March 6, 2007
CHARLOTTESVILLE By the time Dave Leitao's first Virginia team crossed the country for a first-round NIT game in 2006, the Cavaliers had nothing left in their tank. It showed in a season-ending, 65-49 loss at Stanford.
Based on Virginia's play at Wake Forest to close the 2006-07 regular season, it looks as if the Cavs' gas gauge is creeping close to "E" again.
Leitao's first team was doomed by a lack of depth and his desire to continue to practice at a high level, reasoning that more exposure to his system would help UVa in the long run. The additions of four freshmen and transfer Ryan Pettinella enabled Leitao to rest veterans such as Sean Singletary and J.R. Reynolds in practice this year, but it still looks as if the Cavaliers have hit a wall.
Virginia had a chance to win the regular-season ACC championship outright in Winston-Salem, but a Wake team that was playing for pride took the fight to the Cavs and came away with a 78-72 victory. It didn't help that UVa was coming off an emotional battle with Virginia Tech less than 48 hours earlier.
"But if you want to call yourself a champion," Leitao said, "you've got to overcome anything and everything in your way."
The Cavaliers had clinched a share of the regular-season title with a 69-56 victory over Virginia Tech that enabled them to go 16-1 in their first year at John Paul Jones Arena, including 8-0 in home games against ACC opposition.
Unfortunately for them, the Cavaliers won't be playing at home again this season. Fortunately for them, in another way, they won't be playing at home again this season. Virginia (20-9 overall, 11-5 ACC) appears to be a lock for the NCAA Tournament, and thus school officials won't have to think about whether they'll host a first-round NIT game.
Virginia ended a lengthy road losing streak in ACC play when it won at North Carolina State, Clemson and Maryland in a 14-day span at midseason, but the Cavaliers recently returned to their old, inept road ways.
In the Cavs' last three road games, they were thumped by Virginia Tech 84-57, then blew second-half leads against Miami and Wake Forest teams that were last in the ACC when those games tipped off.
Virginia relies heavily on veteran guards Reynolds and Singletary, but a big key for the Cavaliers is the emergence of a third scorer. That hasn't been a problem at home, where wings Mamadi Diane and Adrian Joseph usually pick up the slack, as they did when they combined for 20 points against the Hokies.
Two days later, though, Diane and Joseph combined to go 2-for-11 from the field and score four points at Wake. In the first Virginia Tech game, they had gone 1-for-11, with one bucket. The Miami trip wasn't much better.
Diane was active at Wake Forest, with five rebounds, two blocked shots and a steal in 28 minutes, but he clearly has no confidence in his shot when he gets away from JPJ. Joseph's biggest problem is that he's too passive. He played 625 minutes in Virginia's first 29 games and, amazingly, attempted only four free throws. That number was down from 42 last year, in 857 minutes.
SINGLETARY, REYNOLDS NEED HELP
Even with Diane and Joseph doing a no-show at the offensive end, the Cavaliers would have been able to beat Wake Forest if, for the second game in a row, Reynolds had been able to make a shot. He was a combined 6-for-29 from the field in the final two regular-season games, when a command performance might have elevated him to first-team All-ACC status.
Singletary scored a game-high 25 points at Wake, but 17 of those came in the first half, including a 15-point spree over the final 6:50, sending UVa to the locker room with a 39-35 lead.
Singletary was only 1-for-8 from the field in the second half, with many of his misses coming on drives to the basket that were met by Wake's big men, who were all too comfortable in leaving Virginia's post players. Virginia uses four post men, five if you count 6-9 freshman Jamil Tucker, but only Tucker (with his three-point range) provides a significant offensive threat.
Leitao was so ticked off by 6-11, 245-pound junior center Tunji Soroye that he pulled him with 17:37 remaining in the first half at Wake Forest. He immediately got in Soroye's face and yelled at him, "You're better off staying at home if you're going to (bleeping) sleep."
In 16 minutes, Soroye did not attempt a shot, had three rebounds, committed two turnovers and did not have a block or a steal. At that, it was a virtual rebounding explosion for Soroye, who had a total of five boards in a combined 55 minutes in home victories over Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech.
It's not as if Leitao had a lot of options. Ryan Pettinella, a transfer from Penn, is a dreadful free throw shooter. Two crucial misses late in the Wake game dropped him to 9-for-37 at the line for the season. On top of that, Pettinella had four fouls in five minutes.
UVa did get some good minutes out of forgotten big man Lauris Mikalauskas, who had not played in the previous two games but contributed seven points and four rebounds versus the Deacons. However, somewhere over the past 12 months, Mikalauskas has lost the ability to jump, possibly because he became a weight-lifting fiend and went from 240 pounds to 268.
Clearly, 6-10 senior Jason Cain is the Cavaliers' best post player. He's a decent rebounder and a valuable defender who usually can stay out of foul trouble. But Cain frequently finishes games with the kind of line he had at Wake Forest, where he was 1-for-5 from the field, with four points, six rebounds, four turnovers and two blocks in 27 minutes.
Cain isn't as massive as his Wake counterpart and fellow senior, Kyle Visser, but he's mobile, and it isn't as if Cain is incapable of the 17-point, 10-rebound game Visser put up against the Cavaliers. Visser was aggressive in his final game at Lawrence Joel, as were the rest of the Deacs. Virginia was not.
So, where do the Cavaliers go from here? Reynolds and Singletary should benefit from some rest and the extra time to work on their shooting, but nobody is looking at Virginia as one of the ACC Tournament favorites, even with the first-round bye that has to be viewed as another accomplishment for a team picked for eighth in the preseason media poll.
Maybe it helps that the Cavaliers won't be going into the tournament as the No. 1 seed, because that takes off some of the pressure. At a time when they should have been basking in the sunshine of an impending first NCAA Tournament bid, they almost unwittingly found themselves in the middle of a pennant race.
If they can get themselves to look at the rest of the season as icing on the cake, that would remove a lot of the pressure, but this is a team that hasn't played really well in a month.