By Jerry Ratcliffe
Charlottesville (Va.) Daily Progress
November 20, 2007
CHARLOTTESVILLE A lot has changed in the Virginia basketball program since Sean Singletary first stepped foot on campus in 2004.
He's playing in a new building for a new coach, who has generated new enthusiasm for Wahoo basketball. Together, Singletary and coach Dave Leitao have created new expectations for a program that was the worst in the ACC when Leitao replaced Pete Gillen.
Last year, in only his second season at the Cavaliers' helm, Leitao guided Virginia to a share of the league's regular-season title with North Carolina and took the team to within a hairbreadth of the NCAA Tournament's Sweet 16.
Not bad for a program that was picked to finish eighth in the ACC preseason media poll. All of a sudden, basketball season mattered again to UVa fans, who had lost interest after Gillen failed to follow up on taking the Cavs to the NCAA Tournament in his third season in 2000-01.
Leitao's greatest challenge is to maintain that momentum, a goal that received a powerful boost when Singletary decided to return for his senior year.
"What I've always said over two years is, I don't want to make Virginia basketball a one-hit wonder," Leitao said. "What does it mean if you make a big splash and then you're not heard from again? I want to make sure that we stay consistent."
After his flirtation with the NBA draft, Singletary should give the Cavaliers a strong chance at making consecutive NCAA Tournaments for the first time since 1994-95. Without him, UVa may have struggled for a break-even season.
Certainly, the two-time first-team All-ACC point guard is the heart and soul of Virginia basketball, a player most likely destined to see his jersey raised to the rafters of the Cavaliers' new showplace, the 15,000-seat John Paul Jones Arena. Everything this team does revolves around the All-America candidate.
No one was more elated about Singletary's return than Leitao, because the young guard was the first to buy into the stern coach's demanding work ethic. While Leitao knew immediately what his star player's decision meant for the program, it didn't truly hit him until the first week of practice this season.
The aggressive guard, who hurls his body around with abandon, fell awkwardly in practice. His back stiffened, and he left the court to the training room. Then, it hit Leitao squarely between the eyes.
"Without him in the gym, I got a quick sense of what the team would look like had he not come back," Leitao said. "That was the time when I realized how happy I am that he's here, not only because he's a terrific player, but he adds so much to our existence as a program right now."
Virginia's 11 league wins and 21 overall victories were the most by the program since 1994-95, also the last time the Cavs claimed a share of the ACC regular-season crown.
While that doesn't exactly transform Leitao's team from hunters to the hunted, the Wahoos won't exactly sneak up on anyone, either. With all that in mind, UVa fans are wondering what the team is going to do for an encore.
Most of the team that brought respect back to a program that had nearly disappeared from the college hoops landscape returns, 10 players to be exact, not counting guard Calvin Baker, the former Colonial Athletic Association freshman of the year who sat out last season after transferring from William & Mary.
But it's the void created by the two players no longer in the program that has caused nearly as much buzz as Singletary's decision to return.
Shooting guard J.R. Reynolds, a second-team All-ACC player who averaged 18 points per game, and Jason Cain, the team's leading rebounder, have left gaps that cause observers to question where all those points and rebounds will come from in 2007-08.
Singletary can't do it alone, and he greatly benefited from the presence of Reynolds, a dangerous playmaker over the last two seasons in particular. Unless someone steps up as a consistent threat, opponents are sure to pour even more of their attention toward Singletary, who got beat up last year.
An influx of talented freshmen and strong offseason work by his other teammates have the star guard encouraged that the scoring and rebounding questions will be answered in a positive fashion.
"This is by far the best recruiting class we've had since I've been here," Singletary said. "They can all shoot, they can all score, and I think they're all ready to play. It comes down to us teaching them how to rebound and defend."
But if you try to nail Leitao down on exactly who will deliver Reynolds' points and Cain's rebounds, don't expect to hear two names. Rather, he can now afford to use the program's most depth in years to fill those voids.
"As much as I thought we could shoot the ball last year, we have the potential to be as good, if not better, because we've added some people that can really put the ball in the basket," Leitao said.
The coach was talking specifically about freshman combination guard Mustapha Farrakhan, the grandson of Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, along with guards Jeff Jones (no relation to the former UVa player and coach) and Sammy Zeglinski, a true point guard who hails from Singletary's former high school.
Leitao is excited about the possibilities he has with the small forward and shooting guard spots, which are somewhat interchangeable in his system.
Returning at the wing are Mamadi Diane and Adrian Joseph. Both showed flashes of brilliance last season. They are lethal from three-point range when they heat up, but both also have shown a penchant for dropping into slumps.
Diane, who started all 32 games last season, could move into the shooting guard spot, which would leave Joseph at small forward. Joseph averaged 22 minutes per game last season, even though he earned only three starts.
The key questions are these: Should Diane move to the backcourt, can he become more of a playmaker in the fashion of Reynolds, and can Joseph produce consistently as a starter after thriving as instant offense off the bench?
There also is the possibility of Zeglinski playing the point and sliding Singletary to the two guard, something Leitao did on occasion last season with Reynolds. That would take some pressure off Singletary and give him room to roam.
Perhaps the bigger challenge for Virginia is to have enough frontcourt presence to take some pressure off the perimeter. The Cavs boast three experienced players down low: Tunji Soroye, Laurynas Mikalauskas and Ryan Pettinella. They all are serviceable, with a good idea of what Leitao wants from his post players, but there isn't an offensive threat in the bunch.
With that in mind, talented freshman Mike Scott will be given every opportunity to make the kind of impact at power forward that Leitao expects.
The fans of Wahoo Nation will be watching closely to see whether their program was a one-hit wonder, or if this is the beginning of restoring the program as a consistent contender for the league's upper echelon.
|2000||9-7 (3)||19-12||NIT 1st Round|
|2001||9-7 (4)||20-9||NCAA 1st Round|
|2002||7-9 (5)||17-12||NIT 1st Round|
|2003||6-10 (6)||16-16||NIT 2nd Round|
|2004||6-10 (7)||18-13||NIT 2nd Round|
|2006||7-9 (7)||15-15||NIT 1st Round|
|2007||11-5 (1)||21-11||NCAA 2nd Round|
x won ACC title
* returning starter
Who knows where the Cavaliers would have been if Sean Singletary had not removed his name from the NBA draft? But he's back for a fourth year and poised to leave his mark as perhaps the greatest point guard in UVa history. Singletary, bidding to join a select group of three-time first-team all-conference players, not only can run a team but he can do so as the primary scorer. Fellow senior Adrian Joseph, who will pass the 2,000-minute mark in December, has impressed coach Dave Leitao with his newfound attention to leadership.
Other Key Returnees
Mamadi Diane never looked better than he did in the 2006-07 opener, when he scored 25 points against Arizona, hitting eight of nine shots from the field, including five three-pointers. He later had a career-high 26 points against Wake Forest, but he scored in double figures only twice in the final eight regular-season games and was scoreless in the second-round NCAA loss to Tennessee. As a junior, he needs to be able to finish a season. Tunji Soroye has never averaged more than 2.1 points or 3.5 rebounds in a season, but he is a legitimate shotblocker whose size and athleticism could make him a force on defense. Soroye underwent arthroscopic knee surgery prior to the opener and will be sidelined until mid-December. Ryan Pettinella started at center in the first two games, with junior Lauris Mikalauskas and sophomore Jerome Meyinnse also getting time there. Mikalauskas battled ankle problems in 2005-06, when his scoring average dropped to 3.7 from 6.2 as a freshman. UVa's fourth-leading returning scorer from 2006-07 is Will Harris, who needs to become a more heady player to get time. Three-point ace Jamil Tucker (21-of-43 from beyond the arc) needs to find ways to take advantage of his 6-8, 241-pound frame.
Three of UVa's four signees were guards Jeff Jones, Sammy Zeglinski and Mustapha Farrakhan, but don't be surprised if Calvin Baker, a transfer from William and Mary, gets a lot of time. Baker was named the Colonial Athletic Association rookie of the week five times in 2005-06, when he led the Tribe in scoring and assists. Jones, the leading all-time scorer in Philadelphia's Catholic League, started the first two games at wing guard, opposite Singletary. He's a scorer, while Farrakhan is more of a shooter and Zeglinski a playmaker. Baker is a combo guard in the mold of departed second-team All-ACC selection J.R. Reynolds. Forward Mike Scott had seven points and six rebounds in a 14-minute stint against Howard and has the kind of explosiveness that the team's other frontcourt players can't match.
Also Worth Noting
Top 2005-06 signees Solomon Tat and Harris have been plagued by injuries. Tat became the third UVa player in as many years to undergo sports-hernia surgery, following T.J. Bannister in 2005 and Soroye last year. To start the season, Leitao used Joseph and Diane in a starting lineup that did not include a power forward. Until this year, Joseph and Diane rarely had been on the floor at the same time, because they have similar skills packages. Scoring won't be an issue when they're on the floor together. Remarkably, Diane was 42-of-120 last year on three-point attempts, and Joseph was 42-of-121.
Chart By: The UVa Insider