January 24, 2007
CHARLOTTESVILLE Almost two years after the dismissal of coach Pete Gillen, the Virginia basketball program continues to feel his imprint.
Virginia needs to be indebted to Gillen eternally for his 2003 decision to back off troubled in-state backcourtman Marquie Cooke in favor of Philadelphia-bred Sean Singletary, but Singletary isn't the only Gillen recruit having an impact.
Indeed, six of the top seven Virginia players this season in terms of minutes played are Gillen recruits. The seventh player on that list, Gillen recruit Lauris Mikalauskas, recently re-joined the starting lineup and soon should supplant Dave Leitao signee Will Harris on the minutes-played list.
This should not be viewed as an indictment of Leitao, whose April 2005 arrival came too late for him to sign any players for the 2005-06 season. The current crop of UVa recruits was well-regarded, but injury and inexperience have limited their productivity.
It wasn't recruiting that cost Gillen his job. Heck, this Virginia team also could have had Gary Forbes, a double-figure scorer at Massachusetts after two seasons in Charlottesville. Gillen made just enough nutty coaching moves on a game-to-game basis that, when the Cavaliers couldn't get over the 15- or 16-win mark, UVa made a change.
In came Leitao, whose game management doesn't receive nearly the second-guessing that Gillen's did, although his temper bears watching. Appearances would suggest that Leitao is a better bench coach than Gillen, but with the talent in the program now, UVa shouldn't be flirting with a .500 record.
A 103-91 victory over Maryland got the Cavaliers to 10-6, but they should be a lot better at this point. They never should have come out of the San Juan Shootout with more than one loss, they shouldn't have lost to Stanford at home, and if they had any confidence on the road they would have beaten Purdue in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge.
Virginia is playing a schedule designed for success in its first season in John Paul Jones Arena. Arizona, Gonzaga and Stanford all had to come east. Plus, the five ACC teams that UVa will play twice are Virginia Tech, Maryland, Wake Forest, Miami and N.C. State.
Those teams were picked sixth, seventh, 10th, 11th and 12th in the preseason and included the only ACC team, Virginia Tech, to lose a home game to Virginia during Leitao's two seasons with the Cavaliers. Overall, he entered the week either 2-16 or 3-16 in road games, with a San Juan victory over Puerto Rico-Mayaguez still the topic of debate.
Virginia is very tough to beat at home, but until the Cavaliers can win an ACC road game or two or three they won't be going back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2001. Their current five-year NCAA drought is their longest in more than 25 years.
The Cavaliers will continue to rely on a nucleus of Gillen recruits Singletary, wing guard J.R. Reynolds, forward Jason Cain, forward Adrian Joseph, guard Mamadi Diane and Mikalauskas. But it will help immensely if one or more of the freshmen can come through.
The rookies haven't been worthless. Will Harris, a 6-6 swingman, played a major role in a December victory over N.C. State, when he had 14 points in 17 minutes. Jamil Tucker, a 6-9 forward, had 12 points in 17 minutes against Maryland.
But Harris and Tucker haven't produced on a regular basis, and 6-5 Solomon Tat, a heralded Nigerian, is still waiting for his break-out game. Tat, plagued by a groin injury in the preseason, played in UVa's opening game Nov. 12 against Arizona and then didn't play again until Jan. 3 against Gonzaga.
"We haven't seen a lot of what I know I'd seen when we started practice," Leitao said. "Especially as I've watched him when he dribbles up and down the court, he kind of lumbers. He doesn't have a lot of fluid movement, of which he'd had a decent amount before he got hurt.
"As a result, it's affected other parts of his game. He plays with a whole lot of strength at both ends. He really defends, he can post up and really get into the defense off the dribble, but we've seen only glimpses of that. It starts with the physical part and goes to the mental part."
COMPLICATIONS CONTINUE IN POST
Virginia's five-member recruiting class included an upperclassman, 6-9, 238-pound Ryan Pettinella, who spent his first two seasons at Pennsylvania. Pettinella has his drawbacks, most notably his 25.9 free throw percentage, but the coaches like his athletic ability and his energy.
Pettinella suffered a dislocated kneecap Dec. 21 in the opening minutes of Virginia's third game in San Juan and underwent arthroscopic surgery Dec. 29. The original timetable for his return was four weeks, which might make him available for the Jan. 28 game at Clemson.
Pettinella has started seven games, but what he has done mostly is provide Leitao with an alternative when the other UVa big men aren't giving the coach what he wants. Pettinella would have been especially useful Jan. 13 at Boston College, where the Cavs lost 78-73 on a day when Cain fouled out in 13 minutes.
UVa's other post players are Mikalaukas, listed at 6-8 but probably shorter, and another Gillen recruit, 6-11, 245-pound junior Tunji Soroye.
Mikalauskas had injuries to both ankles in the preseason and has been totally lacking in explosiveness for most of the season. Through 16 games, he averaged 1.4 rebounds, although his minutes had dropped from 23.6 minutes per game last year to 13.8 this season.
Soroye seems to have recovered from the sports hernia that caused him to miss the first four games, and he now has the sculpted body that coaches have envisioned since his arrival. But if he hadn't made 12 of 14 free throws, he wouldn't have any offense at all.
After 12 games, Soroye was 2-for-6 from the field in 101 minutes. He badly missed a half-hook that proved costly Jan. 7 in a 76-75 loss to Stanford, and his 12-game statistics showed 11 turnovers, zero assists and only three blocked shots. He played two minutes against Maryland, when Cain had 13 points and 16 rebounds in 38 minutes.
"It's situational," Leitao said, politely. "For offensive purposes, we tried to play Jason a little bit more in the hole. Potentially, it gives you more options and somebody who has to be guarded more readily. That's hindered Tunji a little bit."
In 149 minutes before his injury, Pettinella had made 22 of 32 shots from the field (68.8 percent). For the season, he is averaging 13.7 points and 9.9 rebounds for every 40 minutes played, serviceable numbers if you can afford to have him off the floor at the end of close games.