March 24, 2003 CHARLOTTESVILLE On a night when he had plenty of excuses, it was a good thing for Virginia men's basketball coach Pete Gillen that he didn't need any of them.
For all of the things that went wrong for the Cavaliers during this basketball season, one thing went right: The program ended a 13-game postseason losing streak by beating Brown 89-73 in the first round of the NIT.
Virginia entered the game as a 12-point favorite, and visiting Brown did not arrive in Charlottesville with a particularly high profile, but the Bears had won 14 of their previous 16 games. Moreover, the home-court advantage hadn't meant much to the Cavaliers in two previous first-round NIT home games under Gillen, losses to Georgetown in 2000 and South Carolina in 2002.
UVa put out a news release on the day before the game to say that senior Jason Rogers would be sidelined for two weeks, if the season lasted that long. That same day, word leaked out that freshman forward Derrick Byars was questionable with a sprained ankle.
Rogers and Byars were not in uniform against Brown, and sophomore Elton Brown was a late scratch from the starting lineup after suffering a jammed knee in practice. As Gillen never hesitates to point out, UVa also was without Keith Jenifer, a one-time starter at point guard who was suspended Feb. 2 and later released from his scholarship.
Brown, coming off an impressive performance against Duke in the ACC Tournament, was limited to eight minutes against Brown. However, the Cavaliers received unusually strong performances from junior post man Nick Vander Laan, who had 13 points and nine rebounds in 20 minutes, and sophomore wing Jermaine Harper, who had nine points and four assists in 23 minutes.
Vander Laan has seen ample playing time over the season, generally in relation to Gillen's irritation level with Brown and Travis Watson, but Harper, arrested once for driving under the influence and suspended twice, had seen his minutes fluctuate wildly.
Harper might be UVa's most athletic player, but he is not a point guard and he does not shoot as well as Devin Smith, who gets most of the time at shooting guard. The Cavaliers might not have beaten Maryland in College Park without a pair of late three-pointers from Harper, but his three-pointers should be a bonus. The frustration with Harper is in his inability to use his athletic ability to be a shut-down defender or an offensive threat off the dribble.
Vander Laan and Harper were positives against Brown, but it was Watson, nauseous with an upset stomach, who put the Cavaliers on his back, matching a career high with 29 points and grabbing 12 rebounds. Watson made a key one-and-one with the Bears threatening to get the deficit under double figures and then hit a three-pointer from the wing that may have been Brown's last gasp.
That's not the favorite shot in our arsenal, Gillen said. I'm not going to say no to him after all the elbows. He's played hurt, sick, beat up. (Watson is) one of the greatest players in Virginia history. If he wants to shoot a three, he can shoot a three.
I'll take the bullet. If they make me drive a truck 'cause he shot a three, I can live with that. We got to the postseason four seasons in a row, and a good part of that is Travis Watson. That's not the first shot we draw up in our gameplan, but if he feels he can make it, shoot the ball.
Nice Finishes For Watson, Rogers
Some wondered about the Gillen-Watson relationship after Gillen benched him late in the season for his inattention to team-related obligations. Watson, one of five Virginia players assigned a running exercise after missing a class, did not show up for the run and then, one week later, was late for an 8:30 a.m. breakfast prior to a noon start at Florida State.
I've had a good relationship with Pete Gillen for over three years and a half, Watson said before UVa's regular-season finale against Maryland. Two or three weeks isn't going to destroy that. People are looking for fingers to point, but I'm not going to lower myself to that. Pete Gillen has been like a father to me.
Watson had 26 points and 15 rebounds as the Cavaliers defeated Maryland for the second time, 80-78 in overtime. The Cavaliers got a big lift that night from Rogers, who got his first career start after playing 14 minutes all season. Rogers didn't come out until 12:05 remained, when he had six points, four rebounds and three assists, and finished with 12, six and three in 21 minutes.
One week later, when Maryland fell to North Carolina in the quarterfinals of the ACC Tournament, it appeared that Terps center Ryan Randle was still dazed from his encounter with Rogers. Rogers started for Virginia again in the ACC Tournament, when he had four points and three rebounds in 16 minutes as the Cavaliers were eliminated by Duke, 83-76.
That was the context for Virginia's news release about Rogers' bout with mononucleosis, because it would not have merited an official announcement at any other stage of his career. Rogers had played 37, 57 and 43 minutes in three previous seasons before the late awakening pushed him to 51 minutes this year.
It's the best he's played, Gillen said after the Maryland game. He hasn't played like that in practice. Some days he's had good practices, but that's the best he's played in four years. He was spectacular. I'm not very smart. I didn't play him enough. I'll say it. You don't have to write it. I said it. Quote me.
It was just one more issue upon which Gillen's critics could seize, but starting with the Maryland game, the Cavaliers started to play at a level that might have prevented the mess that had Andy Katz, writing for ESPN.com, calling them the biggest disappointment in the country.
What's more, on the night after the Maryland game, the Cavaliers received a commitment from T.J. Bannister, a point guard from Florida, which was followed one week later by a commitment from former Mt. Ulla (N.C.) West Rowan star Donte Minter, a 6-8 post player from Fork Union Military Academy.
Minter, who had games this year when he had 39 and 40 points, is said by coach Fletcher Arritt to be more advanced at the same stage at his position as the previous three players who had gone from FUMA to Virginia: Ted Jeffries, Cornel Parker and Harold Deane. All three had respectable, if not outstanding, college careers.
Bannister was among the nation's best available point guards, which doesn't necessarily mean a lot, but he does pose one more option for 2003-04. Besides, there's nothing like a couple of commitments to make the natives a little less restless.