By Jerry Ratcliffe, Charlottesville (Va.) Daily Progress
November 11, 2002 CHARLOTTESVILLE Virginia lost three full-time starters, one part-time starter, its leading scorer and its top shooters. So, the Cavaliers should be ... better. Say what?
Instead of pulling out patches of his stormy red hair, Pete Gillen is celebrating a new beginning. With a roster dotted by new faces, he has reason to be optimistic if he can blend the collection of talent and improve the defensive effort.
While this team has the potential to become Gillen's best squad during his five-year reign in Charlottesville, these players won't be pressured by the lofty expectations that haunted last year's disastrous effort. These Cavaliers were voted fifth in the ACC's preseason media poll, a far cry from last season's unexpected and undeserved meteoric rise to No. 4 in the national rankings. That group fell completely out of the Top 25 by the end of the regular season.
Last year's team, plagued by poor chemistry, a lack of perimeter shooters and little defensive intensity, clearly was never as good as it was ranked from the get-go. But what was Gillen to do?
We were good but we weren't as good as we were rated, Gillen said. As coach, I couldn't knock it because the players would have said, ëCoach, don't you believe in us?' I'd rather have the kids believe in themselves. The fall is what frustrated people. We fell off the Earth.
Chemistry became a big problem after Adam Hall suffered a foot injury and missed 10 games during the most crucial stretch of the season. Trainers, coaches and players were given no medical reason why Hall couldn't have played. The situation came to a head after the Missouri game, when a banged-up and flu-ridden group of Cavaliers lost the key contest with Hall sitting out. At least one of Hall's teammates got into his face about the issue, which caused the team to choose sides.
If that wasn't enough of a problem, several players resented the playing time and starting role given to sophomore forward J.C. Mathis, whose steady decline in production eventually put him on the bench and ultimately led to his transfer.
As a result, the dissension, selfishness and weaknesses exposed by ACC opponents were responsible for the Cavs losing eight of their last 10 games. There wasn't a natural point guard on hand, and the lack of shooting allowed defenses to run at the team's best shooter, Roger Mason Jr., and double-down on dangerous post man Travis Watson.
Not any longer.
Mason, the team's leading scorer and best shooter, opted for the NBA a year early. Seniors Hall and Chris Williams also departed. All three were starters.
With an influx of transfers, Virginia likely has strengthened all of its previous weaknesses: point guard, perimeter shooting and defense. Parlay that with the notion that the Cavaliers may feature the strongest inside game in the ACC, and there is reason to believe Gillen's team has as good a chance as anyone in the scrambled league.
Zone is almost a bad word to Gillen, who has carved out a reputation in the hoops world for his pressure defense. But with four solid big men, he may be tempted to use a little more zone at times.
I still like pressing because that makes our offense go, Gillen said. Whatever we did before, it helped us beat Duke, the defending national champion, and we should have beaten Maryland, which won the national championship. We've got to throw some stuff out, but we don't want to change too much.
It's hard to ignore the assortment of widebodies available to control the middle, starting with Watson. The undersized 6-8 center has won the ACC's rebounding title the past two years against much bigger opponents, and is a warrior underneath.
Watson may have the luxury of splitting time between center and his more natural position, power forward, because of the emergence of 6-9 sophomore Elton Brown and the addition of 6-10 Nick Vander Laan, who started 37 games in his two years at Cal. Also, 6-8 sophomore Jason Clark can play either of the forward spots.
Everyone knows what Watson can do. A relentless rebounder, he was the leading vote-getter for the preseason All-ACC team and the runner-up to Duke's Chris Duhon for preseason player of the year honors.
Brown has reshaped his body, shedding the weight that prevented him from playing his best as a freshman. Gillen believes Brown, blessed with the best low-post moves of any of the big men, could be special if he continues to progress. Vander Laan has been a breath of fresh air for the coach. The ego-less big man gladly accepts the role player mentality, works hard and gives it up for the team. Clark is sneaky good, the kind of player who can do a little of everything, the kind of player good teams need to reach their potential.
Somewhere along the way, Gillen decided that while quickness is still important to him, putting scorers on the floor is the key to winning. His players from a year ago had problems in the shooting and scoring categories, but this team should be different.
Todd Billet, who is expected to start at point guard but can play shooting guard as well, gives Gillen an intelligent, experienced player. Not only that, but Billet can shoot the eyes out of it. He started all 58 games at the point during his two years at Rutgers, where he broke the Scarlet Knights' record for three-pointers with 82 in 2000-01.
Without a veteran point guard, UVa struggled last season. Majestic Mapp, who has had two major and three other knee surgeries, has been sidelined for the past two seasons, and recent soreness in his knee has made him questionable for this season.
Unlike last year, when quicksilver Keith Jenifer was thrown into the fray before he was ready, the sophomore has a whole season of ACC experience under his belt. Some still question whether Jenifer is an ACC-caliber point guard, and with good reason. He made only two three-pointers last season, which allowed teams to step up the pressure against UVa's two key weapons, Watson and Mason.
The addition of junior college All-American Devin Smith, who chose UVa over Kansas, brightened Gillen's outlook. The kid is a shooter (108 treys last season). Add Memphis prep star Derrick Byars to the mix, along with improved sophomore Jermaine Harper, and there should be plenty of talent to go around.
Now, all Gillen has to do is help these guys develop the kind of chemistry last year's team rarely exhibited.
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