January 31, 2005 CHARLOTTESVILLE As January turned to February, few (if any) veteran observers of the Virginia basketball program still held doubts that Pete Gillen either will resign or be dismissed after this season, his seventh with the Cavaliers. To most, the only mystery was and remains the timetable. Virginia athletic director Craig Littlepage said after a Jan. 12 home loss to Miami that the university expected Gillen to coach "the entire season," but that doesn't mean Virginia won't reach a decision or even make an announcement prior to that point.
The situation wasn't good after the loss to the Hurricanes, who would prove they were a formidable opponent by winning three consecutive ACC games, and it only grew worse. Gillen's hopes for a turnaround were dealt a major blow when Jason Clark, a 6-8, 245-pound senior who was UVa's most physical post presence, was declared academically ineligible prior to a Jan. 19 visit to Maryland.
In subsequent weeks, several UVa players said they would have to "look themselves in the mirror," and that applied to Clark more than anybody. It was incumbent on him, a senior and a co-captain, to try to keep the team together. Instead, he became ineligible for the second time, earlier having missed the first semester of the 2003-04 season.
The Cavaliers gave Maryland a momentary scare, extending their halftime lead to 49-42 in the opening minutes of the second half. They followed that with an 81-79 victory over visiting Clemson, but it was all downhill from there.
A 79-73 loss at Virginia Tech served only to infuriate UVa fans, who have been dealt one indignity after another at the Hokies' hands after paving the way for Tech to join the league. Then UVa was humiliated in a 110-76 home loss to North Carolina, which held a 98-48 lead at one point.
UNC had lost five straight games at University Hall but raced to a 62-26 halftime lead. The result was a third loss in four home conference games, and UVa was staring at a two-game road trip to Providence Gillen's previous, four-year coaching home and N.C. State.
Following the ESPN broadcast of the Virginia-UNC game, studio analyst Doug Gottlieb observed that Gillen had "lost the team." There certainly was evidence of that at Virginia Tech, where players were seen yelling at each other, harried second-time starter Jason Cain kicked a chair and, according to UVa fans seated behind the bench, shot-challenged backup point guard T.J. Bannister once refused to go into the game.
That incident took place late in the first half, after Gillen elected to substitute for starting point guard Sean Singletary, who had two fouls. Gillen said he was unaware of any hesitation on Bannister's part, and that makes sense, according to reports, because Gillen had turned his attention back to the floor. Bannister later denied the charge, saying that "somebody is trying to stir up something between me and Coach Gillen," but eyewitnesses stuck to their story.
Singletary turned an ankle early in the second half against the Hokies but twice returned to the floor, for abbreviated stints of 37 seconds and 1:27. There was another courtside report, after Tech had gone ahead 60-44, that Singletary turned to Devin Smith and said they needed to go into the game. They got as far as the scorer's table before Gillen went and got Singletary, who was limping noticeably.
Frustration, Testimonials Abound
Less than 40 hours later, Singletary started and played 28 minutes against Carolina, with little apparent discomfort. Nobody can question his toughness and his leadership, although his frustration with the situation clearly is growing.
"The effort wasn't there," said Singletary after the UNC game. "The past couple games, or the games during our losing streak, I feel as though we all didn't give an honest effort. I know a couple of players didn't give up, but some did. As a team, we folded. You just can't do that. That was a winnable game."
It was hard to say which players gave up. Smith, coming off a 24-point night against Virginia Tech, missed all five of his shots from the field against the Tar Heels and had three turnovers. Given his previous knee, back and ankle problems, Smith's practice time has been limited, and he might be the UVa player most vulnerable to a short turnaround.
Elton Brown, the other remaining senior, followed a 19-point, 15-rebound night against Virginia Tech with a nine-point, six-rebound performance against North Carolina, but was it effort? Brown simply does not play intelligently, instead forcing up shots he can't make and failing to recognize the shotblocking threats of more talented opposing athletes.
In all likelihood, Singletary's statements were a case of frustration speaking. In the absence of Clark and an injured Donte Minter, Cain, a sophomore forward, and freshman center Tunji Soroye have been getting increased minutes in the post. Cain might have been better prepared if he had received more playing time early in his career, and Soroye is still feeling his way.
Wing players Gary Forbes and Adrian Joseph have been up and down. Forbes frequently tries to do too much. Joseph, a starter against Carolina, does too little. When they start in place of a second post player, UVa is capable of getting killed on the boards, as it was against UNC (45-26).
Gillen's options are limited, but those of Littlepage are not. He could replace Gillen during the season, but, following the North Carolina loss, there were six weeks left. Who would replace Gillen? Not Littlepage, a former Division I head coach at Penn and Rutgers.
Littlepage is preparing to take over chairmanship of the NCAA Basketball Committee.
There is not an obvious successor on the staff, weakened in Gillen's earlier
years by the departures of Bobby Gonzalez and Tommy Herrion for head coaching
posts at Manhattan and College of Charleston,
One way or another, it likely will be an unpleasant six weeks as Littlepage and his aides start working on a list of possible successors. It is possible they will throw some of benefactor Paul Tudor Jones' money at alumnus Rick Carlisle (NBA) or Kentucky's Tubby Smith or Texas' Rick Barnes, but they'd better have a quality Plan B. Nobody denies that UVa needs to make a splash as it enters the final fundraising stage for the John Paul Jones Arena, which will open in 2006.
Along the way, testimonials will flow for Gillen, a nice man who is universally liked and mostly respected in the profession. Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski took a shot at Gillen's critics during the ACC Tournament last year, and Virginia Tech coach Seth Greenberg and North Carolina's Roy Williams took their turns in January.
"It is a very difficult time period," Williams said. "My first year at Kansas, we lost eight games in a row. Nobody remembers that. I remember that. Pete has more desire in his little finger than all the Cavalier fans in the world."
Unfortunately for Virginia basketball fans, even if Williams is right, Gillen's desire clearly isn't getting the job done.