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Leitao Needs Talent, Improved Road Work

Thursday, September 11, 2008 11:41am
By: Accsports Staff



March 7, 2006

CHARLOTTESVILLE -- If there has been a master plan for the Virginia basketball program, it did not call for the Cavaliers to make one NCAA Tournament -- just one -- in nine years.

That's why, for all of the attention that was given to the final days of University Hall and an impending move to the new, 15,000-seat John Paul Jones Arena, home games and a home-court advantage are not the issue for the Cavaliers' program right now.

Dave Leitao, wrapping up his first season as the Cavaliers' head coach, needs to find a way to win on the road. Since the 1996-97 season, when the second-to-last of coach Jeff Jones' teams played Iowa in the NCAA West Regional, Virginia is 11-61 in ACC road games. Over the same period, UVa is 43-29 at University Hall, after losing its regular-season finale against Maryland.

A preseason choice for last in 2005-06, Virginia had a chance to do something really special this season, if it only could have been a little more successful on the road, including non-conference games at Arizona, Gonzaga and Western Kentucky. UVa lost those three games and then went 1-7 in ACC road games.

What's more, the Cavaliers weren't even competitive on the road by the end of the season. Mentioned as a potential NCAA bubble team after a convincing 72-58 victory over 11th-ranked Boston College on Feb. 21 at home, Virginia went to Clemson four days later and fell behind by 25 points (32-7) in the first half.

Then it was on to North Carolina, where the margin was 25 points -- again! -- at the half. The Cavaliers fell to the Tigers, 90-64, and Virginia was able to escape its worst loss since 1965 only when the Tar Heels were called for goaltending on the game's final play. The final margin, 99-54, was plenty bad enough.

To his credit, Leitao has tried not to ignore the poor road record or pretend that it isn't an issue. But that hasn't made things any better. It looked as if the situation might improve when, during a three-week span in late January and February, the Cavaliers rallied for a 54-49 victory at Virginia Tech and then had chances to win on the road at N.C. State and Maryland.

In the second of those games, Virginia scored the first 10 points of the game and had a 14-point lead before collapsing in the second half, but that was an exception. More prevalent was the start at N.C. State, where the Wolfpack led 14-2, the kind of game-opening performance that has spelled doom for the Cavaliers. But UVa hung tough that day before falling 66-64.

Much of Leitao's career has been spent as an assistant at Connecticut, which did not become an elite program without learning to win on the road. The Huskies also achieved greatness when their talent level improved and, in the end, better players will enable the Cavaliers to play better on the road, at home and in the postseason.

UVa has not won an NCAA Tournament game since Jones' Elite Eight team in 1995 and has played in only two in the succeeding 11 seasons. Maybe the Cavaliers' best team over that span was the 2000-01 group that was Gillen's only 20-game winner and might have done some damage if it had been able to get past Gonzaga in an NCAA first-round game in Memphis.

That team had a veteran point guard, Donald Hand, surrounded by wings Roger Mason Jr., Chris Williams and Adam Hall. Keith Friel was a three-point specialist, and the Cavaliers had a big-time rebounder in Travis Watson. Williams remains the No. 7 rebounder in school history.

This year's team has a respectable backcourt in sophomore Sean Singletary and junior J.R. Reynolds, plus a bunch of role players. Maybe the best of that group was junior post man Jason Cain, who ranked among the ACC's top rebounders before a late-season fall from grace.

Cain said something that riled the coaches on his way to the bench following an early substitution at Clemson and spent the next two games in some kind of detention. He played nine minutes against Clemson and six at North Carolina, where he had three points, three rebounds and two blocks in his limited stint. Those were Virginia's only two blocks of the game, and his three rebounds were one behind the team's co-leaders.

There is help on the way in the form of a six-member recruiting class that could swell to seven if the Cavaliers find room for Bridgton Academy (Maine) combo guard Keaton Grant. UVa has eight players on scholarship now, but all eight are underclassmen. If nobody leaves and all six -- or seven -- of the recruits make it to campus, the Cavaliers will have exceeded the 13-scholarship NCAA limit, and obviously that's not going to happen.

Post man Ryan Pettinella spent his first two seasons at Pennsylvania, and his family has the resources to pay for his education, but Pettinella (6-9, 230) said he has been guaranteed a scholarship for next season. The likelihood is greater that one of the recruits might not qualify academically, or that Solomon Tat will play professionally abroad. There also are fears that Tat, who committed during the fall but did not sign, may have visa problems in his native Nigeria.

Of course, it also is possible that current players could leave. In addition to Cain, Leitao seemingly runs hot and cold on backup point guard T.J. Bannister, a junior, but these are players who presumably know his system. The recruiting class, for all of its promise, does not have a player with the combination of skills and athletic ability that Cain possesses. Cain held his own in the ACC for most of the season, and if first-year strength coach Shaun Brown is as good as advertised, he should be able to put 20 pounds on Cain.

Moreover, if this year is any indication, it probably will take some time for the newcomers to adjust to Leitao, an acknowledged screamer who did not emerge from the locker room until 40 minutes after the Saturday afternoon loss at Clemson. With a short bench this year, it was hard for Leitao to keep anybody in the doghouse for long, but he'll have a lot more options next year.

Singletary should stay around with Reynolds for one more year, and a steady backcourt should prove beneficial at the end of close games. But the problem for UVa on the road has been that the Cavaliers get blown out early, so they rarely have a chance to win at the end.

There also are issues surrounding the move to a new 15,000-seat arena and how the Cavaliers are going to come close to filling it, much less match the home-court advantage they have enjoyed at University Hall, but those are questions for another day. 

GROH EXTENDS SURPRISE PROMOTION

While everybody else was concentrating on "the Last Ball at U-Hall," football coach Al Groh pulled a fast one March 3 and announced that he had promoted his son, Mike, to offensive coordinator.

Mike Groh, 34, is a former UVa quarterback who has spent five years on his father's staff, two as receivers coach and three as quarterbacks coach. He also served as the Cavaliers' recruiting coordinator this year, and he did yeoman work holding together UVa's class after the December departure of four assistants.

If Mike Groh had any other last name, few eyebrows would have been raised, but there already was enough unrest with Al Groh that critics were quick with charges of nepotism.

The fact that Jeff Bowden had come under fire at Florida State or that Lou Holtz eventually had to demote son Skip at South Carolina apparently had little influence on the elder Groh, who will have great trouble installing his son as his successor if the Cavaliers don't return to the eight- or nine-win level.