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Gillen Story Adding New Complications?

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

  March 15, 2004 CHARLOTTESVILLE — Only a miserable postseason showing by the Virginia basketball team could destroy the good will created by an attention-grabbing late-season run. As late as mid-February, it was almost a foregone conclusion that Pete Gillen would not return for a seventh season as UVa coach. Now, it's almost surprising that Gillen's fate remains an issue. It is widely believed that a decision was made in early February that the Cavaliers were going to buy out Gillen's contract, the estimated $6.3 million cost be damned. At the time, the Cavaliers were 12-9 overall and 2-8 in the conference, and there was little reason to believe things would get any better. A postseason bid of any description seemed out of the question. Actually, a ray of hope was provided in the last of five straight UVa losses, a 93-75 setback at Duke, where Gillen made the surprise decision to start 5-10 freshman point guard T.J. Bannister. Although he had played in every game, Bannister was averaging fewer than 13 minutes at the time and had played only five minutes two games earlier, in a crushing 71-67 home loss to Maryland. Bannister converted only one of six attempts from the field against the Blue Devils and had four turnovers, but what he offered was the quick kind of guard who could bring the ball upcourt by himself and was tough to press. Until that night, senior Todd Billet was getting most of his time at point guard and, while Billet's assist-turnover ratio improved dramatically this season, the rest of his game was suffering. Much has been made of Billet's three game-winning three-pointers, and he clearly will leave UVa fans with pleasant memories, but even at his best he has been an odd fit: too small, too easy to guard, too easy to exploit defensively. In what may have been the biggest in a series of big games, Billet went one-for-14 from the field and missed all 10 of his three-point attempts in a contest at Maryland that was not decided until the final minute. Bannister probably doesn't shoot well enough (not yet anyway) to be a long-term solution as Virginia's starting point guard. Besides, the Cavaliers believe they have signed one of the top point guards in the country in Philadelphia prep star Sean Singletary, but over the last 10 games of the regular season — a stretch that is so important that it is among the NCAA Selection Committee's known criteria — Bannister averaged 25.7 minutes for a team that went 5-5. There were numerous complaints with Gillen coming into this season: Why did his teams never get better at the end of the year? Would he ever win an ACC Tournament game? Could he get his players to behave off the court? Why was Virginia so bad defensively? Why didn't his players ever get any better? Obviously, Virginia wanted to beat Maryland, which would have put the Cavaliers in sixth place following the regular season and would have left them close to an NCAA bid. But it wasn't the worst thing when Florida State won a tie-breaker for seventh and UVa was relegated to the ACC “play-in” game. Some would say it's an embarrassment just to be in the play-in game, and it would have been an embarrassment if the Cavaliers had lost to ninth-seeded Clemson. Virginia should have lost, at least when it was down by eight points with less than two and a half minutes remaining. But Virginia did win, beating the Tigers 83-79 in overtime, and now nobody can say that Gillen has never won an ACC Tournament game. Anyone could have criticized the way Virginia was unable to dispose easily of the Tigers, but that was forgotten the next day, when UVa returned to action less than 14 hours after leaving the Greensboro Coliseum and had Duke in a five-point game with just over 1:30 remaining. The Blue Devils' 84-74 triumph over the Cavaliers was much closer than Duke's eagerly awaited semifinal with Georgia Tech, a game the Blue Devils led by 20 before winning 85-71. Predictably, Blue Devils coach Mike Krzyzewski defended Gillen when asked about rumors that UVa's coach was in trouble. “Trouble?” Krzyzewski said. “With his wife? If anybody's thinking that (Gillen needs to be gone), they're idiots, I would think. This guy's won almost 400 games. He's one of the top coaches and best guys in the business. Obviously, in the month of February and now into March, Virginia's played everybody well or won. They've just been a really good basketball team.” Debate Includes Numerous Topics Granted, those comments came from a coach who has beaten Virginia three times in each of the past two seasons, including a pair of ACC Tournament games, but it was hard to argue with Krzyzewski's reasoning, at least the part about the Cavaliers playing better this year in February and March. Duke shot 50 percent from the field against Virginia, but that wasn't the regular occurrence it was in past years. In a month's span, there were times when UVa opponents shot 33.9 percent (Clemson), 34.3 percent (Maryland) and 35.8 percent (Maryland). In two earlier games, Florida State and Clemson shot 31.9 and 31.6 percent, respectively, in losses at University Hall. Nobody talks about Virginia being problem-free off the court, which goes to show that player behavior matters to fans only when a team isn't winning. But even junior center Elton Brown, previously known to miss wake-up calls and pout when taken out of games, cleaned up his act this year. Going into the postseason, Brown led the ACC in field goal percentage, and Clemson coach Oliver Purnell described him as “as good a presence offensively as there is in the league.” Trickier is the debate over whether Gillen's players get better over the course of a season and over the course of their careers. Billet, who averaged more than 16 points a game in his sophomore year at Rutgers in 2000-01, is struggling to finish the year with a double-figure scoring average, which would be his fourth in four seasons. To compare his Rutgers and Virginia numbers might be apples and oranges, but the ACC couldn't be that much better than the Big East. Brown definitely got better this season, lifting his scoring average from 9.6 as a sophomore to a team-high 15.1 going into the postseason. On the other hand, sophomore Derrick Byars and freshman Gary Forbes did not get better this year, the second time that's happened for Byars. Forbes, a prolific scorer in high school, couldn't make a shot of any description down the stretch, and he has developed the look of an extremely unhappy player. He missed all seven of his field goal attempts in 27 minutes over three games at the end of the regular season, and he was seen snapping at Gillen on several occasions at the ACC Tournament. Byars showed some signs of life late in the year, but Virginia has nothing if not wings. Few people would disagree that junior forward Devin Smith (12.7 ppg) is the best player on the team, even with a herniated disk, and freshman wing guard J.R. Reynolds is “a burgeoning star,” to quote Gillen. Reynolds had 18 and 20 points in his two ACC Tournament games and made big play after big play in the comeback against Clemson. Gillen has said that Virginia will have a “terrific team” next year, a prediction that may help him save his job but one that could get thrown back in his face if UVa does not make the NCAA field in 2005. The Cavaliers should be better next year, but unfortunately for them, the rest of the league isn't getting any worse.