March 10, 2003 CHARLOTTESVILLE As a preseason choice for fifth place in the ACC, Virginia loomed as a team that could compete for the championship in a watered-down ACC, probably make the NCAA Tournament for the second time in coach Pete Gillen's five years and possibly win 20 games or more.
Nobody would have predicted that the Cavaliers would have a .500 record and be zeroing in on the ACC's play-in game prior to their home win over Maryland in the regular-season finale. It's hardly the kind of season Gillen expected following a home loss to South Carolina in the 2002 NIT, when he blurted over the microphone, I promise you we'll be even better next year.
Never mind that Virginia failed to distinguish itself last year, when it lost 10 of the last 13 games to finish 17-12. It wouldn't have taken much to be better than that.
In all fairness, Gillen's comments were made before he knew that he would lose his best player, Roger Mason, a second-team All-ACC selection who bolted for the NBA with one year of remaining eligibility.
I thought we'd have Roger Mason, Gillen said. I thought Keith Jenifer would be here.
That's where Gillen's argument begins to fall apart. For the past month, Gillen has been lamenting the loss of Jenifer, suspended indefinitely Feb. 4 after his arrest for misdemeanor assault and battery, alternately referring to him as our point guard or our starting point guard.
In reality, Jenifer had lost his starting job prior to his suspension, going
scoreless in his last three games as a Cavalier. In the first game after Jenifer's
suspension, Virginia went into College Park and knocked off then-No. 8 Maryland
86-78. Three days later, after avenging an earlier loss by defeating N.C. State, the Cavaliers were 14-7 overall and 5-4 in the ACC. UVa was undefeated at home in the ACC and looking at four home games out of its last seven ACC games. One easily could have made a case that the Cavaliers were NCAA-bound.
Virginia was still on serve after an 81-67 loss at North Carolina, where the Cavaliers had overcome a double-digit first-half deficit to force a second-half tie. That was followed by a 78-59 loss to Duke in Charlottesville, but the real crusher came Feb. 18, when Clemson came into University Hall, where it had gone 3-21 over the previous 24 years, and won 73-64.
Junior Todd Billet, who had taken over the point guard spot, was outscored by Tigers starting point guard Edward Scott 32-3. Two weeks later, when Georgia Tech came to U-Hall and upset the Cavaliers for the second year in a row, it was Yellow Jackets freshman Jarrett Jack who outscored Billet 21-2. By no means is Billet the Cavaliers' only problem, but his season has been marked by inconsistency. He was 2-for-10 from the field in one of UVa's most damaging losses, 73-55 at Virginia Tech, and was 1-for-12 on three-pointers in two games against N.C. State.
Billet has had seven other games when he has made five three-pointers, but teams are attacking him at both ends of the floor and Virginia has no answer. Billet might have made a good match for Mason, a 6-4 scorer with ball-handling skills, but a lot of people could have played with Mason. Even Jenifer teamed with Mason, with some success, during the 2001-02 season.
It looked as if Majestic Mapp and Billet might make a good team in mid-January, when Mapp enjoyed early success in his return after missing two-plus seasons with knee injuries, operations and rehabilitation. But the season began to come apart for Mapp in a six-turnover night at North Carolina, also the origination of an eight-game, 1-for-15 shooting slump.
Coach Bemoans Lack Of Character
One last chance for UVa to turn its season around came Feb. 23 at Wake Forest, where the Cavaliers led most of the night against a team they had beaten 85-75 in Charlottesville, only to lose 75-71 in a game that turned on a three-point heave by Justin Gray at the end of the shot clock. That was the night that Gillen sat down senior center Travis Watson, one of five players who had missed a class earlier in the week and had been required to run as punishment the next morning. Of the five, only Watson did not show up the next morning, and the fallout was significant.
Watson, the ACC's leading rebounder, not only was limited to 19 minutes against Wake Forest but did not start the next game, a 78-72 loss at Ohio. It was unclear whether Watson would have started the next game, at Florida State, but he and two other players Elton Brown and Jermaine Harper were late for an 8:30 a.m. breakfast preceding a noon start at the Tallahassee-Leon County Civic Center.
It's lack of character, said Gillen, whose team led 37-34 at the half, only to make two field goals in the first 11 minutes of the second half in losing 73-59. It's disappointing. We don't have a lack of talent. We have a lack of character. We don't have a lot of rules: Be on time, go to class, do the right thing. It would be nice to have the veterans doing that leading.
By the next game, Watson was back in the starting lineup and responded with a vintage performance 24 points, 15 rebounds, three blocks, three steals and three assists but it made little difference, as Georgia Tech routed the Cavaliers 90-73. That also was the night Gillen revealed that Jenifer had come to his office and requested a release from his scholarship.
One week earlier, misdemeanor assault-and-batttery charges had been dropped
against Jenifer, who had countersued the complainant in their Feb. 2 fight.
The fact that UVa did not
rescind Jenifer's suspension at that time suggested that an investigation by athletic director Craig Littlepage into earlier complaints against Jenifer had yielded some interesting information.
Littlepage and predecessor Terry Holland had been catching heat for the 10-year contract awarded Gillen prior to the 2001-02 season, at a point when Littlepage was taking over from his long-time boss. There has been growing disenchantment with Gillen and the team, booed repeatedly during the Georgia Tech game, but Littlepage said Gillen will be back in 2003-04.
Recruiting has gone well, Littlepage said. Pete has gotten the attention of the players as a result of the actions taken recently. I knew there would be some short-term consequences and feel they will help in the long run.
Recruiting went fairly well this past year, when the Cavaliers signed top-100 players Gary Forbes (a wing player) and J.R. Reynolds (a guard), but three scholarships remain open and not many quality prospects remain available. Reynolds in particular is regarded as a wonderful kid and potential leader, as is Florida point guard target T.J. Bannister, a less-heralded prospect.
Gillen, 55, said the program's downturn
(18-24 in its last 42 games after beating Maryland) had caused him to reassess his future.
I'm more resolved, Gillen said. It just shows you the importance of character on every team. That's what I've learned from (this season). We have some very good character kids, and we have some kids that slipped up. It's a fine line.