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Headlines Follow Arrival, Departures

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

  April 26, 2004 CHARLOTTESVILLE — The men's basketball program continued to merit headlines at Virginia, almost a full month after the April 1 announcement that Pete Gillen would return for a seventh season as head coach. Enthusiasm over an April 19 commitment from Blue Ridge School junior Laurynas Mikalauskas was tempered by Virginia's announcement one day later that forward Derrick Byars had been released from his scholarship. Byars, a 6-7 sophomore from Memphis, did not immediately comment on his decision. Although his father told the Commercial Appeal in Memphis that his son merely wanted to return closer to his home — indeed, the first school the family contacted was Tennessee — Byars' high school coach, Wes Henning, said there was concern about Byars' role with the Cavaliers. That was understandable, given that Byars faced an upcoming battle for playing time with three other natural small forwards: Devin Smith, Gary Forbes and recruit Adrian Joseph. Virginia entered the 2003-04 season with hopes of employing a "four-quick" lineup, but those plans went awry because of the inability to find consistent rebounders. Virginia finished 310th out of 326 Division I men's basketball teams in rebounding and might have been worse if not for the contributions of 6-8, 245-pound junior Jason Clark, who was academically ineligible for the first semester. There was some talk of redshirting Clark after the Cavaliers went 8-0 to open the season, but there was such a need for his skills from a defense and rebounding standpoint that he started the last 13 games of the season and played more than 20 minutes per game, a career high. Gillen's critics traced Byars' departure to the continued commitment to undersized senior guard Todd Billet, who moved to shooting guard with the early January move of freshman T.J. Bannister to the point. More accurately, Byars' minutes declined because he did not make the kinds of contributions that kept Clark on the bench. Henning said Byars too often was forced to play against taller and bigger frontcourt players, but in a season-ending 73-63 NIT loss to Villanova, Byars received ample time at small forward in the absence of Smith, whose herniated disk prevented him from playing. Byars hit the Cavaliers' only three-pointer of the game but finished with four points and three rebounds in 25 minutes. Freshman Gary Forbes, shorter than Byars but a better rebounder, had 19 points and five rebounds in the same game. It is ironic now that Byars lost two points on a stickback that was incorrectly credited to Forbes. Forbes, if he can improve his shooting, now looms as one of the ACC's top sixth men, as the likely first replacement for both Smith and shooting guard J.R. Reynolds. Staff Turnover Raising Questions By the time Virginia athletic director Craig Littlepage announced that Gillen was coming back, the pendulum of public support had swung in Gillen's favor. The anti-Gillen element again started to make itself heard, however, after the April 16 announcement that assistant coach Rod Jensen would be leaving the UVa staff after two seasons. Jensen had joined Virginia, apparently with the recommendation of university administrators, after the 2002 resignation of long-time Gillen assistant Tommy Herrion to become the head coach at College of Charleston. Jensen previously had served as the head coach at Boise State, where his teams were known for their defense, an area in which UVa was thought to be wanting. By the end of Jensen's second season in Charlottesville, the Cavaliers had made significant improvement on defense, particularly their half-court defense. One week after the press release reporting his departure, neither Gillen nor Jensen had discussed the situation publicly, although there was widespread speculation that Gillen had asked for Jensen's resignation. Littlepage had made it clear that, while he had not made any demands, he expected changes in the men's basketball program. However, if Gillen thought that getting rid of Jensen would satisfy his superiors, he was grossly misinterpreting Littlepage's intent. For one thing, Jensen is a mentor for UVa senior associate athletic director Jon Oliver, a former Boise State player and a valued Littlepage advisor. If Gillen had lost his job, one of the big reasons would have been his suspect game management, including his mind-numbing use of timeouts. Although Jensen sat to Gillen's immediate left during games and they occasionally had conversation, they did not have an on-going, in-game dialogue. In six seasons, the only UVa assistant comfortable with imposing his will on Gillen has been the since-departed Herrion. Virginia fans, for the most part, have been satisfied with Walt Fuller's work on the recruiting trail. Alexis Sherard showed potential as a recruiter with his efforts in the recruitment of Forbes and Joseph, but Gillen took Sherard off the road last fall and had him trade responsibilities with Scott Shepherd. Gillen felt it was important to show that Shepherd did not rank below Sherard on the staff "depth chart," but many have wondered how it helps continuity to alternate assistants on the road. Many will be watching Gillen's next hire closely, because they fear he will bring in an old crony from one of his previous coaching stops. What many UVa fans would like to see is the hiring of a former UVa player, such as Boston University assistant Jason Williford or Cory Alexander, a former NBA point guard who has expressed interest in the job. John Crotty and Bryant Stith also meet the ex-NBA point guard description, but, again, what Gillen probably needs more than anything is a knowledgeable basketball person whom he would be willing — a big issue — to consult during games. UVa has solid talent right now, and the departure of Byars might represent addition by subtraction, especially from a chemistry standpoint. That's a sad commentary, given that Byars arrived at UVa as a 3.8 student and never gave the Cavaliers a minute of trouble off the court. Typically for Gillen, Byars' departure followed a weekend on which Bannister was arrested for disorderly conduct. Bannister's arrest may make it easier to hand over the point guard job to recruit Sean Singletary, who recently was named the MVP of the Pittsburgh World Hoops Classic, previously known as the Dapper Dan. Joseph is said to be the best athlete UVa has recruited since Adam Hall, and, with Gillen's retention, 6-10 Tunji Soroye will honor the commitment he made to Virginia during the fall. Although questions of Gillen's long-term stability persist, the Cavaliers took no time in wrapping up Mikalauskas, a 6-8, 245-pound Lithuanian who had 29 points and 14 rebounds this year against undefeated Oak Hill Academy, the nation's No. 1-ranked team. Oak Hill coach Steve Smith had been told that he had been sent the top Lithuanian teenager in 6-9 junior Donatas Visockis, but Smith's impression is that Mikalauskas is "way better." Virginia had some factors in its favor, including the proximity of Blue Ridge, located 18 miles from Charlottesville. However, UVa was unable to guarantee admission to Mikalauskas until he had made a qualifying test score, by which time Virginia Tech already had brought him to campus for an official visit. Also, the Cavaliers had not previously signed a Lithuanian player, but with schools such as Notre Dame and Wake Forest advancing quickly, Gillen was able to close the deal. In the end, his future will be determined by his ability to win games, and his best chance to win games is if he has good players.