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Gillen Win Stopped Disaster Scenario

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

  January 19, 2004 CHARLOTTESVILLE — There was little shame in losing to some of the teams and in some of the venues that caused Virginia to go 0-3 to start the ACC men's basketball season. The shame was not being competitive in the late stages of a 17-point loss at N.C. State, a 22-point loss to Duke at home and an 18-point loss at Georgia Tech. The Cavaliers' competitiveness and ability to play intelligently remained major issues as the team prepared for a couple of road games against top-10 regulars North Carolina and Wake Forest. In what many people believed was the most important game of Pete Gillen's six-year tenure in Charlottesville, Virginia finally demonstrated some heart and some smarts in a 76-67 victory over Florida State in overtime. At that point, the Cavaliers were 11-4 overall and 1-3 in the ACC heading into a home game with Clemson, and there was at least a brief opportunity for the team to get on a roll. Ordinarily, a coach would not be in trouble at 10-4, but home losses to Florida State and Clemson might have signaled the beginning of the end for Gillen. That's not to suggest that Virginia ever would make a change in the middle of the season, a la St. John's with Mike Jarvis, but the odds on a seventh season for Gillen would not have been good. It is well-known that Gillen's contract, which has seven years to run after this one, does not have a buyout clause. While no media outlet has reported in any detail about the language in the coach's deal, the absence of such a clause (which normally limits a school's obligation to base salary times years remaining on the deal) would make it extraordinarily expensive for UVa to send Gillen packing any time soon. At this time, UVa is having difficulty finding $6.3-million donations for their new, $128-million arena, much less a Gillen buyout, but disenchantment with Gillen was at an all-time high after the Duke and Georgia Tech losses. Virginia athletic director Craig Littlepage, the man who completed negotiations on Gillen's contract, has not come under much heat for the absence of a buyout clause. Moreover, as a former basketball coach who was fired at Rutgers, he certainly has some empathy for his coach's plight. So does former athletic director and valued adviser Terry Holland, who began negotiations on the Gillen contract, but there certainly could come a time when basketball people such as Littlepage, Holland, associate athletic director Jon Oliver and chief fundraiser Barry Parkhill have seen enough. Concerns: Fundamentals, Frowns Gillen's teams — at least the recent ones — can make a basketball purist cringe. Going into the Florida State game, they were last in the ACC in field goal percentage defense, last in three-point defense, last in rebounding and last in steals. They are very poor fundamentally. Such basics as following shots and blocking out on rebounds are not in their repertoire. Almost invariably, the Cavaliers will play well for 16-17 minutes, then disappear in the final minutes of the half. That's exactly what happened during critical stretches in losses to Providence at home, Duke and Georgia Tech. The same thing happened against Florida State, which scored the last five points of the first half in taking a 30-25 lead. Often, that's followed by another run by UVa's opponent to start the second half, but something strange happened against the Seminoles. To start the second half, Gillen sent out a lineup that may not have played together all season: senior Todd Billet at point guard, freshman J.R. Reynolds at wing guard, junior Devin Smith at small forward, junior Jason Clark at power forward and freshman Donte Minter at center. For one thing, it was only the third game back for Clark, a 6-8, 245-pounder who was academically ineligible for the first 12 games. Clark had played five minutes against Duke and 15 minutes against Georgia Tech, without distinguishing himself along the way. The new lineup played well to start the second half against Florida State, then, after a rotation of substitutions, played well late in the half. In fact, it played better than any UVa group had played in a long time. More than anything, it was a group that played more intelligently than any UVa lineup had in a long time. For most of the season, the Cavaliers have started a lineup that, after 14 games, still included five double-figure scorers. But no matter how much emphasis Gillen tried to place on defense, it was not going to be a good defensive unit. Junior center Elton Brown had scored in double figures in each of the Cavaliers' first 14 games, but he's prone to fits of selfishness. His passing was instrumental in UVa hitting five three-pointers and taking an early 15-11 lead against Georgia Tech, but ultimately he started plowing into the lane and forcing shots. Indeed, on a key possession at the end of regulation against FSU, Brown backed into the post and charged into three defenders, picking up his fifth foul in the process. He finished with three points and four rebounds in 20 minutes. An even more enigmatic Derrick Byars started against the Seminoles and did not score a field goal for the third game in a row. He made one of two free throws and grabbed a rebound, lifting his totals to one point and two rebounds in 39 minutes over three games. He missed all nine attempts from the field over that span and was three-for-25 from the field over a five-game stretch. When the Cavaliers called a timeout early in the overtime period, only Byars among the regulars did not stand up and join the team in the huddle. Byars and Brown seemed to be moping throughout their stint on the bench, and freshman Gary Forbes wasn't much happier. Forbes re-entered the game after Reynolds fouled out in overtime but did not score in 18 minutes. When asked if he could have conceived of his team winning with Brown, Byars and Forbes combining for four points, Gillen said, “No way.” In all likelihood, Gillen will need them again by the end of the year, but he must have found it relieving to know there was an alternative. Three days after Virginia's point guards combined for one assist and seven turnovers against Georgia Tech, a height-impaired Billet had 26 points, six assists and one turnover in 40 minutes against the Seminoles. Billet is limited and so is Smith, who scored 21 points after intermission. Smith has a herniated disk that prevented him from practicing before the FSU game, but he has won over Gillen and the UVa fans with his clutch efforts and ability to play with pain. It is clear that Gillen will have to go some distance to win over the UVa fans, whose support at the Florida State game was more substantial than anticipated. Recent play would suggest that the Cavaliers will have difficulty winning the 17-18 games necessary for an NCAA bid, or perhaps even the 15 wins required for an NIT invitation, and most Virginia fans would be satisfied with nothing less. Nevertheless, informed basketball people will be making the big decisions, and it will be an overall perception — probably more than wins or losses — that will influence them. In the meantime, inspired performances at UNC and Wake certainly wouldn't hurt.