December 4, 2007
CHARLOTTESVILLE An uninspired performance Nov. 24 in a 74-60 loss to Seton Hall might have kept Virginia from a 12-0 start and a possible top-10 ranking heading into the new year.
It's probably just as well, because the Cavaliers don't have a top-10 caliber team. Not yet, at least.
Virginia made only seven of 28 three-point attempts against the Pirates, and that's an Achilles heel right now. If the three-point shots aren't falling, the Cavs don't have enough options offensively.
In their first outing after the loss to Seton Hall in the Philly Hoops Group Classic, Virginia's first nine field goal attempts against Northwestern were three-pointers. The Cavaliers shot 50 percent on threes (16-of-32) and crushed the Wildcats 94-52.
It was the highest yield by a Northwestern team in Bill Carmody's seven seasons as Wildcats coach and, indications are, Virginia is going to shoot that way at John Paul Jones Arena, where the Cavaliers will play six straight games before venturing to Xavier on Jan. 2.
In the two years that JPJ has been open, the Cavaliers have won 20 of 21 home games, with the lone loss coming to Stanford last year on a tip-in during the last 10 seconds. The Cavs are familiar with the rims and they are good shooters, even with the loss of second-team All-ACC pick J.R. Reynolds.
Junior forward Mamadi Diane was 6-for-9 on three-pointers against Northwestern, and Calvin Baker, a transfer from William & Mary, was 4-for-4. After shooting 27.6 percent on three-pointers at W&M, where he was 43-for-156, Baker was 12-for-23 after seven games at UVa.
"If you're a guy like Calvin Baker, who's a pretty good shooter, he becomes a better shooter because he's around shooters every single day," Leitao said. "It's a self-fulfilling prophecy. Just like rebounding is important to me, shooting is becoming that important to me, where we do it every single day."
It might surprise some people to know that Virginia led the ACC in three-point field goals last year. Leitao never has viewed himself in the same light as Louisville's Rick Pitino and other practitioners of the three-point craft, but he increasingly finds himself attracted to shooters while recruiting.
"Would I take a layup over a jump shot? Most coaches would, but we've got far too many options on the perimeter not to encourage our guys to take em," said Leitao, whose team hit 12 threes in racing to a 54-29 halftime lead against Northwestern. "Especially in the first half, when we were making them, far be it from me to say, Guys, stop shooting. Let's change our strategy.'
"Right now, we're not going to be a pound-it-inside team. That's not our makeup. If I wanted to sell out to the three-point jump shot, we would have attempted many more to this point."
Eventually, the Cavaliers will run into teams equipped to stop the three-pointer that will dare them to score inside. Freshman forward Mike Scott shows some potential, and 6-6, 245-pound sophomore Will Harris showed flashes last year, but Harris had a total of 10 points in his first six outings and was shooting 4-for-14 from the floor.
While the Cavaliers are flawed, there is room for improvement. Virginia has been starting 6-9, 249-pound senior Ryan Pettinella at center and replacing him with 6-8, 246-pound junior Lauris Mikalauskas and then Scott (6-8, 233).
Pettinella has been playing sparingly, primarily because of his lack of offense. When he gets close to the basket, opponents know that all they have to do is foul him. He is 1-for-10 on free throws for the year and 10-for-47 over two seasons, the worst percentage (21.3) in UVa history for a player with that many free throws.
Improvement could come in the form of 6-11, 252-pound senior Tunji Soroye, who underwent arthroscopic knee surgery prior to the Cavaliers' opener Nov. 11 and was expected to be sidelined for at least six weeks. Soroye has never been a major offensive threat, but he shot 51.4 percent from the field last year and 61.5 percent from the line.
Moreover, Soroye is more of a defensive presence than the above-mentioned UVa post players, none of whom had more than Pettinella's two blocked shots. Soroye came into the season with 36 career starts despite an assortment of injuries and maladies, including a sports hernia that delayed his 2006-07 debut following surgery.
Another area where improvement is possible, surprisingly, is the play of two-time All-ACC selection Sean Singletary, who removed his name from consideration for the NBA draft in order to return for his final year. Singletary was plagued by turnovers in the early going and had a 48-36 assist-turnover ratio going into Virginia's game against Syracuse.
Singletary also had displayed suspect shot selection on occasion, possibly as a result of the loss of his three-year backcourt partner, Reynolds. There have been occasions when Singletary has tried to do too much, but that could change as he becomes more familiar with four new perimeter players Baker and three freshmen.
Through seven games, Singletary had attempted 48 free throws, compared to 21 for the next-most prolific UVa free throw shooter, Mikalauskas. Unfortunately for the Cavaliers, their best chance of getting a shot close to the basket is from a Singletary drive, and when opponents have little else to stop they can make life difficult for any 6-0 guard.
FOOTBALL TEAM GETS ACC HONORS
The Virginia football team picked up ample hardware in the week leading up to the ACC championship game, but it was obvious that the Cavaliers would be challenged to pick up a school-record-tying 10th win.
Al Groh was named the ACC coach of the year for the second time in his seven-year tenure, end Chris Long became Virginia's first ACC defensive player of the year since Anthony Poindexter in 1998, and tight end Tom Santi received the Jim Tatum Award as the ACC's top student-athlete.
Long, the only unanimous selection in the All-ACC balloting, was joined on the first team by offensive guard Branden Albert. Albert (6-7, 315) has been one of the most underrated players in the ACC for some time, and the UVa faithful are holding their breath about his return for a fourth year in 2008.
Albert, who prepped for a year at Hargrave Military Academy in 2004-05, turned 23 in November and is known to be considering an early exit for the NFL. If he departs, it would leave Virginia with holes to fill at center and both guard spots, with no experienced backups ready.
For the time being, the Cavaliers will be focusing on their Gator Bowl matchup with Texas Tech. UVa is 3-1 in bowl games under Groh and would have won the fourth, the 2004 MPC Computers Bowl, if instant replay had been in place that season. Fresno State scored on the final play of regulation on a pass to a receiver who had taken several steps out of bounds.
Virginia not only won nine games with a team picked for fourth in the ACC's Coastal Division, but the Cavaliers were competitive in all three games they lost, even a 23-3 season-opening setback at Wyoming, where it was a 13-3 game well into the fourth quarter.
UVa trailed eventual ACC champion Virginia Tech 23-21 after three quarters in the regular-season finale in Charlottesville, but the Hokies exposed many of the Cavs' inadequacies in the secondary, although the loss of promising freshman Ras-I Dowling limited UVa's coverage options.
Dowling did not take a defensive snap after sustaining a concussion while covering a punt following Virginia's first offensive series. He should be fine for the bowl.