May 5, 2003 CHARLOTTESVILLE When it was announced in mid-April that sophomore guard Jermaine Harper had been released from his Virginia scholarship, it marked the 11th player with remaining eligibility to leave the program since Pete Gillen's arrival as coach in 1998.
While it is hard to blame Gillen for three players who left the program Monte Marcaccini, Chase Metheney and Craig McAndrew without ever playing for him, the numbers are rather staggering. What they reflect, more than anything, is how many players have come through the program who were not ACC-caliber players.
Certainly, Harper and classmate Keith Jenifer had their share of off-court problems, but if it were assured that they would help the Cavaliers in the future, chances are they'd still be in Charlottesville.
Jenifer was placed on indefinite suspension Feb. 4, coinciding with his arrest on a misdemeanor assault-and-battery charge, but those charges were dropped. Presumably, he could have returned if not for a pattern of undesirable behavior. Maybe Jenifer could have helped down the stretch, given his 104-52 assist-turnover ratio, but he was in a terrible shooting slump that would not have relieved any of the pressure teams placed on UVa's other starting guard, Todd Billet. Jenifer was shooting 33.3 percent from the field (35-of-105) at the time of his departure, and Harper wasn't much better at a season-ending 38.5.
Remarkably, Harper was a starter in his last game, UVa's second-round NIT loss at St. John's, but he didn't handle the ball well enough to play point guard and didn't shoot well enough to be a top-level shooting guard. Moreover, he was unable to take advantage of his extraordinary quickness, either as a defender or an offensive finisher. He had a good first step but lacked the kind of game to convert when he got to the hoop.
So, Harper and Jenifer are gone, joining an exodus that included Marcaccini, Metheney, McAndrew, Kris Hunter (transfer/Jacksonville), Colin Ducharme (transfer/Longwood), Chezley Watson (transfer/West Georgia), Moe Young (transfer/St. Bonaventure), J.C. Mathis (transfer/Michigan) and Roger Mason Jr. (NBA).
Certainly, Mason was an ACC-caliber player, a two-time second-team all-conference player who passed up his final season of eligibility to make himself available for the NBA. Mason, a second-round draft choice of the Chicago Bulls, played sporadically at the end of the NBA season after undergoing shoulder surgery.
How many of the others were ACC-caliber players? Hunter was the starting center on Gillen's first UVa team and would have been a factor in 1999-2000 if not for some off-court issues that hastened his departure. Ducharme was an ACC all-freshman selection who suffered a broken foot before playing a game for Gillen and later became disenchanted, resulting in his transfer to Division II Longwood. There was no hand-wringing when any of the others left, which partly explains the Cavaliers' current predicament, which has many predicting a preseason eighth-place selection, hardly a compliment to Gillen in his sixth season.
At some point, Gillen is certain to comment on his team's relative inexperience. Only three players on the roster have played as many as two seasons for the Cavaliers point guard Majestic Mapp and forwards Elton Brown and Jason Clark and Mapp's injury-plagued career is closer to one and a half seasons.
Billet and Nick Vander Laan will be seniors in 2003-04, but they've played only one season for the Cavaliers after transferring from Rutgers and California, respectively. Nobody can question UVa's decision to take them, but when you add a junior college transfer (Devin Smith) to a pair of two-year transfers, combined with an attrition rate of more than two players per year, it doesn't do much for continuity.
In that context, it will be interesting to see what becomes of the current Virginia recruiting class, which swelled to five with the spring-time additions of point guard T.J. Bannister and post players Donte Minter and Jason Cain. The Cavaliers did what they could in the spring to address some obvious weaknesses, but Gillen hasn't recruited a class yet that lived up to expectations.
His best class was his first one Mason, Mapp, Travis Watson and Jason Rogers but only Watson has finished his career with a significant presence among UVa's career leaders. (He ranked very high in points, rebounds and blocks.) There were two players in Gillen's second recruiting class, which consisted of Young and Mathis, and neither one got to his third year. In fact, Young was gone by the second semester of his sophomore year, headed to St. Bonaventure, which was hardly an improvement, but he wouldn't have left UVa if he were playing.
That's the Virginia problem. It's not that the Cavaliers can't keep the players they have; it's that they keep signing players who can't play.
Superb Class Already Down Three
When nearly a dozen true freshmen were able to contribute to the Cavaliers' football team last year, coach Al Groh feared it might have a backlash effect on some of their classmates and it did. Case in point: Stefan Orange.
Orange, a SuperPrep All-American defensive back at Culpeper (Va.) High School, took a leave of absence late in spring drills and later notified Groh that he intended to transfer at the end of the school year.
Groh felt Orange would become a contributor, either at cornerback or safety, but there was a logjam of players at corner. Returning starters Muffin Curry and Jamaine Winborne will be seniors in the fall, when their likely backups will be a couple of redshirt freshmen, Marcus Hamilton and Tony Franklin.
There was a better chance for playing time at safety, where Orange was receiving practice time, but there were some young players ahead of him at that position, too. Orange probably would have gotten some special-teams duty in 2003 and had a chance to play in the nickel package in 2004, if he didn't beat out Hamilton or Franklin, but he obviously felt there were too many uncertainties.
To compound matters, Orange and Franklin were roommates. Franklin, recruited as a running back, showed some obvious potential at cornerback after agreeing to try defense. That only added to Orange's disenchantment; besides, some of this year's signees will get a look at corner.
Two other players in the 2002 signing class also have left the program offensive lineman Brett Tobin, who was gone before the second semester, and center Damian Spradlin. Spradlin, who had first taken a leave of absence during the summer, announced his retirement (Groh's word) just as a dearth of able-bodied centers would have given him a full spring of snapping.
In all likelihood, there will be more movement as the Cavaliers approach the 85-scholarship limit that has been only a rumor in Groh's first two-plus seasons. For the past two years, almost anybody who could play was probably going to get in the game. If Groh keeps recruiting as he has been, some talented people will be challenged to wait their turns.