February 14, 2005 CHARLOTTESVILLE Just when it seemed as if Pete Gillen's dismissal or departure as Virginia's basketball coach was a foregone conclusion, the Cavaliers began the second half of the ACC schedule with a mini-surge that left room for reassessment.
A mid-week trip to North Carolina didn't hold much promise for a UVa squad that trailed the Tar Heels by 50 points during their most recent meeting "going from the frying pan into the inferno," Gillen called it but the Cavaliers no longer are at rock-bottom.
The turning point followed a Feb. 2 loss at Providence, previously winless in Big East play. Slumping guard Donnie McGrath hit all nine of his three-point attempts as the Friars pulled away for a 98-79 victory over the school's one-time coach.
With less than 72 hours remaining before a road game at N.C. State, Gillen ditched the run-and-gun style that has been his trademark, benched senior center and second-leading scorer Elton Brown and installed a spread offense that had the Wolfpack doing a double-take.
By the time Virginia Tech came to Charlottesville, following a 56-55 UVa victory over Florida State, Brown had regained his starting job, but the new approach remained unchanged.
"They run when they can run," Tech coach Seth Greenberg said, after a 65-60 loss to the Cavaliers, "but in the halfcourt they're going to shorten the possessions."
Sixteen days after committing 22 turnovers in a 79-73 loss to the Hokies in Blacksburg, the Cavaliers had nine miscues against Tech in Charlottesville. Tech's 35.1 field goal percentage was the lowest against Virginia since the opening game of the season.
At first glance, the trade of Brown for weak-shooting third guard T.J. Bannister would seem to be offensive suicide, but Bannister has been Gillen's good-luck charm. That goes back to the last month of the 2004-05 season, when the Cavaliers went 6-4 after Bannister was inserted into the starting lineup.
Since senior forward Jason Clark was declared academically ineligible and freshman forward Adrian Joseph injured a quadriceps in practice, UVa has had nine scholarship players in uniform and basically has been using a seven-man rotation. (Sophomore forward Donte Minter played less than a minute against Virginia Tech, and freshman center Tunji Soroye never got off the bench.) In that respect, the scene has been reminiscent of Gillen's first year, when he had six able-bodied scholarship players and did his best coaching job some would say before finishing 14-16.
Eventually, Joseph will return and offer a three-point threat off the bench, much needed with senior forward Devin Smith and sophomore guard J.R. Reynolds struggling. Reynolds went one-for-16 on three-pointers during UVa's three-game winning streak, although he was credited for strong defensive performances against N.C. State's Julius Hodge and Virginia Tech's Carlos Dixon.
Sophomore swingman Gary Forbes matched a season high with 21 points against the Hokies, after he originally was inserted for defensive reasons. The Cavaliers have learned that they can't count on Forbes, who had zero assists and eight turnovers over 35 minutes in his previous two games, but his occasional flashes of brilliance can be tantalizing.
What has become apparent is that Gillen has not lost the team, a distinct possibility after the blowout loss to UNC and the second-half disaster at Providence. The decision to bench Brown against NCSU may have motivated the other players, as well as won over some of his detractors among UVa fans.
Brown wasn't just benched; he played only four minutes. He scored seven points, and his body language on the bench was unmistakable. He later insisted that he hadn't been pouting, but he appeared agitated and quickly dressed and headed to the team bus after the game. It had to kill him not to be playing, but when he played 28 minutes in the next game, he was six-of-seven from field and, according to Gillen, "didn't take a bad shot all night." Then, he went four-for-six against Virginia Tech.
The less Brown tries to do, the better. Nobody in the ACC sees more double teams than Brown, Gillen said, and now he's finally starting to look for the open man. Whether that continues is a matter of conjecture, but if Brown can rebound at his 9.0 pace for the second half of the conference season, UVa will have a chance to win more games.
Gillen Needs NCAA Tournament
By all accounts, the Cavaliers need to make the NCAA Tournament for Gillen to return for an eighth season in Charlottesville.
At one point, it seemed that was an impossibility, and there were calls for athletic director Craig Littlepage to replace Gillen during the season. The AD said that's something he would not do. Moreover, he said he could not see Gillen resigning during the season.
Nobody knows the exact wording of Gillen's contract, as originally signed or restructured, as it might have been after last season. One good source said the contract now stipulates that an NCAA Tournament bid would ensure Gillen's return in 2005-06.
What would it take to make the NCAA field? If Virginia can win its final two home games, against Maryland and N.C. State, it would have at least 15 victories overall and six ACC wins going into a regular-season-ending trip to Florida State. Seven regular-season league wins would go a long way toward getting the Cavaliers into the NCAA conversation, given their fairly strong preseason schedule. That included then-No. 10 Arizona, a UVa victim in November. Of course, there will be a lot of ifs along the way.
Keys will include better shooting by Smith and Reynolds, as well as an injury-free final month for freshman point guard Sean Singletary, who played 40 minutes against Virginia Tech, with 10 points, seven assists and one turnover. Singletary, also a reliable free throw shooter, has battled shoulder and ankle problems during the season, and he was playing with a harness attached to his left arm at one point.
Gillen's leap into the air after the final buzzer against Virginia Tech likely provided a release of some of the stress that was evident during the early minutes of the FSU game. That's when Gillen and assistant coach Walt Fuller went jaw-to-jaw during a timeout with 7:59 remaining in the half. Reynolds had to get between them, with Singletary draping an arm around Fuller's shoulder.
Again, that spectacle may have pleased some fans who felt that assistants have not challenged Gillen enough over the years, particularly when it comes to his obsession with calling timeouts. For his part, Gillen did a good job of diffusing the clash, describing it as a "heated situation."
"I said, 'Less filling,' and he said, 'More taste,'" said Gillen, playing on the Miller Lite advertisements that were popular in the 1990s.
Of course, the actual expression was "Tastes great," but when you're winning, who wants to be picky?