March 1, 2004 CHARLOTTESVILLE An optimist could point to a last-minute turnover against Maryland as evidence of how close Virginia could have been to the middle of the ACC pack. A pessimist could point to a trio of last-minute three-pointers by Todd Billet and say the Cavaliers easily could have been in last place, behind Clemson. The pessimist and the optimist could agree that Virginia has been playing a lot of close games lately, which was a major criticism of the Cavaliers during the middle part of the season. For a stretch of about six weeks, if UVa didn't win, it wasn't competitive.
When the Cavaliers suffered their 10th loss, 76-57 at Florida State, it marked the ninth game Virginia had lost by 13 points or more. In one of those 13-point losses, UVa trailed by 27 points at Wake Forest.
If there was a turning point in UVa's season, it may have occurred Feb. 11, in an 18-point loss (93-75) at Duke. With 13 minutes to go, it was a four-point game. While the Cavaliers faded on a night when they were without second-leading scorer Devin Smith, they didn't exactly collapse.
A late-season surge coincided with coach Pete Gillen's decision to insert freshman T.J. Bannister into the lineup for the Duke game. At the time of his elevation, Bannister had not distinguished himself statistically, as demonstrated by his 28.6 field goal percentage. But what he did better than any other UVa point guard was bring the ball up the court against pressure.
Bannister's five-point, six-assist, four-turnover evening in 30 minutes at Duke was hardly an embarrassment, but nothing would have suggested the kind of performance he put on against Georgia Tech. He had 15 points, seven assists and three turnovers in an 82-80 upset of the then-No. 15 Yellow Jackets. At a listed 5-10 and a half, Bannister was giving up more than four inches to Tech guard Jarrett Jack, but the Jackets were unable to exploit the height disparity. In fact, Jack, a double-figure scorer for the season, finished with two points.
When the Cavaliers decided to recruit Bannister last spring, it followed the decision to cast off trouble-prone Keith Jenifer and was seen as a stop-gap measure until Virginia landed one of the top point guards in the junior class, which it did with a May commitment from Sean Singletary of Philadelphia.
Bannister did not look like an ACC-caliber point guard over the first part of the season, and Singletary should provide an upgrade in the scoring column. At the same time, Bannister has value from a quickness standpoint, and his recent playing time 25-30 minutes per game will give him invaluable experience.
In addition to its home victories over Georgia Tech and 12th-ranked North Carolina, the Cavaliers ended a nine-game ACC road losing streak Feb. 21, when they defeated Clemson 58-55. It was only the second victory in 20 ACC road contests for the Cavaliers, who accomplished the feat on an afternoon when their best player, Smith, never took off his warm-ups.
It was the third full game, two over a 10-game span, that Smith missed as the result of a herniated disk that gradually has deteriorated over the course of the season. In the ACC coaches' teleconference Feb. 23, Gillen virtually conceded that Smith will require surgery after the season.
Before he ever played for the Cavaliers, Smith, who transferred to Virginia after one season at Coffeyville (Kan.) Community College, required arthroscopic knee surgery. That limited his preseason work and, by the time he started playing in 2002-03, his weight was in the 240s.
Smith came back in better shape this year and has shown surprising leaping ability, with more than 20 dunks, and nobody on the team takes more charges. Nonetheless, he practices infrequently and no longer starts because his back stiffens during warm-ups. He doesn't even loosen up until ointment applied by the trainers takes effect.
When Gillen entered the press room after the last-minute victory over UNC, the first player he mentioned was not Billet but Smith, who had scored 20 points in 23 minutes. It was Smith whose three-pointer gave Virginia a 71-70 lead after it had rallied from a nine-point second-half deficit.
Disk surgery isn't always successful, but if it works in Smith's case and he is able to get in the best shape of his UVa career, ACC basketball fans might not recognize the product. Smith is far more than the three-point specialist that was his billing coming out of junior college, and his experience as a post man in high school has given him a craftiness around the basket that should be the envy of the other UVa big men.
Youngsters Need NIT Experience
Meanwhile, hopes for a desired NCAA bid began to fade in late January. While the Cavaliers had put themselves in position for an NIT invitation, maybe the best outcome for the remainder of the season would be a rebirth for two of the most athletically gifted players on the team, sophomore forward Derrick Byars and freshman swingman Gary Forbes.
An 18-point afternoon by Byars at Wake Forest did not prove to be the break-out game some had hoped for, and when he's not scoring, he doesn't do much to compensate. After following the Wake game with a 10-point outing against N.C. State, he failed to hit double-figures in his next six games.
Byars would argue that it's hard to score from the bench, but if would rebound, he might get more playing time. Over a 13-game span, he had more than two rebounds only once, unacceptable for a 6-7, 215-pounder on the ACC's lowest-rated rebounding team.
As of the North Carolina game, Forbes had scored in double figures just once in 14 games, a mysterious swoon for a player who was averaging in double figures for the first 16 contests. To Forbes' credit, he finds other ways to fill a stat sheet and is a willing if not always dependable defender.
One of Forbes' biggest plays of the season came when he was able to release a three-pointer, which he missed, a split second before the shot clock expired on Virginia's last possession against UNC. When the ball went out of bounds off of the Tar Heels, the stage was set for another game-winning Billet shot.
Shooting guard J.R. Reynolds has played better than any of the other UVa freshmen, but four of the newcomers Reynolds, Forbes, Bannister and Donte Minter have played more than 300 minutes. All five rookies have had a double-figure scoring effort in ACC play, including an 11-point performance by Jason Cain in 15 minutes at Wake Forest.