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Gillen Delivering Important Changes

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

  May 24, 2004 CHARLOTTESVILLE — An April vote of confidence from Virginia athletic director Craig Littlepage was extended with the not-so-veiled promise of changes in the UVa men's basketball program. While six-year head coach Pete Gillen has made changes over the past six weeks, questions remain as to what effect they will have on the program and whether they were entirely voluntary. Thirty-one days after announcing the resignation of two-year assistant Rod Jensen, Virginia announced on May 17 that five-year aide Scott Shepherd had resigned. What is clear, regardless of any claims to the contrary, is that neither Jensen nor Shepherd resigned of his own volition. Both were asked to leave. Gillen said of Shepherd, "He's a loyal guy, he's a great guy, he did a great job in scouting future opponents, he did a great job with our camps. He's a good person, a good soldier. We're definitely sad to see him go." To hear that, it was easy to believe that Gillen wanted to keep Shepherd but had been urged by a higher authority (Littlepage?) to get rid of one or more coaches. Yet Littlepage was quick to respond that he had not requested any specific changes and had urged Gillen not to take any actions with which he was uncomfortable. On the other hand, Gillen may have felt he needed to do something to satisfy Littlepage. When it was announced that Gillen would be returning for a seventh season in Charlottesville, Littlepage said he had not demanded changes but indicated that he expected changes — and not of the "cosmetic" variety. That begged the question: Other than making staff changes, what other non-cosmetic changes are there? There will be an upgrade in the UVa schedule, which will include a four-year home-and-home series with Arizona. The Cavaliers' non-conference schedule next season will include Providence, Iowa State and Northwestern (ACC-Big Ten Challenge) on the road, Auburn in Richmond, and Arizona and Richmond in Charlottesville. When asked if he was behind the Arizona series, Gillen responded, "nope," but the understands the need for some marquee matchups in 2006-07, when Arizona would return for a second game in Charlottesville in the first year for the John Paul Jones Arena, the Cavaliers' under-construction, 15,000-seat facility. Recruiting Sparked Staff Shifts In discussing the staff turnover, Gillen talked of a need for improved recruiting, and he was right. He has had some well-regarded classes at UVa, including the incoming group of point guard Sean Singletary, forward Adrian Joseph and center Tunji Soroye, but the coach recently articulated the Cavaliers' desperate need for more NBA-caliber talent. It's not as if Virginia has been losing all of its head-to-head battles with other major programs on the recruiting trail. Georgia Tech reached the NCAA championship game this spring, for example, but Gillen is 3-0 on prospects (J.C. Mathis, Nick Vander Laan, Gary Forbes) who visited both campuses as prep seniors. At the same time, the Gillen era in Charlottesville has produced just one NBA draft pick (second-rounder Roger Mason in 2002) and one current NBA player (Mason), while many other ACC teams have sent a parade of their top products into the professional ranks in recent years. Of course, Mathis and Vander Laan did not complete their eligibility at Virginia, but that's another story. Jensen didn't go on the road to recruit during his UVa tenure, but he came well-recommended as a strategist and defensive mind after serving as the head coach at Boise State. To many, he gave Gillen an Xs-and-Os guy who was otherwise missing on a relatively youthful staff. Certainly, getting rid of Jensen could not have been what Littlepage had in mind. Jensen had served as a basketball mentor for UVa senior associate athletic director Jon Oliver, a former Boise State player who is heavily involved with the day-to-day operation of the athletic department. If Oliver was not a big Gillen supporter when Jensen was on the staff, imagine how Jensen's departure affected him. For a time, it looked as if Gillen might hire ex-Clemson head coach Larry Shyatt to take Jensen's place. That move, given Shyatt's ACC background, would have made sense. However, Shyatt was a man in demand this offseason, and he ended up on Billy Donovan's staff at Florida after listening to pitches from the Cavaliers, Georgia and others. Gillen conceded that Shyatt may have felt there was more stability in Gainesville. At week's end, Gillen was prepared to bring East Carolina assistant Greg Herenda to Charlottesville. Herenda was so relatively unknown that many in the media were unaware of his background, which included stints at Holy Cross and Seton Hall under George Blaney, who recently has filled the wise-old-hand role under Jim Calhoun at Connecticut. Herenda also was at Merrimack College, an alma mater he shares with College of Charleston head coach and ex-UVa assistant Tommy Herrion, the younger brother of East Carolina head coach Bill Herrion. To some, Herenda's hiring would represent Gillen's tendency to stay in his "family" when making staffing decisions. Herenda has greater ties to the Blaney and Herrion coaching trees, but some UVa fans wish Gillen would go outside his network or look at candidates from the pre-Gillen UVa era. Boston University assistant Jason Williford would love to return to his alma mater, and Cory Alexander, wrapping up a nine-year run as a professional that included six NBA stops, has indicated that he is at a point in his career where he would be interested as well. However, the opening on the Virginia staff is for a director of basketball operations, which involves little actual coaching or hands-on recruiting. Alexis Sherard, who has been the director of basketball operations for four of his five years at UVa, will return to the role in which he was the lead recruiter in Virginia's successful bids for Forbes and Joseph. Gillen's original plan was to alternate Sherard and Shepherd in the recruiting role, a plan that couldn't possibly help continuity. Close observers of the UVa program thought it would have made sense to have Shepherd in the basketball operations job, a position for which he clearly had the organizational skills, having operated Gillen's camp for most of his time in Charlottesville. Again, though, switching Shepherd and Sherard could have been interpreted as a "cosmetic" change, and maybe Gillen felt that's not what his bosses wanted. For all of the off-court drama, there was reason for optimism concerning the 2004-05 season. Devin Smith, named team MVP after an injury-plagued junior year, headed to Arizona for surgery on his back as soon as exams ended. Dr. Anthony Yeung, a Phoenix surgeon recommended by UVa's medical staff, repaired the herniated disk that had been causing Smith's discomfort and took measures to avoid the potential for a second herniated disk. Smith was recuperating at home in New Castle, Del., by mid-May, and it will be interesting to see if he can enter the 2004-05 campaign in the best shape of his career. Smith required arthroscopic knee surgery before he ever played in a game for Virginia, and the inability to go through conditioning left him weighing more than 240 pounds going into the 2003-04 season. Smith got his weight down last year, but his back quickly became a problem, causing him to miss the opening game. His knees weren't a concern last year, and if the back surgery was successful, Virginia fans finally might see him at his best. If he got down only as far as 230 pounds, spread over a 6-5 frame, it would be the fittest he has been during his time with the Cavaliers.