January 17, 2005 CHARLOTTESVILLE If and when it all crashes down for seventh-year Virginia coach Pete Gillen, a lot of people will look at a Jan. 12 home game with ACC newcomer Miami as the night it fell apart. Maybe so, but the beginning of the end may have come in UVa's first two ACC games, when the Cavaliers were beaten at home by Wake Forest (89-70) and on the road by Georgia Tech (92-68). When Miami upset Virginia 91-80, that left the Cavaliers with three ACC losses by a combined 54 points. While Gillen put on a brave face, noting that two of UVa's first three ACC games were against top-10 teams, with a third top-10 opponent (Duke) looming, there was no hint of the turnaround needed for Gillen to return for an eighth season. Most revealing was the loss to Wake, a team the Cavaliers defeated at home last January. This time, Virginia hung with the Deacons for a half but disappeared in the opening five minutes of the second half. That trend later manifested itself again at Georgia Tech, where the Yellow Jackets led 44-38 at the half, and against Miami. Virginia led the Hurricanes 46-40 after a half in which senior center Elton Brown had 18 points and seven rebounds, but Brown was a disaster in the second half, when he provided two points, three rebounds and three turnovers. He started the half by missing two shots, traveling on a drive to the basket and, for the second time, battling a teammate for a rebound that was fumbled out of bounds. This is the same Brown who expressed profound disappointment at not being first-, second- or third-team All-ACC as a junior, when his statistics were superior to those of some players who were picked ahead of him. The way he played in the first half of January, he'll have a similar fate this year. If he doesn't shape up, he also may end up with a legacy as a coach-killer. Granted, Gillen has done enough to alienate his bosses with his bizarre timeouts and his insistence on giving opponents second life with his late-game fouling, but he's not dreaming when he says Virginia could have a good team. The Cavaliers do not lack talent. The problem is, they seldom have more than one or two players who are playing well at the same time. Plus, they've had injury problems, first the sprained ankle that sidelined leading scorer Devin Smith for 20 days, then the strained Achilles tendon that kept top defender Jason Clark out of one game and limited his effectiveness in others. There's also been a chronic shoulder injury that required freshman point guard Sean Singletary to wear a harness for three games. Even when Smith came back, hitting four three-pointers and scoring a team-high 21 points against Miami, his efforts were offset by an inexplicable performance by sophomore guard J.R. Reynolds. Reynolds, who had scored 58 points in the previous three games, got into early foul trouble and finished with two points in 24 minutes. Reynolds took only three shots from the field, missing all three, and might not have scored at all if not for a technical foul called against Miami's Eric Wilkins for hanging on the rim on a dunk. Reynolds took the resulting free throws but was not nearly as aggressive as he had been in the previous game, when he went to the line 12 times on a night when he scored a career-high 21 points at Georgia Tech. The loss to Miami spoiled an 11-point, seven-rebound performance by 6-8 freshman forward Adrian Joseph, who started four straight games as the result of the injuries to Smith and Clark, and was scoring more than 12 points per game in ACC play. Joseph and sophomore swingman Gary Forbes, neither of whom would start under normal circumstances, were averaging 12.7 and 12.3 points, respectively, after the first three games. As opposed to Joseph, who was seven-of-15 on three-pointers in his first three games, Singletary struggled. Part of that was the opposition, understandably. In Wake Forest's Chris Paul and Georgia Tech's Jarrett Jack, Singletary faced two of the top five point guards in the country. Anthony Harris of Miami is not as well-known, but the Hurricanes' trio of Harris, Guillermo Diaz and Robert Hite will pose a few problems for opponents. In fact, UM was 12-3 after its third ACC victory in four games, but the other two wins were in Miami, by one and two points. Gillen and his players had said before the season that this year they needed to win at home. Not only did they lose to Wake Forest and Miami at University Hall, but they were taken into overtime at home by Loyola Marymount and Western Kentucky, double overtime by the Hilltoppers. There may have been fewer than 4,000 fans in the stands for Western Kentucky, not surprising given a 9 p.m. start for a televised game when school was out of session, but the crowd was pretty good for the Miami game. Who knows what kind of support the Cavaliers can muster if the final month becomes a Gillen deathwatch? Already, there has been considerable speculation about a successor, given the facts that UVa will move into the 15,000-seat John Paul Jones Arena for the 2006-07 season and donations have hit a plateau. The consensus is that Virginia officials will seek out minority candidates if they decide to make a change. Much has been made of the fact that Virginia has never had a black head coach in any sport, although athletic director Craig Littlepage was the first black to hold an AD's post in the ACC, and his top aide, John Oliver, also is African-American. However, the early talk that UVa will go after Kentucky coach Tubby Smith is beyond laughable. Maybe the decision to change coaches already has been made, as it was last year, when Littlepage lined up support for a coaching change, then decided at the 11th hour to keep Gillen. During the process, the coach may have allowed Virginia to add an all-important buyout provision to his contract, which previously lacked one. A late surge in which Virginia won six of its last 10 games had more to do with Gillen's 2004 reprieve than anything. The numbers will tell the story again this year, when an improved schedule could get the Cavaliers into the NCAA field with a 7-9 conference mark. If Gillen goes 6-10 for the second year in a row, however, don't bet on an eighth season for the coach in Charlottesville. Wahoos Avoid NFL Draft Sweep All things considered, the exodus of underclassmen to the NFL could have been worse for Virginia, which will have two likely first-round draft picks returning in offensive tackle D'Brickshaw Ferguson and linebacker Ahmad Brooks. It also could have been better. In early December, outside linebacker Darryl Blackstock gave every indication that he would be returning for a fourth season, saying he would not have made the change from No. 56 to No. 1 for one (an undistinguished one, no less) game. When he later let it be known that he was making himself available for the NFL draft, Blackstock said he wanted to provide for his 17-month-old son, Savion, but many were left to wonder if his first-semester grades were an issue. The prevailing sentiment in Charlottesville was that two-time All-ACC tight end Heath Miller would head to the NFL, which he did, but that Brooks and Blackstock would leave only if they feared they might be ineligible. Meanwhile, the NFL talk only confirmed what a lot of people already were thinking that Virginia had too much talent for an 8-4 team. Miller and All-America offensive guard Elton Brown are seen as first-round picks, with Blackstock and defensive end Chris Canty viewed as potential second-round selections. Throw in Ferguson and Brooks, and that's potentially six first- or second-round picks on one team, although Canty missed the last eight games of the season with a knee injury that was every bit as damaging to Virginia's fortunes as it appeared at the time.