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Excitement Surrounds Veteran Backcourt, Brand-new Arena

Thursday, September 11, 2008 11:41am
By: Accsports Staff

By Doug Doughty
Roanoke (Va.) Times

November 22, 2006

CHARLOTTESVILLE -- When Virginia defeated visiting Arizona 78-60 on Nov. 21, 2004, Pete Gillen probably thought he would still be coaching the Cavaliers two years later, when they made the move to John Paul Jones Arena.

Instead, it was Dave Leitao on the sideline Nov. 12, when the Cavaliers opened their new 15,219-seat home. As impressive as Virginia was in rallying from a 19-point deficit to defeat the Wildcats 93-90, Gillen could tell Leitao that one November victory does not a season make.

Indeed, had the Cavaliers followed up their 2004 win over Arizona with an NCAA Tournament trip, Gillen might have been the coach to this day. Based on sketchy details of a contract he renegotiated after the 2003-04 season, an NCAA bid might have guaranteed him at least one more year.

They're talking NCAA Tournament again in Charlottesville this fall, but, if you can believe most preseason predictions, that would be a longshot. Somehow, after managing a seventh-place tie in Leitao's first season, a Virginia team with five starters returning was picked for eighth this year.

Of course, eight ACC teams aren't going to make the NCAA Tournament, at least based on the league's 2005-06 experience, when only four teams went. But, historically speaking, more than four ACC teams per year have received NCAA bids, and it appears that Virginia has the makings of a good power rating.

By the first week in January, UVa will have played non-conference games with Arizona, Purdue, Gonzaga, Stanford and possibly Utah (San Juan Shootout). Only Purdue (ACC-Big Ten Challenge) will be on the road, thanks to prior scheduling concessions made with an eye toward filling JPJA in its first year.

"All of our toughest (non-conference) games are at home," junior point Sean Singletary said. "You couldn't ask for a better scenario than that. It sets up perfectly. Of course, now we've got to pull it off."

The comparisons to the 2004-05 Arizona game were eerie, in that the Wildcats entered both games ranked as the No. 10 team in the country. Virginia might have thought it was well-positioned to give two-point favorite Arizona a good game, but the buildup to the opening of the new arena and a series of injuries had Leitao concerned about his team's mindset.

In the final two minutes of practice on the Thursday before the game, senior guard and 1,100-point scorer J.R. Reynolds took a finger to his right eye that prevented him from picking up a ball for 72 hours and left him doubtful for the opener. Reynolds did not commit to playing until 30 minutes before game time and did not start. His shot clearly was affected by his swollen and bloody eye, and nothing changed when he removed protective goggles after a two-minute experiment.

The good news for Virginia is that Reynolds' discomfort should not be long in duration, and it looks as if 6-11, 245-pound junior Tunji Soroye should be able to return from his sports-hernia surgery by the end of the month. Soroye was in street clothes for the Arizona game.

Soroye is never going to be a star, but he led the Cavaliers in blocked shots last year and would have provided a much-needed body against Arizona after post players Ryan Pettinella and Laurynas Mikalauskas got into foul trouble. Virginia played the last nine minutes with one post player, savvy senior Jason Cain, who had 13 points and 12 rebounds.

The Cavaliers learned last year that three post players weren't enough, which is why Virginia was so willing to add Pettinella, a 6-9, 238-pound transfer who put up modest numbers in two seasons at Pennsylvania. It was something of a surprise to see Pettinella and not Mikalauskas starting against Arizona, but then Mikalauskas picked up two fouls in his first 42 seconds after entering the game.

Of the two scholarship players who joined the program in 2005-06, it was Mikalauskas who enjoyed the better freshman season, but the Cavaliers wouldn't have beaten Arizona without his classmate, 6-5 guard Mamadi Diane, who went 8-for-9 from the field and finished with a career-high 25 points.

Leitao gushed over Diane in the opening weeks of 2005-06, but Diane battled confidence problems over the second half of the season and failed to hit double figures in UVa's last 17 games. He was 0-for-11 from the field in a late-season game at North Carolina and 1-for-9 at Stanford in the NIT.

"It's a funny thing sometimes, how the more you challenge a guy and the more you're on him, the more he responds," Leitao said. "I make no bones about it. I've been challenging him. I've been on him, and he's worked hard. He's kept his mouth shut and just continued to work."

Much has been made of the Cavaliers' recruiting class, but it was the veterans who got the minutes against Arizona. Some of that may have derived from injuries that had Solomon Tat and Will Harris listed as day-to-day leading up to the game. In fact, Harris underwent surgery Oct. 27 to remove bone spurs in his ankle, so it was a surprise to see him get 10 minutes against the Wildcats.

A groin injury had kept Tat out of an exhibition game Nov. 4 against Augusta State, and he also had missed practice time after taking a tooth to his elbow and requiring stitches. Singletary had predicted that Harris would be the best of the freshmen, but Harris, who is 6-6, and Tat, who is 6-5, appear to have similarly rambunctious games.

What separates this Virginia team from many of its rivals for NCAA consideration is its veteran backcourt, including Singletary, a first-team All-ACC selection whose offseason hip surgery prevented him from working on his game but left him close to 100 percent as the season started.

Singletary was only 5-for-14 from the field against Arizona, but he kept the Cavaliers within sight of the Wildcats with a 12-point first half and made 13 of 14 free throws to share game scoring honors with Diane. What's more, Singletary had six assists and only one turnover despite relentlessly attacking the basket for 37 minutes.

"Sean's got cramps, and he turns it up to a higher level than I've ever seen him play before," Leitao said. "Thirty-seven (minutes) and cramping up and not turning the ball over speaks to who he is."

If there was one area in which Singletary and Reynolds could stand to improve, it was turn-overs. Singletary had a 121-104 assist-turnover ratio in 2005-06, and Reynolds' was 92-84. That's why the Cavaliers' most impressive statistic in a high-possession game against Arizona was their 11 turnovers.

Leitao had feared that the "event" aspect of the JPJA opener would overshadow the game, which it didn't, but the spectacle had to impress a host of guests headlined by 6-8 Patrick Patterson from Huntington, W.Va., and including dozens of other official and unofficial visitors, many of them underclassmen.

"We're far from where we need to be," said Leitao, who knows that Virginia's greatest deficiency is the absence of a go-to inside player. "I'm not going to stop -- ever -- but I'm not going to stop till I get to a more comfortable place with this program."

Track Record

Year ACC Overall Postseason

1997 7-9 (6) 18-13 NCAA 1st Round

1998 3-13 (9) 11-19 None

1999 4-12 (9) 14-16 None

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

2005 4-12 (10) 14-15 None

2006 7-9 (7) 15-15 NIT 1st Round

x -- won ACC title

2006-07 Roster

Name Ht./Wt. Pos. Class
Jason Cain* 6-10/225 BF Sr.

J.R. Reynolds* 6-2/188 WG Sr.

Adrian Joseph* 6-7/205 WF Jr.

Ryan Pettinella 6-9/238 C Jr.

Sean Singletary* 6-0/185 PG Jr.

Tunji Soroye* 6-11/245 C Jr.

Mamadi Diane 6-5/197 WG So.

Laurynas Mikalauskas 6-8/255 BF So.

Will Harris 6-6/230 WF Fr.

Jerome Meyinsse 6-8/230 C Fr.

Solomon Tat 6-5/220 WF Fr.

Jamil Tucker 6-8/230 BF Fr.

  • -- returning starter

Building Blocks

J.R. Reynolds and Sean Singletary combined to make 115 of a possible 118 starts over the past two seasons. They give Virginia one of the most experienced backcourts in the country, as well as one of the most talented. Both can handle the ball, hit the three-pointer, defend the ball, and make free throws, as well as get to the free throw line. Moreover, they are comfortable with each other and take their leadership roles seriously. They also play hurt. Reynolds didn't start the opener against Arizona but played 21 minutes after taking a finger to the eye three days earlier. Singletary required surgery after the 2004-05 and 2005-06 seasons, but he has missed just one game in his college career.

Other Key Returnees

Jason Cain ranked among the ACC's rebounding leaders for most of last season and scored well enough to put up six double-doubles, including four in one five-game span. He added a seventh with 13 points and 12 rebounds against Arizona in Virginia's come-from-behind, 93-90 victory over the Wildcats in the opener. What separates him from the team's other big men is his ability to play defense and rebound without fouling at will. Lauris Mikalauskas actually had fewer disqualifications (three) than Cain (four) last year, but he is prone to the illegal screen. The Cavaliers can't expect 25-point nights every time out for wing Mamadi Diane, the hero of the Arizona game, but he was a favorite of coach Dave Leitao last year before he hit a typical, late-season, freshman slump.

Some Introductions

A surprise starter in the opener was Ryan Pettinella, who averaged 4.0 points in 48 games for Pennsylvania over the 2003-05 seasons, but Pettinella gives Virginia a much-needed fourth inside body, particularly with Tunji Soroye sidelined following surgery for a sports hernia. More likely to help the Cavaliers over the long term is a promising group of freshmen headed by Will Harris and Solomon Tat. Harris and Tat were both 20 when they enrolled at UVa and are cited by Singletary for their uncommon maturity. Harris can play in the post, while Tat is more of a perimeter player, but they're similar in their scoring ability. A third freshman to play against Arizona was Jamil Tucker, who has three-point range. Late signee Jerome Meyinsse may be redshirted.

ALSO Worth Noting

Reynolds will serve as the backup point guard, a role he might have filled even before the late-summer defection of T.J. Bannister, who transferred to nearby low-major Liberty with hopes of becoming a starter. ... Virginia had only one crowd under 7,000 last year at 8,392-seat University Hall and did not have a crowd under 6,000. This year, there could be a lot more empty seats at the Cavaliers' new home, the 15,219-seat John Paul Jones Arena. The Cavs have sold more than 8,000 season tickets, but it will be interesting to see if they can retain the home-court advantage they enjoyed at U-Hall. UVa has 17 home games, matching its all-time high.

Chart By: The UVa Insider