By Andrew Joyner, Charlottesville (Va.) Daily Progress
November 15, 2004 CHARLOTTESVILLE A strange mix of optimism and pessimism surrounds the Virginia basketball program these days. It really depends upon whom you ask. Some talk about freshman point guard Sean Singletary as the savior of UVa basketball. The glass-half-fullers claim Singletary is the type of lead guard coach Pete Gillen has never had, or at least was denied by the knee problems that beset Majestic Mapp. The same people have the patience to see what Gillen can do with such a player.
Gillen himself has been cautious in lending credence to such expectations, especially with sophomore T.J. Bannister on the roster. While Gillen and his staff privately say Singletary is one of the best players they have ever signed, they remained almost sheepish about handing the starting role to him as the season grew near.
It is exactly such cautiousness that the glass-half-empty crowd cites for its pessimism about Gillen and the program in general. They view it in a similar vein with the quick-trigger timeouts, the team's fragile character on the road, and the overall unfulfilled promise and lack of direction in the coach's last few seasons.
Most parties agree that the Cavaliers finished 2003-04 playing their best basketball in some time. They downed three top-15 teams in a 17-day stretch, even managing to put themselves on the NCAA bubble before being sent to the NIT for the third straight season. That impressive run likely had a hand in Gillen being retained.
For their part, Virginia's coaches and players did their best in the 2004-05 preseason to talk strictly about basketball.
"We put more pressure on ourselves than we get externally. We want to win. We don't want to let down the fans, students and administration. Sure, there is pressure," Gillen said. "I feel good about this team. I go into this with my eyes open, because I know it is an unbelievable league."
"It doesn't really cross our minds (about Gillen's status), or we don't allow it to. We're here to play games and win games and not to worry about coach's job," senior forward Jason Clark said. "That is someone else's decision and concern. We're here to play basketball and win games."
Clark and his teammates talk about their goal of reaching the NCAA Tournament. Certainly, if they can do that, the other issues will be resolved. In that way, their performance this season is directly tied to their coach's fate.
The overriding facet of all these issues is that Gillen may have the best team he's ever had in Charlottesville.
Since the departure of oft-maligned point guard Donald Hand following the 2000-01 season, which marked Virginia's last NCAA appearance, the Cavaliers' lineup rarely has been stable. The Cavs had wing guards playing point guard, then more natural point guards unable to remain in school because of off-court issues. Perhaps that is why Singletary's arrival was so anticipated, although it was Bannister's play at the point toward the end of last season that really propelled the team. Gillen obviously has a decision to make.
"We will have a starting point guard. We have two good players. T.J. is a good player, and certainly Sean is a good player. We aren't going to alternate, and we will have a starting point guard, but both of them are going to play a lot," Gillen said. "T.J. started the last 10 or 11 games last season, and he deserves respect for that, but each season is a different year. We'll see who earns it. We have no problem starting a freshman. We will see."
If point guard is issue No. 1 for the Cavaliers this season, then issue No. 2 or even No. 1A is the health of Devin Smith. In a fashion very similar to the point guard problem, the 6-5 swingman never has been completely whole since arriving at UVa from Coffeyville (Kan.) Community College in 2002.
During Smith's initial season in Charlottesville, preseason knee surgery prevented him from getting into shape. Then a herniated disc hampered him for all of last year. Smith practiced with the team only a handful of times in 2003-04, as the back pain limited him to game appearances. He had surgery in the offseason, and there is hope that he will be able to maintain the flashes of brilliance he has shown previously.
"He practices nearly every day now," Gillen said. "Sometimes he gets stiffness, but there is no pain. He's been playing well. He's a really talented player and a real team leader. He might not be a superstar, but he's a real good player."
Returning in the frontcourt with Smith will be fellow seniors Clark and Elton Brown. The 6-9 Brown was Virginia's leading scorer and rebounder last season, averaging 14.8 points and 6.3 rebounds per game. He said NBA scouts told him to work on his jumper to about 15 feet, and that became one of his main focuses of the offseason, along with watching his waistline.
Clark, who despite occasional spurts has never quite lived up to expectations, entered this season as arguably Virginia's most improved player. Last year he never was in sync, after missing the first semester with academic issues. Now he appears well-conditioned, and able to show the jumping ability and general athleticism that aren't commonly found at the power forward position in the ACC.
"Last year he was never in great shape," Gillen said. "Now he is in great shape and is a lot more explosive. He's playing very well. He's our most improved guy. He's physical and fearless, and that's what you need in this league."
Added Smith: "It's a tremendous advantage in this league to have a power forward with that athleticism and talent. He is also a great defender who can cover nearly every player on the court."
Clark truly needs to be the player Gillen described, given the Cavaliers' rebounding difficulties last season, when Virginia ranked near the bottom of that category in the ACC.
The other starter will be 6-2 shooting guard J.R. Reynolds, who averaged 9.4 points per game last season. He was particularly strong toward the end of the campaign, as he averaged about 12 points per contest over the final 16 games of the season.
A sore thumb bothered Reynolds' outside shooting for most of his rookie year. Now healthy, he is the Cavaliers' best perimeter threat and could be set for a break-out season. He, too, should benefit from either Singletary or Bannister as his day-in, day-out backcourtmate.
"J.R. is the real deal from the perimeter," Gillen said. "He's a tremendous shooter. We still want him to be a little more aggressive, but he's a great player."
Virginia also will have the kind of depth it hasn't had under Gillen very often. (Of course, the anti-Gilleners point out that heavy attrition has something to do with that.) Donte Minter should be able to help Brown and Clark once he overcomes a dislocated kneecap, suffered in the preseason. Jason Cain also can provide some needed assistance off the bench. Gary Forbes and freshman Adrian Joseph are athletic players who are gifted on the offensive end and valuable in Gillen's pressing style.
Virginia will face a tough non-conference slate that includes Arizona, Providence, Iowa State, Richmond, Northwestern and Auburn. That and an extremely difficult ACC season figure to provide more than a passing challenge for the Cavaliers.
While the divided camps likely will continue to follow Gillen throughout 2004-05, one thing is always true about college programs: Winning tends to cure all ills. That may be the best the coach can hope for right now.
|1995||12-4 (1)||25-9||NCAA Elite Eight|
|1997||7-9 (6)||18-13||NCAA 1st Round|
|2000||9-7 (3)||19-12||NIT 1st Round|
|2001||9-7 (4)||20-9||NCAA 1st Round|
|2002||7-9 (5)||17-12||NIT 1st Round|
|2003||6-10 (6)||16-16||NIT 2nd Round|
|2004||6-10 (7)||18-13||NIT 2nd Round|
x won ACC title
* returning starter
The Cavaliers have three seniors in the frontcourt, including double-figure scorers Elton Brown and Devin Smith, but the X factor might be 6-8, 240-pound Jason Clark, who had a belated 2003-04 debut after missing the first semester while on academic probation. Clark's availability for an entire season and an able-bodied Smith are two ingredients the Cavs missed last year. Smith only occasionally practiced as the result of a herniated disk that required offseason surgery, and he rarely displayed the kind of long-range shooting that made him such a hot prospect in junior college.
Other Key Returnees
By Christmas of his freshman year, J.R. Reynolds had undergone surgery for a broken left hand and been sent home from a road trip with an apparent case of mononucleosis. He didn't become a full-time starter until the 16th game, but in the Cavaliers' final 16 games (15 starts) he scored about 12 points a game, with a high of 20 against Duke in the ACC Tournament. Reynolds' classmate, Gary Forbes, had a few more ups and downs but posted a team-high 19 points in a season-ending loss to Villanova in the NIT. A third 2003-04 freshman, T.J. Bannister, started the last 11 games at point guard and provided the stability that enabled the Cavs to win six of their last 10 games.
Pete Gillen has let it be known that Sean Singletary from Philadelphia might be the most important recruit of his seven-year tenure. Gillen hasn't said if Singletary will start, but the rookie's offensive ability should give him the edge over the long haul. The Cavaliers think they got a steal in Adrian Joseph, whose athletic ability has prompted comparisons to skywalking ex-Cav Adam Hall, except Joseph is taller and seems to have a better jump shot. Tunji Soroye has the kind of rebounding and shotblocking potential that has been rare during the Gillen era.
Also Worth Noting
Virginia won its first preseason game by 92 points, 121-29, over a Lehman College team that won 22 games last year and reached the playoffs in Division III. Opposing coaches were envious of Gillen when he was able to schedule a preseason weekend trip to Canada, for which the Cavaliers got 10 extra days of practice and were able to use their freshmen, an option that is not available for summer exhibition trips. Reynolds made seven three-pointers in the first half of UVa's first game in Canada, where the three-point line was nine inches behind the college arc. Derrick Byars, a Parade All-American in high school, transferred to Vanderbilt. Byars started 18 games and played more than 20 minutes a game as a sophomore, when he shot a team-leading 40.3 percent from three-point range, but his two seasons at UVa were marked by inconsistency. Post man Donte Minter, who shot 56 percent from the field last season, returned to practice in early November after being sidelined with a dislocated kneecap. Gillen brought in assistants John Fitzpatrick from Houston and Mark Byington from College of Charleston to replace Rod Jensen and Scott Shepherd.
CHART BY: THE UVA INSIDER