December 13, 2004 CHARLOTTESVILLE As the Virginia basketball team entered a 15-day exam break, coach Pete Gillen conceded that the Cavaliers' early schedule had been a little nutty.
No nuttier than Gillen's timeouts, mind you, but after the Cavaliers polished off Furman 79-67, Virginia had played five games in 11 days, never playing consecutive games at the same site. In an eight-day span, Virginia played in four different arenas, switched time zones four times and played in three different states. No wonder Gillen walked off the podium following a news conference Dec. 8 and said he would have taken an eight-game record of 7-1 before the season.
The Cavaliers had reached No. 19 in the Associated Press poll before going to Iowa State, where they lost 81-79 after overcoming double-digit leads in both halves. The Iowa State game ended a home-and-home series scheduled when Auburn backed out of a game with the Cavaliers in 2003-04.
Auburn finally reciprocated an earlier game held in Birmingham, Ala., when it came to Richmond, where the Cavaliers beat the Tigers 89-87 at the Siegel Center at Virginia Commonwealth. That was the second of three close games for the Cavaliers, starting with a 48-44 UVa victory over Northwestern in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge.
When Virginia entertains Loyola Marymount on Dec. 23, the Cavaliers should be able to push their record to 8-1 heading into a Jan. 2 home date with Wake Forest. On paper, a game between the teams picked No. 1 and No. 8 in the ACC should not be much of a contest, but when Wake and Virginia last played and had mostly the same players, the Cavaliers beat then-No. 11 Wake 84-82 at University Hall last March.
UVa already has beaten No. 10 Arizona in Charlottesville this year and should be a tough out at home. Freshman Sean Singletary provides the kind of stability at point guard that the Cavaliers have lacked for most of Gillen's seven-year tenure, and senior forward Devin Smith is in the best shape he has been in his three seasons.
That is not to say that Smith, at 6-5 and 242 pounds, is in great shape. UVa never will see him at the 220-225 pounds that might be best, but there is no question he has recovered from May surgery to repair two herniated disks. He recently became only the second player in Gillen's tenure to score 40 points in a game, and that was without a basket in the final 6:07 at Iowa State.
With the victory, the Cyclones improved to
21-1 at home over the past two seasons, so obviously the Hilton Coliseum is not a favorable venue for visitors, but Virginia could have won if sophomore guard J.R. Reynolds had been on his game. Reynolds made only one of five attempts from the field, missed all four of his three-pointers, and had most of the defensive responsibility for Iowa sophomore Curtis Stinson, who had a game-winning three-pointer to cap a 30-point night.
Maturity, Consistency, Short Bench
Reynolds apologized to his teammates after the game and took the
blame for the loss, a sign of the growing maturity on a team that has three
senior starters in the frontcourt. Smith leads the team in scoring, with 18.1
points per game, and
6-9, 250-pound Elton Brown is having his best season, mostly because he has rebounded consistently (10.0) for the first time in his career.
Singletary went scoreless against Furman and wasn't great against Iowa State, when he committed several foolish fouls, but he is still in the process of learning what he can and cannot do. Certainly, he is not afraid, taking the ball and driving through the defense in the final 9.1 seconds at Iowa State. He got to the basket so quickly, complete with a spin move, that he probably put the ball higher on the glass than he needed to beat a late-arriving defender.
One change this season is a tighter player rotation. In two games, Gillen used only eight players, and in one of them eighth man Adrian Joseph played only six minutes. Sixth man Gary Forbes is averaging slightly more than 20 minutes per game, and seventh man T.J. Bannister is playing a shade over 15.
Forbes gave life to a sluggish Cavaliers team when he scored 21 points against Furman and he asked for and was given a tough defensive assignment on Auburn's Toney Douglas. Bannister was awful against Auburn but helped keep the Cavaliers in the game in the first half against Iowa State. While the media and many fans remain skeptical, Gillen seems to have a soft spot in his heart for Bannister, who started the last 11 games of the 2003-04 season, including a 6-4 finish that saved Gillen's job.
Gillen has three young big men on his bench sophomores Donte Minter and Jason Cain, and freshman Tunji Soroye but they have received scant playing time. Two of them will have to play next season, and it wouldn't hurt to have all three, but it wouldn't be unprecedented if one or more lost heart and left. Cain played in three of the first eight games, for a total of six minutes, and appears to be behind the other two.
Reporters have questioned why Gillen didn't redshirt one of the young post players, but he clearly isn't coaching for the future. Despite a largely successful first month, speculation on Gillen's job security continues to abound. It is likely that Virginia will put up the winning record that would ensure a sixth straight postseason berth, but if it's an NIT invitation that might not be enough.
Some people feel Gillen needs to go if UVa doesn't make the NCAA Tournament. Maybe that's unfair, considering that the ACC has never been stronger, but if that's the case then six or more conference teams should get NCAA bids. History suggests that will be difficult, but if the ACC were to get seven bids a preseason eighth-place choice might think it has a chance. Plus, this is a Virginia team that, in a 17-day span last season, beat the teams that were ranked 2-3-4 in this year's preseason national Top 25.
Several of those victories came courtesy of last-minute Todd Billet jump shots,
but so far the Cavaliers have not missed Billet or Derrick Byars, the
6-8 former Parade All-American who transferred to Vanderbilt. If Byars had stayed, he would have played, which would have taken time from Smith, Forbes and Jason Clark. Clark is not an offensive player, but there are four other potential 20-point scorers in the UVa starting lineup, so he fills a valuable role.
Many people feel that Gillen's best coaching job was with a 1998-99 team, his first at UVa, that had only six or seven able-bodied scholarship players and went 14-16. If this is the season that turns things around for him, it might result from a similar formula.