March 21, 2006
CHARLOTTESVILLE -- If there is a recent Virginia basketball team to which this year's group could be compared, it would be the 1998-99 bunch, with Pete Gillen in his first season as the head coach of the Cavaliers.
That team got to 14-12 before running out of gas and wound up 14-16, Gillen's only losing record in his first six seasons in Charlottesville.
This year, the Cavaliers got to 14-10 under first-year coach Dave Leitao, then lost five of their last six games to finish 15-15.
If there is a coaching regime to which the Cavaliers would not want Leitao's to be compared, it probably would be that of Gillen (most recently seen trying to get involved with the vacant Delaware job), but there could be worse models, at least in the early years.
In Gillen's second season, the Cavaliers went 19-12, barely missing the NCAA Tournament with a 9-7 ACC record. Until Florida State came along this year, that 2000 season qualified the Cavs as the only 9-7 ACC team ever to be excluded from a 64- or 65-team NCAA field. The 2000 UVa and 2006 FSU teams, by the way, had two common threads: lousy non-conference schedules, and 0-1 records at the ACC Tournament.
In Gillen's third season, Virginia also went 9-7 but made the NCAA Tournament with a team that lost to Gonzaga to finish 20-9. That UVa team might have gone some distance if it had gotten past talented guard Dan Dickau and the rest of the Zags.
The case could be made that Gillen's first year was even more impressive than Leitao's. The Cavaliers had gone 11-19 the previous year under Gillen's predecessor, Jeff Jones, and had lost their top two scorers, Curtis Staples and Norman Nolan.
Leitao took over a team that had gone 14-15, but he inherited the best prospect in the program, Sean Singletary, to go with a pair of perimeter threats in J.R. Reynolds and Gary Forbes. Forbes was one of the highest-rated recruits to sign with Gillen in his later years.
Indeed, many people think the Cavaliers could have made the NCAA Tournament this year if they had held onto Forbes, who was declared academically ineligible and eventually transferred to Massachusetts. But Leitao was less than enthralled with the work ethic he saw from Forbes last summer and was not devastated, although maybe he should have been, when Forbes left.
Gillen's first team was blown out by Duke in the first round of the ACC Tournament, 104-67, but the season-ending four-game losing streak included a 67-66 home loss to then-No. 14 North Carolina, followed by a 74-68 overtime loss at Georgia Tech in the regular-season finale.
This year, Virginia might have known that the schedule did not favor a late run, but the Cavaliers often were not competitive over the final month, with losses by 45 points at North Carolina, 26 at Clemson, and 19 to Stanford in the NIT. The Cardinal then lost at Missouri State.
The NIT was pretty much a fiasco this year, with the Cavaliers first learning of their pairing from an internet website. By the time Virginia was contacted by an NIT official, less than 48 hours remained before the scheduled tipoff, in Palo Alto, Calif.
Virginia was awarded a No. 8 seed. ACC colleague Miami, also one game over .500 after the conference tournament, was a No. 3 seed and got a first-round bye, as well as a home game. What made even less sense was why the NIT committee sent Delaware State to Northern Arizona and, in the same bracket, had Virginia going to Stanford.
It would have made more sense, from a cost standpoint, to pair Northern Arizona and Stanford and have the Cavaliers play Delaware State. Some Virginia fans, of course, pointed a finger at former North Carolina coach and long-time UVa antagonist Dean Smith, a member of the NIT committee.
Virginia's regular-season finale against Maryland was billed as "the Last Ball in U-Hall," but the Cavaliers had let it be known that they were willing and eager to serve as a host for an NIT game. Instead, UVa's increasingly irrelevant women's basketball team had that distinction in the women's NIT.
The Stanford game was a precursor to a two-year, home-and-home series with the Cardinal, beginning next year at UVa's new, 15,000-seat John Paul Jones Arena. Arizona and Gonzaga also will be coming to Charlottesville in 2006-07, after this year's UVa team became a sacrificial lamb by going to Arizona and Gonzaga.
Stanford will lose three seniors, two of whom, Matt Haryasz and Chris Hernandez, were first-team All-Pac-10 selections, but if the Cavaliers don't play any better than they did in Palo Alto, the 2006-07 season won't be anything special.
BRIGHT SPOTS: REYNOLDS, MIKALAUSKAS
Outside of a gutty, 29-point performance against North Carolina in the ACC quarterfinals, Singletary did not have a good finish. He was 6-of-20 from the field at Stanford and closed the season at exactly 40 percent from the field, with 104 turnovers.
His backcourt partner, Reynolds, was Virginia's best player over the last month, although Singletary made first-team All-ACC (the first Cavalier since Bryant Stith in 2002) and Reynolds was tied for 15th among vote-getters, barely winding up on the third team.
Junior center Jason Cain may have been the Cavaliers' third-best player over the middle third of the season, but he was never the same after a Feb. 25 dust-up with assistant Steve Seymour at Clemson. Leitao played Cain for nine minutes and six minutes over a two-game stretch, and Cain was in a funk for the rest of the season.
The only reason Forbes' departure was revisited in some circles was the demise of the two players, sophomore Adrian Joseph and freshman Mamadi Diane, who filled the small forward spot for which many had targeted Forbes. Diane had a game when he was 0-for-11 (at North Carolina), and Joseph had a game when he was 0-for-8 (against the Tar Heels in the ACC Tournament). Diane was 1-for-9 against Stanford.
There are a variety of small forward-types in Virginia's six-member recruiting class, but one player who may have cemented his spot in the Cavaliers' plans is 6-8, 240-pound freshman Lauris Mikalauskas. A strong and aggressive center who plays with emotion and loves to battle at both ends of the court, he shot 56.8 percent from the field for the season and averaged 6.2 points and 4.5 rebounds despite starting only 12 of 30 games.
Mikalauskas loves to lift weights and has weighed as much as 255 pounds, but he doesn't need strength as much as he needs to improve his athleticism. Virginia opponents blocked almost twice as many shots as the Cavaliers, and many of the blocks were at Mikalauskas' expense, despite his team-leading field goal percentage.
The best thing Mikalauskas can do is develop his left hand, which is strange to say because he is left-handed. However, all Mikalauskas does is shoot his free throws left-handed. When he takes a shot from the low-block area, invariably he shoots right-handed. When he starts using both hands equally, it will give him an advantage that not all post players enjoy.
Senior guard Billy Campbell was a nice player, and his two three-pointers against Maryland nearly made for a Cinderella story, but all eight of the Cavaliers' scholarship players this season were underclassmen. It's no coincidence that overachieving Virginia teams in 1998-99 and 2005-06 were both low on numbers.
If the Cavaliers are at the full complement of 13 scholarship players in 2006-07, as expected, it will be interesting to see what kind of chemistry they have. That will be a major factor in the drive to meet loftier expectations.