interpreting the Borbely hire as an increased commitment to national recruiting.
If Groh promotes from within for the offensive coordinator spot, he will enter the 2006 season (barring more changes at other schools) as the only coach in the ACC with two first-time coordinators. Groh didn't seem concerned by that possibility based on his public comments in January, but he's competing in a league against proven, seen-it-all, graybeard coordinators such as Mickey Andrews (Florida State), Bud Foster (Virginia Tech), Frank Spaziani (Boston College), Charlie Taaffe (Maryland) and Jon Tenuta (Georgia Tech).