December 15, 2003 CHARLOTTESVILLE As many of Virginia's ACC basketball rivals jumped out to quick starts, it became incumbent on the Cavaliers not to stumble in the nonconference portion of their schedule. Reporters have felt for a while that the earliest chance for a misstep would come in mid-December, when UVa had to venture across the country to face a Loyola-Marymount team that recently dropped to 5-2 after a 69-66 overtime loss at UCLA. A Virginia loss at Loyola-Marymount would drip with irony, because it was a game scheduled as a courtesy for a pair of Californians on the Cavaliers' 2002-03 roster, Nick Vander Laan and Jermaine Harper.
The Cavaliers originally had hoped to gain a spot in the Pete Newell Challenge, but complications developed and Virginia turned to Plan B, the game at Loyola-Marymount. That game would have loomed as a pitfall under any circumstances, but Vander Laan and Harper subsequently left the program, although Vander Laan, now playing NAIA ball at Concordia (Calif.), could see fit to attend.
While Harper's departure was recommended, given his arrest for driving under the influence and other issues, Vander Laan's was unsolicited and unappreciated. While Vander Laan had spoken to teammates over his concern that Virginia would go to a four-quick scheme, which utilizes only one true post player on the floor at a time, anybody could see that rebounding might become a problem.
Virginia has been starting only one post player, 6-9, 250-pound junior Elton Brown, and while Brown finally exerted himself with 13 rebounds in 21 minutes against low-major VMI, that was the only game in which the Cavaliers had out-rebounded their opponents. Even that one came by the slimmest of margins, 45-44.
Virginia opponents grabbed 15 or more offensive rebounds in the Cavaliers'
first five games, and Minnesota had 22 offensive boards in an
86-78 loss in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge, clearly UVa's most impressive victory in a 5-0 start.
On the other hand, none of Virginia's first five opponents shot as high as 40 percent from the field. Gillen has spoken repeatedly of UVa's need to hang its hat on defense, which would have been a risky proposition for most of his first five Virginia teams. But if the Cavaliers can pull it off, it could make a big difference.
Some of the defensive improvement is a byproduct of the four-quick concept, which allows UVa to play its best athletes together. Very seldom have post players Brown and freshman Donte Minter been on the floor at the same time, although that tandem could have a nice future together.
Certainly, UVa will need to counteract power teams equipped to take advantage of UVa's rebounding deficiencies. But Minter, a 6-7, 244-pounder, has earned the chance to play. His left-handed half-hook has been especially effective and enabled him to shoot 76 percent from the floor in the first five games, including six-for-six against VMI.
Gillen has been pleased with all of his freshmen, but most particularly Minter and 6-6 Gary Forbes, who was leading the team in scoring (15.2) and grabbing seven rebounds per game. Forbes has displayed the tendency to be a little out of control, but he plays the game with a welcome energy and can fill a scoresheet in a hurry.
Another freshman, 6-3 guard J.R. Reynolds, started the first three games before giving way to veteran forward Devin Smith, but he may have had his best game when he came off the bench and played 23 minutes against VMI. Reynolds, who made at least one three-pointer in each of UVa's first five games, converted two of three attempts from behind the arc against the Keydets and had a 3-0 assist-turnover ratio.
Virginia was hitting a low percentage of its three-pointers after the first five games, but it was curious to hear Gillen say that the Cavaliers were not a good three-point shooting team. In senior Todd Billet, the Cavaliers had the ACC's top three-point shooter, both in three-point field goals per game and three-point percentage. In Billet and Smith, the Cavaliers had the players who combined for more three-point field goals last year, 158, than any other ACC twosome.
Smith, hampered by a herniated disk in the preseason, made his season debut in the second game (against Virginia Tech) and appeared oblivious to his physical problems. After his first four games, he was leading the team in rebounding (7.8) and playing defense with an intensity for which the Cavaliers have not been known in recent years.
Smith came to UVa with the reputation of a deadly outside shooter, but he couldn't hit anything in his first four games. After making one of three three-pointers against Virginia Tech, he missed 11 consecutive treys over the next three contests. Smith and Billet made a combined one of 10 three-pointers against Minnesota and one of eight against VMI.
Gillen said Smith had no legs as the result of his preseason back injury, but those legs didn't prevent Smith from hitting the boards, dunking on occasion and playing physical defense. More valid was Gillen's observation that Billet hadn't been concentrating on three-pointers because of his point guard duties.
Point Guard Situation Solidifying?
Billet has gotten virtually all of his playing time at point guard, and his ball-handling has improved, as evidenced by his 16-7 assist-turnover ratio after five games. UVa had nine turnovers in each of back-to-back games against Minnesota and VMI, an early indication that it might do a better job of protecting the ball. Majestic Mapp had a 16-8 assist-turnover ratio but played only 12 minutes against Minnesota, after averaging more than 23 minutes in the first three games.
Meanwhile, Gillen continued to get heat from fans and media who couldn't understand his decision not to make a hardship appeal to get Mapp a sixth season of eligibility in 2004-05. Given his circumstances, which include two full seasons lost to serious knee injuries, Mapp would be a lock to be approved for competition next year.
We talked to the kid about it in May, said Gillen, who would welcome Mapp as a student or graduate assistant next season. When it was brought up, who brought it up, I have no idea. We just wanted to be honest with him: We're going to give you a fifth year, but we have to move on.
Gillen also addressed the Mapp situation with Sean Singletary, a coveted point guard from Philadelphia who made a commitment to UVa in May and signed in November. Reporters questioned how Singletary could have been scared off by the shadow of an oft-injured sixth-year player, but Gillen said he wasn't taking any chances. Singletary's high school coach recently confirmed to the ACC Sports Journal that the Cavaliers' point guard situation was a significant factor in his player's college decision.
If (Mapp) stays, Gillen said, now you're hindering the development of J.R. Reynolds, who is a (wing guard) but can play some (point guard), of (freshman point guard) T.J. Bannister, of Sean Singletary. It was really a no-brainer. We had no choice.
And if something happens to Singletary, who was sidelined for most of the summer with an old football injury? Or if somebody has academic problems, or if somebody pulls a Vander Laan? In that case, letting Mapp go would be another kind of no-brainer.