January 6, 2003
CHARLOTTESVILLE When Virginia faded at the end of the last two seasons, it was reasonable to look back at weak early season schedules and wonder if the Cavaliers had given the college basketball world as well as themselves an incorrect impression.
At least one of the benefits of a stronger pre-conference schedule this year was the preparation it would offer for postseason play, as well as the higher RPI rating it would afford.
When it comes time for the NCAA to make its tournament selections, it should look favorably on Virginia victories over Kentucky, Georgetown and Rutgers the last of those at Rutgers, where the Scarlet Knights won 15 of 16 regular-season games last year. Likewise, losses to Indiana in Maui and to Michigan State in East Lansing, Mich., won't penalize the Cavaliers much at all. If Virginia can go 8-8 in the ACC, it will have a good chance of making its second NCAA Tournament appearance in five seasons under coach Pete Gillen.
However, there will be two non-conference potholes along the way. On Jan. 21, the Cavaliers will go to Virginia Tech for what will be the fourth road game in a five-game stretch. On Feb. 23, UVa will go to Ohio for the second of three straight road games.
A late-season trip to Athens, Ohio, is the long-overdue payback for a 1995 game between the Cavaliers and Bobcats in Charlottesville. Not only did Virginia lose at home to a 1995 Ohio team led by Gary Trent, but now Gillen will have to pay the price for Ohio agreeing to fill an opening on the Cavaliers' schedule.
Virginia won at Virginia Tech when their annual meeting returned to campus sites during the 2000-01 season. The Hokies already have lost at home this season to the team picked for last in the ACC, Florida State, but that will provide little reassurance for Gillen and Co. until Blacksburg is in their rear-view mirror.
Gillen couldn't complain about his team's 9-2 record going into the Cavaliers' conference opener at N.C. State (a 75-63 defeat), but many of Virginia's flaws were exposed as it struggled to beat the likes of Long Island, East Tennessee State and Gardner-Webb.
Preseason All-ACC choice Travis Watson continued to battle chronic foul and injury problems, and while his coach complained of a lack of respect from officials, even Gillen admitted that Watson sometimes used questionable judgment, particularly at Michigan State. As for the injuries, Watson has not missed many games during his career, but his practice time has been limited.
A sprained ankle kept Watson out of uniform at Rutgers and out of the starting lineup against Georgetown, but the spring had returned to his step by the time he had 21 points and 20 rebounds on Jan. 2 in an 87-65 win over Wofford. It was the first 20-20 game by a UVa player since 1983, when Ralph Sampson had 33 points and 21 rebounds against N.C. State.
Virginia had three double-figure scorers entering conference play: Watson, junior guard Todd Billet and sophomore forward Devin Smith. The Cavaliers did not have a 15-points-per-game scorer on a roster that had nine players averaging 6.4 points or more.
UVa has a lot of weapons, few of them consistent. Billet, a transfer from Rutgers, was brilliant during a 26-point second-half outburst at Michigan and showed his toughness in a 22-point effort after listening to obscenities for three hours at Rutgers, but he attempted three shots from the field against Georgetown and missed all of them.
A bout with stomach poisoning kept Billet out of the starting lineup against Wofford, and he had one field goal in limited duty. Billet is an undersized shooting guard not as tall as his listed six feet and has not handled the ball well enough to be a full-time point guard. However, he knows the game and is a terrific free throw shooter, with only two misses in the first 11 games.
Football: Expectations Sky-High
In the wake of Virginia's 48-22 victory over West Virginia in the Continental Tire Bowl, there was no shortage of commentators listing the Cavaliers as one of their programs on the rise.
Just when it appeared Virginia had put itself in position for preseason Top 25 consideration in 2003, voters pulled something of a surprise when the Associated Press had Virginia 22nd and the coaches picked the Cavaliers 25th in their final 2002 poll.
Mark May of ESPN speculated that UVa might be ranked as high as sixth in the preseason not sixth in the ACC, but sixth in the country. Keep in mind: This is a Virginia team that was picked to finish eighth in the ACC this year and was the underdog in 10 of 14 games.
There was little margin for error in comebacks from deficits of 21 and 17 points against North Carolina and Wake Forest, respectively, and the schedule won't be much easier next year. The Cavaliers' major out-of-conference road trip will be to South Carolina, but UVa also has ACC road games at N.C. State, Maryland, Clemson and UNC.
If Virginia wants to stay at the nine-win level this coming season, it probably will have to win at home against Florida State or Virginia Tech, teams it hasn't beaten at Scott Stadium since 1995 and 1997, respectively. Although the Cavaliers finished one spot behind the Seminoles in the final AP poll, it wasn't as close as the final score (40-19) indicated when the teams played in August.
UVa will have the benefit of the returning ACC player of the year, quarterback Matt Schaub, but the losses will include wide receiver Billy McMullen, a two-time All-ACC selection with more than 150 receptions over the past two seasons. McMullen suffered a dislocated elbow on the sixth play of the Continental Tire Bowl, but the Cavaliers did not skip a beat, allaying some concerns over his departure.
Kevin Bailey's return will help solidify a vastly improving offensive line in front of Schaub and tailback Wali Lundy, who had four touchdowns in the bowl game, but the Cavaliers were holding their collective breath in early January after overtures to offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave. He interviewed for a similar position at UCLA.
Musgrave is a brilliant play-caller whose availability was a godsend for Groh as he was putting together a staff in the winter of 2000-01. Eventually, the Cavaliers will lose him, but Groh wouldn't want it to be this year, and not for a lateral move to another Division I-A program.
In the end, it usually comes down to players, and Groh will have better material next year than in either of his first two seasons. UVa already has commitments from seven preseason SuperPrep All-Americans, and that doesn't include 2002 signee Ahmad Brooks, a Parade All-America linebacker who is enrolling for the second semester after playing this fall at Hargrave Military Academy.