March 11, 2008
CHARLOTTESVILLE It has been 32 years since a sixth-seeded Virginia team provided the Cavaliers with their first and only ACC men's basketball championship, and the odds aren't nearly as good this time.
Fortunately, things have changed over the years, and teams no longer have to win the ACC Tournament to earn an NCAA bid. But in 10th-seeded UVa's case, that's probably what it would take this year.
No team yet has won four games in four days to capture the ACC Tournament, and nobody from Virginia (15-14, 5-11) is talking in those terms.
A lot more was expected out of the Cavaliers after a 2006-07 season in which they went 11-5 in the ACC and tied for the regular-season championship, finishing 21-11 after a second-round loss to Tennessee in the NCAA Tournament. Gone were two senior starters, but star point guard Sean Singletary was returning after two first-team All-ACC seasons, and the Cavs were a preseason choice for fifth.
That prediction hinged on one of the returnees stepping up as the second option, a role J.R. Reynolds filled so capably in 2006-07, but veterans Adrian Joseph and Mamadi Diane have been dogged by inconsistency.
Coach Dave Leitao had questioned during the summer whether he could afford to have Joseph and Diane, a pair of natural small forwards, on the floor on the same time. He was able to get away with that arrangement for a while, particularly when Joseph, a 6-7, 201-pound senior, averaged close to nine rebounds over the first nine games.
What the Cavaliers already knew was that Diane, a 6-5, 201-pound junior, did not have the ball-handling ability to play big guard. So, when Joseph's rebounding fell off, Leitao was forced in mid-February to stop playing them at the same time.
The lineup change went into effect Feb. 9 at Wake Forest. While it didn't immediately pay dividends, the Cavaliers subsequently won three times during a four-game stretch, including a pair of ACC road wins, and they played North Carolina to a one-point game in Charlottesville.
You can attribute the turnaround, such as it was, to the lineup change. Or you can trace it to the Feb. 12 return of junior post man Lauris Mikalauskas, who had not taken the floor in more than two months when he entered the game as a reserve against UNC.
Mikalauskas proceeded to hit both of his shots, draw a charge on UNC's Tyler Hansbrough, pump his fist as he jumped to his feet, and generally give Virginia the kind of energy it had been lacking. He then scored in double figures in four of his first five games.
Mikalauskas continues to play with a harness that keeps one of his shoulders in place it doesn't matter which one, because he's basically ambidextrous and may require surgery after the season. At this point, he has to be considered a factor for 2008-09, although that might not always have been the case.
UVa already has commitments for all 13 of its scholarships for 2008-09, and that doesn't count sophomore guard Calvin Baker, who has been paying his way since transferring from William & Mary following the 2005-06 season, or senior post man Tunji Soroye, who has played in only two games all season and has a good case for a hardship appeal.
Meanwhile, the Cavaliers continue to recruit 6-7 Wesley Witherspoon from Lilburn, Ga., and have indicated that there would be room for him if he wants to sign. Where that scholarship would come from, nobody has said, but clearly UVa thinks that one of the current underclassmen will not be with the team next year.
History would suggest that's a good bet and, at one time, you had to look at Mikalauskas as a guy who only marginally fit into the Cavaliers' plans. What they have found over the past month, however, is that Mikalauskas can catch a pass and make a layup, an ability that not all of Virginia's big men share.
That's been one of the problems for Singletary this season: He often has been double-teamed because UVa has not had anybody who could make opponents pay for their overcommitment.
But UVa is not a great team even with Mikalauskas. Make no mistake about it. And inconsistency is to blame.
DIANE, JOSEPH FAIL TO DELIVER
Diane scored 20 points and had a huge late-game three-pointer in a 79-74 victory at Boston College, then came back two games later and scored one point in a 95-93 loss at Miami, where Singletary scored a career-high 41. The Cavaliers' Nos. 2, 3 and 4 scorers Joseph, Diane and Baker were a combined 0-for-10 from the field in that game.
Diane, one of the casualties of the lineup change, had made 53 consecutive starts before going to the bench. However, he often was playing more than Joseph and had back-to-back double-figure scoring games against Georgia Tech (on the road) and Duke.
After scoring a team-high 19 points in a Feb. 7 game against Clemson, won by the visiting Tigers in an 82-51 rout, Joseph failed to score in double figures in seven straight games all starts. He has been guilty of defensive lapses, and there have been times when Leitao has called him over to the bench one or two minutes into the second half and never used him again.
If Joseph had held onto a defensive rebound late in a Jan. 16 game against Virginia Tech, which the Hokies eventually won 70-69 in Charlottesville, there's no telling how the Cavaliers might have turned out. UVa was 10-4 at the time and was to lose five more games decided by fewer than three points or in overtime.
Then there's Singletary. There were times this season when Virginia needed him to win games single-handedly, and he couldn't do it. He had the flu either two or three times and also suffered from a hip-pointer. His first bout with the flu coincided with a 70-68 home loss to Syracuse when Singletary, an 84.5 percent career free throw shooter, missed five straight free throws.
He had 11 points and five turnovers in a 69-67 loss at Florida State, then came back four days later and was 5-for-19 (0-for-6 on three-pointers) in an overtime loss to Georgia Tech. Still, he was approaching the exalted 2,000-point, 500-assist career milestone entering the Maryland game, at which he had his jersey retired.
Singletary deserved more. A second trip to the NCAA Tournament would have been a just reward for his decision to pull his name out of the 2007 NBA draft and return for a fourth year. But Virginia is a team sorely in need of rebuilding, and the sooner the Cavaliers start with that, the better.