By Jerry Ratcliffe,
Charlottesville (Va.) Daily Progress
April 7, 2003 CHARLOTTESVILLE After suffering back-to-back, late-season collapses the past two years and falling short of making the NCAA Tournament, Virginia's basketball program will reach a crossroads with the 2003-04 campaign.
After losing 12 of their last 17 regular-season games and bowing out in the second round of the NIT, the Cavaliers desperately need to return to the NCAA field. If they don't, the pressure on Pete Gillen could become unbearable. The coach came under fire from UVa faithful and media critics after his team unraveled down the home stretch of a 16-16 season.
Not only did the Wahoos underachieve in the minds of many supporters, but the team fell prey to a rash of disciplinary problems. They cast the perception that Gillen had lost control of his team. When the coach did put his foot down, the Cavaliers stunned Maryland for the second time during the season, leaving fans to wonder why the coach waited so long to squelch the problems.
A segment of UVa fans have openly called for Gillen's head, so much in fact that athletic director Craig Littlepage felt it was necessary to give the veteran coach a vote of confidence. Littlepage pointed out that Gillen had taken the program to the NCAA Tournament earlier than anyone had expected (in his third year) and had a better five-year record than noted ACC coaches Mike Krzyzewski of Duke and Gary Williams of Maryland.
Armed with eight years remaining on an ironclad contract, Gillen isn't going anywhere any time soon, no matter how many protest. But if the coach can't right the ship next season, he could begin to lose support where it matters most. With UVa attempting to begin construction of a 15,000-seat arena projected to open in 2006 or 2007, the pressure is on to develop unparalleled interest and support for the program.
That's why Gillen said he personally will scrutinize every single aspect of his basketball operation in the offseason.
We have to look at the corporation from top to bottom, Gillen said. I have to be tougher on the players. They have to have a better attitude, a love for the game. We've gotta change a lot of things. I think it's a crucial year for us.
With that said, Gillen would not classify his program in a rebuilding phase. The Cavaliers lose only one player, albeit a good one in center Travis Watson, one of the program's most effective performers.
Virginia fans can expect Gillen to return to the same brand of basketball he brought to the ACC five years ago, a run-and-shoot, chuck-and-duck, run-and-press style of play. The coach complained that his team didn't possess the quickness necessary to play that way last season, and it forced him to coach a slower tempo game for the first time in 18 years.
Gillen is banking on a couple of things. One, that three players who played all season at less than 100 percent swingman Devin Smith, forward Jason Clark and point guard Majestic Mapp will fully recover from injuries that hampered their performances. Two, that players new to his program and the ACC guard Todd Billet, center Nick Vander Laan, swingman Derrick Byars will have matured and benefited from a year's experience in the league and having played together.
Instead of playing an ineffective halfcourt game, Gillen believes the up-tempo offense, one that benefits from turnovers that lead to easy baskets, is where the future lies for his program. Always a strong believer in John Wooden's theory that quickness means everything in basketball, Gillen expanded his philosophy a year ago. He also believes in having at least three, if not five, players on the floor who can score effectively.
Meanwhile, though the Cavaliers haven't exactly impressed the basketball world, Gillen still manages to get talent into the program. At least four new players will have to blend with the returning talent, and all of them are expected to fit his up-tempo scheme.
The recruits will allow Virginia to go small and play four perimeter players at a time to force tempo, with a number of shooters capable of lighting up the scoreboard from three-point range. There should be more than enough depth to keep up the frantic pace for 40 minutes, if Gillen can improve the team's conditioning.
There were times this past season when the Cavs appeared out of gas, particularly during their second-half collapse at St. John's in the season finale. Gillen took the blame for the conditioning and promised that and faulty ball-handling would be points of emphasis in the offseason.
Elton Brown has the potential to become an All-ACC performer in the post position if he can whip himself into playing shape. While he's not a great rebounder, he does possess some of the best offensive post moves in the conference. Vander Laan's skills are limited but he does play hard, while Clark could be the X factor if he can solve a lingering knee problem.
Point guard has been the source of UVa's frustration for the past two years, largely because of Mapp's well-chronicled knee woes. Gillen branded it a miracle that Mapp averaged 15 minutes of playing time in the 18 games he played this season, and Mapp obviously lacked the quickness necessary to fight off opposing presses. With Mapp limited and starter Keith Jenifer booted off the team after 19 games, Billet struggled after being moved from wing guard to fill the vacancy.
Billet, a dead-eye shooter from long range, watched his offense suffer when he had to concentrate on handling the ball and distributing it. Both Billet and Mapp return, and the team soon will welcome freshman T.J. Bannister, although some question if he is ready for ACC competition. Mapp must work hard in the offseason to avoid being overwhelmed by opposing pressure, and Billet must improve his ball-handling skills as well.
I think we'll be quicker and our guards will improve, Gillen said. We had to play a different style last season than I'm used to. It was the most drastic change I've had in my career. We didn't do a good job of overcoming adversity.
Clearly, the Cavaliers have lost momentum from the NCAA appearance three seasons ago and the great start two years ago prior to the monumental landslide. The program's image has taken some blows, though none was lethal.
The school's administration has remained supportive, and while many fans have been turned off, others are giving Gillen the benefit of the doubt. While much of his troubles were blamed on losing Roger Mason Jr. to the NBA a year early and unexpectedly losing Jenifer well into the season, the majority of UVa fans are taking a wait-and-see attitude.
At the crossroads, Gillen will have to coach his way out of the mess or it could get really ugly in Charlottesville, contract or not.