March 29, 2004 CHARLOTTESVILLE As the offseason headed into its second week, Virginia fans still were waiting to hear if Pete Gillen would return for a seventh season. Gillen has seven years remaining on a contract that pays him approximately $900,000 per year, but there has been growing disenchantment with a program that has been to the NCAA Tournament only once since 1997. By almost all accounts, the decision had been made to buy out Gillen's contract until the Cavaliers turned around their season in mid-February and won six of their last 10 games, three over teams ranked in the top 15. There were reports of Gillen's imminent demise even before Virginia lost at Villanova in the second round of the NIT, 73-63, but when Gillen met with athletic director Craig Littlepage on March 23, it didn't happen. Littlepage, a member of the NCAA Men's Basketball Committee, left Charlottesville later that day to go to East Rutherford, N.J., where he was an overseer for the region semifinals and final. A second meeting with Gillen was scheduled for March 29. Littlepage described the first meeting as productive, an adjective that was open to interpretation. According to one school of thought, if Littlepage already had decided to fire Gillen, he would have done it in the first meeting. According to a second theory, if Littlepage had decided to fire Gillen, he might have encouraged him to find another job and given him one or two weeks to do so. Presumably, there might have been some interest in a coach who had made five straight postseason appearances, but that didn't happen, either. What's more, Gillen professes little interest in vacancies such as the one at St. John's, for which he has been touting one-time aide and current Manhattan coach Bobby Gonzalez. Many of Littlepage's colleagues refer to him as methodical and say he likes to look at an issue from every conceivable angle, but if he were to go through two meetings and maybe more meetings than that and then fire Gillen, that would be cruel and unusual. Even Gillen's detractors wouldn't feel comfortable having him twist in the wind. Rival coaches, especially Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, were appalled at the notion that Virginia might fire Gillen. Krzyzewski said only an idiot would make such a move, but here's a guy whose teams have beaten Virginia six times over the past two seasons. Why would he want to see Gillen go? There is no question that Virginia made strides this season in a number of areas, not all of them on the court. What I wrestle with is the long term, one key advisor said. In 2006-07, Virginia will begin play in its new, 15,000-seat John Paul Jones Arena, named for the father of primary benefactor Paul Tudor Jones. Some people have questioned whether Virginia can fill the new building, but that's not the primary concern in the Gillen debate. A lot can happen in two years. The bigger issue is the financing. At last glance, UVa had raised approximately $80 million for a building that will cost $128 million. (And remember, in Virginia, athletic departments get no help from the state.) If Virginia can raise the money promptly, it can pay for the building with another $50 million or so in donations. On the other hand, if contributions dry up and UVa needs to take out loans, the total expense would come to $180 million. In that light, it's no wonder Littlepage says money won't enter into his decision. A possible $6.3 million buyout for Gillen would be small change if it kept Virginia from paying another $40 or $50 million in loan payments and interest. There has been talk of contributors holding up their pledges or would-be contributors holding up donations, but some of that could be internet chatter. How much the Gillen factor affects donations is very difficult to quantify. Another Tough Road In 2004-05 Virginia has a promising recruiting class on the way, headed by Philadelphia-bred point guard Sean Singletary, but can the Cavaliers expect to be much better next year? They don't lose much, but neither does anybody else in the ACC, with the possible exceptions of Florida State and conference newcomers Miami and Virginia Tech. It's conceivable that UVa could play decently next season and have the same kind of season 18-13 and tied for seventh in the league. Moreover, Littlepage has said he would like to beef up the schedule, replacing teams in the 200-299 range with teams in the 100-199 range or better. Already, UVa is scheduled to go on the road for games at Providence and Iowa State, plus an unnamed opponent in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge. In addition, Auburn is due to come to Charlottesville or Richmond as payback for a game that was played in Birmingham, Ala. UVa will be without Todd Billet, a senior guard who won three games with three-pointers in the final 30 seconds but otherwise had a disappointing senior year. Billet missed all six of his attempts from the field against Villanova, going scoreless for the first time in his two seasons in Charlottesville. The Cavaliers finished last in the ACC and close to the bottom of Division I in rebounding differential and don't have a proven rebounder coming in. However, Gillen attributed much of the problem to a lineup with two small guards, Billet and T.J. Bannister, that he adopted for ball-handling reasons. The Cavaliers went 6-4 after Bannister moved into the starting lineup, a development that coincided with the worsening of Devin Smith's herniated disk. Smith did not play in three games, starting with a Feb. 11 contest at Duke and including the season-ender against Villanova in the NIT. When we played Duke, Mike said, Why didn't Smith play?' Gillen said. When I told him, he said, He's your best player.' I've got to say I agree with him.
Gillen said Smith will undergo surgery as his academic schedule allows. If he were to come back pain-free, it would be the first time in his college career. In 2002-03, the year he transferred in from Coffeyville (Kan.) Community College, Smith required arthroscopic knee surgery that kept him out of preseason conditioning. As a result, he played at more than 240 pounds. Smith might be the best pure rebounder on the team, and an all-senior frontcourt of Elton Brown, Jason Clark and Smith would be a major improvement from a rebounding standpoint, not that a clean bill of health for Smith would be a certainty. Other options include Derrick Byars, who is not a great rebounder; Gary Forbes, who is a better rebounder than Byars, and 6-7 recruit Adrian Joseph, who has gotten good reviews. There has been speculation that Byars, a former Parade All-American, might look for greener pastures. Forbes, another player whose playing time went up and down, said after scoring a team-high 19 points against Villanova that he was happy at UVa, but he looked like an extremely unhappy player at times late in the season. Nevertheless, Forbes told reporters in late March that he will be returning in 2003-04. At the time, Gillen only wished he could say the same thing.