By Jeff White
Richmond (Va.) Times-Dispatch
November 17, 2003 CHARLOTTESVILLE Their fall has been so pronounced, their descent into mediocrity so sudden, that it's easy to forget the buzz that surrounded Virginia less than two years ago. Check out the Associated Press poll of Dec. 31, 2001. There sits unbeaten UVa at No. 4. Now check out the clouds hovering over the Cavaliers as they head into Pete Gillen's sixth season.
The contract extension Gillen signed after the 2000-01 season worth about $9 million runs through June 2011, but his job security took a hit last season. Many who follow Virginia basketball, in fact, wonder if Gillen will still be around when the $129.8 million John Paul Jones Arena opens in 2006.
Since beginning 2001-02 with nine straight victories, Virginia has gone 24-28. The Cavaliers were 6-10 in the ACC last year, their worst conference record since Gillen's first season, when the team had only six healthy scholarship players. Meanwhile, off-the-court incidents involving players and disciplinary issues contributed to the perception of an out-of-control program. The criticism increased when, for the third time in four seasons, Virginia had to settle for an NIT bid. The Cavaliers beat Brown in the first round, improving their postseason record under Gillen to 1-8, but a tumultuous campaign ended with their second-round loss at St. John's.
I'll take the blame for the slippage, said Gillen, whose record at UVa is 86-65, with one NCAA Tournament appearance. But I think part of it was that we raised the bar so quickly, so high, that people, when we let them down, the fall was greater.
Can the Cavs rise again under Gillen? Expectations for this season could hardly be lower. In the ACC's preseason media poll, Virginia was picked to finish eighth, ahead of only Clemson. UVa's players and coaches are undaunted.
I like our team, I really do, Gillen said. We have some weaknesses, some holes, but I think we shoot the ball better than we did last year, and I think we're quicker. We don't have a star player, like a Travis Watson but we have, I think, some very good players.
Equally important, those close to the program say, the team has more leadership, more character and better chemistry than its immediate predecessor. No one at UVa wants to suffer through another season like 2002-03, at the end of which boos could be heard periodically inside University Hall.
To be successful, Gillen said, a team needs good leadership, and he believes the Cavaliers have it. Seniors Majestic Mapp and Todd Billet and junior Devin Smith are tri-captains, and junior center Elton Brown also has assumed a leadership role. The 6-9, 251-pound Brown, who'll be asked to supply most of UVa's low-post scoring, underwent a remarkable physical transformation in the offseason. He lost about 30 pounds and seems poised for a breakthrough campaign. From all accounts, he's matured as well.
Three players who had eligibility remaining guards Jermaine Harper and Keith Jenifer and center Nick Vander Laan transferred after the 2002-03 school year. Harper missed the start of last season after being charged with driving under the influence. In February, Gillen suspended Jenifer, never a fan favorite, for conduct detrimental to the team after the slender point guard had an altercation with another Virginia student. Jenifer didn't play for the Cavaliers again.
We had a couple kids that were not good fits at Virginia, and I'll take the blame for that, Gillen said. They're not bad kids, but they were not good fits for Virginia, and they're no longer here.
Watson, who made the All-ACC second team three times, also is gone, and he'll be much harder to replace. The 6-8, 255-pounder paced the ACC in rebounding in 2001-02 and 2002-03 and gave UVa a commanding presence in the post. None of Gillen's returning players averaged more than 4.3 rebounds last season.
Everybody's got to help, Gillen said. We were spoiled with Travis. Travis was just a killer on the boards, so a lot of guys used to leak out early. Now we don't have the luxury.
What the Cavaliers have are four players who started at least 15 games in 2002-03: Billet (13.5 ppg), Smith (11.6 ppg), Brown (9.6 ppg, 4.3 rpg) and sophomore forward Derrick Byars (6.5 ppg), who has enormous potential. Billet and Smith are two of the ACC's premier perimeter shooters, having made 94 and 64 three-pointers, respectively, last season. Billet's 41.8 shooting percentage from beyond the arc led the ACC. Like Brown, Smith reported in much better condition this year.
Another veteran, 6-8, 234-pound junior Jason Clark, is academically ineligible for at least the first semester. Clark, who started 15 games last season, is likely to re-join the team in mid-December. He's been an enigma at times, but Clark is the Cavs' most athletic big man. He had 12 points, eight rebounds and five blocks in 26 minutes at Rutgers last season.
Assuming Clark returns, Virginia will have 11 scholarship players this season. They include five freshmen: center Donte Minter, small forward Jason Cain, point guard T.J. Bannister, combo guard J.R. Reynolds and shooting guard Gary Forbes.
We have a nice mixture of youth and veterans, Gillen said. I like that combination.
The trademarks of Gillen's best teams at Xavier, Providence and UVa have been superior quickness and athleticism. The Cavs didn't measure up in either area last season. Gillen plans to employ a four-quick lineup often this year, teaming four perimeter players with a big guy.
In Virginia's first exhibition, Gillen started Billet, Reynolds, Byars, Smith and Brown. The Cavaliers were out-rebounded, 37-35, in their 104-80 rout of Big Apple Basketball, but they made 11 treys, totaled 25 assists and generally displayed a higher hoops IQ than was apparent last season.
We're going to push it up, press and run, Gillen said. We're still not, quite frankly, as quick as we were two years ago but we're a lot closer than we were last year.
The Cavaliers' weaknesses were myriad last season. Among ACC teams, they ranked last in scoring defense and seventh in field goal percentage defense. They came up with only 185 steals, the fewest of any ACC team, and averaged a league-worst 16.5 turnovers per game.
That's been a huge emphasis in the offseason, handling the ball, controlling the ball, Billet said. There's a concerted effort to limit turnovers this year, as well as improve our defense.
Those are just some of the many questions surrounding Virginia's program. But the off-the-court problems might have bothered the UVa faithful more than the defensive lapses and unforced turnovers.
There should be some people upset, because we don't want to represent the school that way, and that's not going to happen again, Gillen said. I think we're going to put a team on the court this year that's going to be very good, and they're going to represent the university in the proper way.