By Ed Miller
Norfolk (Va.) Virginian-Pilot
November 22, 2005
CHARLOTTESVILLE Dave Leitao thought he knew what he was getting himself into when he moved into Pete Gillen's old office at University Hall last spring. As he settled into his new job, Leitao realized he didn't know the half of it.
For Leitao, crisscrossing the Commonwealth to talk with fans and alumni was an eye-opening experience. For a program that has spun its wheels for the better part of a decade, Virginia basketball still generates an awful lot of interest. More, frankly, than Leitao expected.
"The amount of questions I've had to answer in six months at Virginia," Leitao said, "is something I didn't know would be at the level that it's at."
It was one more reminder that Leitao isn't at DePaul anymore, where the Blue Demons mostly could fly under the radar in a pro sports town. Leitao, accustomed to having to scrap for attention and resources, said he also was surprised at the "amount of interest in doing well and the amount of support to do well" at Virginia.
"It motivates you to get up early every morning and get started on your day," he said.
He hasn't been the only one rising early. Leitao had his players up before dawn during the preseason, convening them for some hard-core conditioning. To say it was a shock to the players' systems is to put it mildly. At the team's first practice, everyone wore plain gray T-shirts. The message? The players had to earn the right to wear "Virginia" jerseys.
As they made the media rounds in October and November, many UVa players admitted what observers of the program long had suspected. Namely, "We didn't work that hard," under Gillen, as junior center Donte Minter said.
"Everything is more structured," junior guard J.R. Reynolds said. "We needed it."
Virginia lost leading scorers Elton Brown and Devin Smith from last year's 14-15 team, and top reserve Gary Forbes transferred to Massachusetts after encountering academic difficulties. Brown and Smith were key parts of UVa teams that went a combined 48-44 (16-32 ACC) over the last three seasons, with two NIT appearances. The Cavaliers went to only one NCAA Tournament (2001) during Gillen's seven years at the helm.
The returning players were eager to turn the page and obviously don't want to bash Gillen, who still lives in Charlottesville. Many of them said they like their former coach personally. But after two years of watching him twist in the wind, they're clearly glad to be starting fresh under a new guy who, on the surface, looks like Gillen's polar opposite: no-nonsense, demanding and intense.
Watching tape, it didn't take Leitao long to conclude that there were a number of games Virginia would have won if its players had been mentally and physically tougher. Instilling toughness and discipline has been his top priority.
So far, the players have bought in, particularly Reynolds and sophomore point guard Sean Singletary, who form what is potentially one of the better backcourts in the ACC.
"They've been advocates of what we've been trying to establish here," Leitao said.
Both players have much to gain. Reynolds, the team's best shooter, is salivating at the thought of actually having screens run for him, something that rarely happened under Gillen, when the ball often was dumped into Brown, never to return.
Singletary played harder than anyone on the team last season, ignoring an aching shoulder that required offseason surgery. He was tough and fearless, everything Virginia fans hoped he would be. At times, he also was disillusioned and outspoken. He questioned the effort of his older teammates, accusing some of giving up in an embarrassing road loss to North Carolina. If anyone seems a nice fit for Leitao's style, it's Singletary.
"He's already self-motivated," Leitao said. "That's the great thing about him."
Reynolds and Singletary will command plenty of attention, if for no other reason than Virginia has no proven scorers inside. Leitao already has mentioned the possibility of playing junior T.J. Bannister in a three-guard lineup. Limited during the preseason while recovering from a sports
hernia, Bannister was expected to be available in December.
The Cavaliers had better hope the guards can score, because there could be some dry nights down low.
The big man most capable of putting the ball in the basket is Minter. As a freshman, the left-hander displayed a deft touch. Last season was essentially a wasted year, as he battled injuries. Minter had offseason knee surgery and, like Bannister, was limited during the preseason. He's also expected to be available in December.
With Minter unavailable, Leitao started freshman Laurynas Mikalauskas against Concordia. As expected, the 6-8, 241-pounder showed a willingness to mix it up inside, while also demonstrating that he could be foul-prone. Fouls or not, the Cavaliers could use the Lithuanian's physical play.
Virginia's other big men, Jason Cain and Tunji Soroye, aren't equipped to provide much muscle. Cain, 6-10 and 212 pounds, is a cult hero among U-Hall fans and a target of ridicule at opposing arenas for his wispy moustache and awkward appearance. He probably should have redshirted two years ago. Now a junior, he has decent skills facing the basket, particularly as a passer. Soroye, listed at 6-11 and 212 pounds, is one of those players for whom the term "raw" was coined. His biggest contributions will come on the defensive end, where he's shown a knack for blocking shots. His physical development was slowed after he contracted malaria this summer on a trip home to see his family in Nigeria.
Freshman Mamadi Diane appears to have won the starting job at small forward, over sophomore Adrian Joseph. Leitao repeatedly has praised Diane's smooth, efficient play and his potential as a defender.
"Even if we had a whole team," Leitao said, "(Diane) would play a lot."
But there's the problem. Leitao doesn't have a whole team. He has just nine scholarship players, after freshman center Sam Warren left the program a couple of weeks into practice. Warren, a project's project who averaged just 6.3 points as a high school senior, was in over his head and would not have played anyway. Leitao later added a couple of walk-ons to provide depth. It's a team that won't have much margin for error in the ACC.
"We've got to defend and we've got to rebound," Leitao said. "And both of those things are a byproduct of how hard we play. We've got to compete at a much higher level than we've ever done in the past."
Competing harder won't be difficult. Gillen's last couple of teams set the bar pretty low. Leitao already has shown that he won't tolerate anything less than full effort, getting in the faces of several players during the Concordia exhibition.
"He'll get those guys to play really hard," Virginia Tech coach Seth Greenberg said. "He helped bring toughness to DePaul when he came in there, so I think he's probably got a little bit of a game plan and formula for what he wants to get done and how he wants to do it."
Unlike Gillen, who had a one-liner for every occasion, Leitao seldom cracks wise, but he occasionally flashes a dry sense of humor. Asked about the low expectations for his team, he said he can use them as "motivation, on a day-to-day basis."
Then he smiled and said there was only one real problem with low expectations:
"They might be right."
Year ACC Overall Postseason
1996 6-10 (7) 12-15 None
1997 7-9 (6) 18-13 NCAA 1st Round
1998 3-13 (9) 11-19 None
1999 4-12 (9) 14-16 None
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
2005 4-12 (10) 14-15 None
x - won ACC title
Name Ht./Wt. Pos. Class
T.J. Bannister 5-10/176 PG Jr.
Jason Cain 6-10/212 WF Jr.
Donte Minter 6-8/250 BF Jr.
J.R. Reynolds* 6-2/197 WG Jr.
Adrian Joseph 6-7/195 WF So.
Sean Singletary* 6-0/174 PG So.
Tunji Soroye 6-11/212 C So.
Mamadi Diane 6-5/185 WG Fr.
Laurynas Mikalauskas 6-8/241 BF Fr.
* - returning starter
Virginia has one of the ACC's premier point guards in Sean Singletary. He's one year wiser and physically stronger after surgery to repair a left-shoulder injury that required him to wear a harness during the early part of last season. In fact, UVa could have one of the most underrated backcourts in the country. J.R. Reynolds, who plays alongside fellow co-captain Singletary. broke out of a late-season slump in 2004-05 with a 32-point game against Miami in the ACC Tournament. He should benefit from the more structured offense implemented by new coach Dave Leitao. T.J. Bannister, rounding into shape following sports-hernia surgery, has the experience of 21 starts, 60 games and 1,215 minutes.
OTHER KEY RETURNEES
Adrian Joseph served notice of his athleticism and potential when he scored 19 points against Wake Forest last year in the Cavaliers' ACC opener. Within weeks, he suffered a quadriceps injury in practice that caused him to miss six games. Joseph is the UVa player most likely to wow crowds with his dunks, and he's a streak shooter with three-point range. However, he had more than four rebounds only once in 23 games. In the last three games of 2004-05, Tunji Soroye had nine blocks in 40 minutes. He will allow the Cavs to extend their defense. Jason Cain has offensive skills that have been untapped in Leitao's eyes.
Leitao started Mamadi "Mo" Diane and Laurynas "Laurys" Mikalauskas in the Cavaliers' preseason game with Concordia and was satisfied to the point where those two also started the opener against Liberty. Mikalauskas, a Lithuanian who spent four years at the Blue Ridge School in nearby St. George, Va., should provide some toughness, but Leitao wonders if the Cavaliers can keep him out of foul trouble. Diane, well-schooled at DeMatha High in Hyattsville, Md., comes from a background where the program was down and rebuilt itself into a city champion. Diane's ability to rebound (8.9 per game at DeMatha) and defend may have given him the preseason edge over Joseph.
ALSO WORTH NOTING
The third member of former coach Pete Gillen's last recruiting class, 6-10 Sam Warren from Colorado, left the team after the start of preseason practice and planned to transfer. Warren was viewed as a project when the Cavaliers signed him in the fall of 2004, and he didn't show much improvement during his senior year at Cherry Creek High, where he averaged 6.3 points and 3.7 rebounds per game. ... With Warren leaving and Bannister and Donte Minter in rehab following surgery, the Cavs had only seven scholarship players in uniform against Concordia. ... UVa earlier lost Gary Forbes, the top-rated recruit in their 2002-03 recruiting class, who transferred to Massachusetts after learning that he would not have been eligible at UVa this season. Forbes was the team's fifth-leading scorer (9.4 ppg) as a sophomore, with three games of 21 points or more, but his departure came at the position where the Cavs were best-equipped to handle it. ... Minter, closer to being game-ready than Bannister, is the lone frontcourt player with any pedigree as a scorer. Minter scored in double figures six times in the first 16 contests of his freshman year, but he has been injury-plagued and has not reached double figures in 33 subsequent games.
Chart By: The UVa Insider