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Leitao Optimistic, Without One-liners

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

May 24, 2005

CHARLOTTESVILLE - As Dave Leitao entered his second month as Virginia's basketball coach, there were signs of movement inside the program but few outward displays of change.

Leitao's first month was taken up with recruiting, putting together a staff and speaking to booster groups, where the contrast with predecessor Pete Gillen was unmistakable. You won't get many one-liners from Leitao, who took the opportunity to compare the Virginia situation with the one his long-time boss, Jim Calhoun, inherited at Connecticut.

In 1985, the year before Calhoun and Leitao went from Northeastern to UConn, there were three Big East teams in the Final Four, where Villanova upset Georgetown in the championship game.

"Connecticut then was not anywhere near where Connecticut is now, or even where Virginia is," Leitao said.

Since taking the Virginia job, Leitao frequently has asked friends to give him a reason why the Cavaliers can't be successful. He has a ready-made answer when he is reminded of the Duke-North Carolina axis at the top of the ACC standings.

"You can finish first or you can finish fifth in the ACC and still have a chance to win the national championship," Leitao said. "Maryland has proven that. Georgia Tech has proven that. There's plenty of room at the top."

After one month, Leitao still had not completed his Virginia staff, for which the first two hires were 33-year-old Gene Cross, his assistant for the past three years at DePaul, and 36-year-old Rob Lanier, the head coach for the past four seasons at Siena. Lanier, the nephew of NBA Hall of Famer Bob Lanier, previously worked as an aide at Texas and Rutgers.

Leitao, who had said on the day of his introduction that he would like some Virginia blood on his new staff, was expected to go in a different direction after Boston University assistant and ex-UVa forward Jason Williford rejected an offer.

Leitao offered Williford the position of director of operations, but Williford was not willing to give up the on-floor coaching duties and off-campus recruiting responsibilities he enjoys at BU, where former UVa and Wake Forest assistant Dennis Wolff has been the head coach for 11 seasons.

Leitao had interviews scheduled with several applicants for the third coaching spot on his staff, and Drew Diener recently accepted the operations post. Diener, a former St. Louis player (brother Drake played at DePaul, cousin Travis at Marquette) who graduated in 2003, handled the same role on Leitao's staff at DePaul.

On the recruiting front, Leitao touched base with each of the three players who had committed to Gillen in the fall. The coach also met with Stephen Kendall, a Charlottesville resident who was a junior at the Blue Ridge School in Virginia when he made an oral commitment to the Cavaliers in October.

Kendall, a 6-4 guard who was recruited as a shooter, left Blue Ridge during the spring semester but will have an opportunity to return. Kendall's family also was looking at Fork Union Military Academy, Hargrave Military Academy and Oak Hill Academy, although Oak Hill has not made a habit of accepting fifth-year players. Kendall attended Albemarle High before enrolling at Blue Ridge, a private school northeast of Charlottesville, where he repeated his sophomore year.

Eyebrows were raised when Gillen took the Kendall commitment, not so much because Kendall did not have an established reputation, but because it left the Cavaliers without a scholarship until 2006, the year their new arena will open. At the time, Virginia also had a commitment from Brian Moten, a 6-5 wing player from Saginaw, Mich., who was then at Christian Center Academy in Cincinnati.

A review of Moten's grades prevented Virginia from signing him in November and, while there was talk of the Cavaliers continuing to recruit him, he quickly dropped from UVa's list and eventually left Christian Center Academy. That left the Cavaliers with one scholarship remaining over a two-year span; that is, until Leitao met with the Kendalls.

Kendall's father, a UVa alumnus, said the family understood that Leitao should have the right to make his own player evaluations. For his part, Leitao said the Cavaliers would continue to evaluate Kendall, but both parties agreed to rescind the commitment and return to the beginning of the recruiting process.

As a result, the Cavaliers were left with two open scholarships for the 2005-06 season and the same two for 2006-07, provided they don't add any scholarship players this summer. Gillen never worried about running out of scholarships, because history showed that attrition would create spots. Only time will tell if Leitao has a similar experience in Charlottesville.

In Gillen's seven seasons, 14 scholarship players left the program before the end of their eligibility. To be fair, three of those players - Monte Marcaccini, Craig McAndrew and Chase Metheney off Jeff Jones' final team in 1997-98 - never played for Gillen. Three of the defectors (Colin Ducharme, Nick VanderLaan and Majestic Mapp) went on to enjoy success below the Division I level, but none of the ex-Cavaliers made a ripple in D-I.

Derrick Byars hopes to reverse that trend next year at Vanderbilt, just as Leitao would be well-served to close the revolving door at Virginia. The surest way to do that will be to recruit fewer marginal players, although Gillen did recruit some good players during his tenure and was lauded by prospects and coaches for his hands-on approach to recruiting.

Of the three players who signed with the Cavaliers in the fall, only 6-10 Sam Warren from Colorado appears to be a project. Wing player Mamadi Diane was a first-team All-Washington Metro selection for city champion DeMatha, and 6-8, 240-pound Laurynas Mikalauskas from Blue Ridge gives UVa its first Lithuanian connection.

Brown Completes Ugly Foursome

The academic year could not end without one more blemish for the Gillen era, the May 17 arrest of senior center Elton E. Brown on charges of brandishing a firearm and possession of a concealed weapon.

Brown was a member of a four-member recruiting class that included Keith Jenifer (arrested, transferred), Jermaine Harper (arrested, transferred) and Jason Clark (flunked out of school). Brown had taken consolation in his relatively clean record as his checkered career came to a close, but there were indications that he would not graduate on time, as once anticipated.

That was in comparison to his cousin, Elton Gillett Brown, an All-American offensive lineman. This Brown played for a UVa football team that sent 12 players to NFL camps this summer - a school-record seven draftees and five free agents. Of that group, only outside linebacker Darryl Blackstock, who was at UVa for three years, left without a degree.

Strong Spring Will Upgrade Profile

Virginia, which ranked 30th in the all-sports Directors Cup after the winter season, should make up considerable ground in the spring. The UVa baseball team was fighting for an NCAA bid after the Cavaliers earlier had gotten NCAA invitations in men's tennis, men's lacrosse, women's lacrosse, men's golf, women's golf and women's rowing.

UVa captured ACC titles in men's soccer, women's soccer, men's swimming, men's tennis and women's rowing. That was one off the school-record six it won in 2003-04.