1. UVA is the surprise of the conference. Is is all Leitao? Could Gillen have posted a few wins with this team and schedule?
Last year, UVA had a grand total of 4 ACC wins. As of today, they have 6, and that’s with a team that lost almost every significant scoring threat in the offseason. You do the math.
Say what you will about Roy Williams replacing the starting five; they have McDonald’s All-Americans at their disposal. While there’s a chance Jason Cain might’ve gotten employee of the month at Krystal, I doubt many of UVA’s players got any sort of high school accolade. The Hoos were picked to finish last in the weakest ACC in years, and rightfully so. The fact that they’ve even eyed the bubble this late in the season should make Dave Leitao a lead pipe cinch for ACC Coach of the Year.
Credit where credit’s due to Leitao, but a large part of the sea change in Hoo basketball can be chalked up to the fact that Pete Gillen is no longer on the sidelines. Were it just a matters of straight-up wins and losses, I think Gillen might be still sweatin’ it up at U-Hall, but a confluence of factors poisoned the well to the point where the average fan’s feelings towards the team shifted from indifference to outright hostility.
In some ways, Gillen happened to have an inordinately low amount of luck for an Irishman. Yeah, the situation that Leitao came into was pretty bad, but cleaning up after Jeff Jones probably required Gillen to rock a Hazmat suit for the first five months. Everyone from the 1995 class ended up transferring or in jail (see: Courtney Alexander), and during mine and Gillen’s first year at UVA, the roster had the skills of a mid-level Missouri Valley team.
Instead of being the rock at point guard he was expected to be coming out of Brooklyn, Majestic Mapp attempted to break the NCAA record for injury exemptions. In his second year, UVA finished 19-10 with a 9-7 conference record and became the only team in ACC history to miss out on the tournament with an above-.500 mark. Too often, the team would be rewarded for a high conference finish with a de facto away game in the ACC tournament against the likes of Wake Forest or NC State. And the one time that he did bring UVA to the dance, they got shafted with a 5 seed, and to top it off, they lost a one-point game that let the committee know that they should never seed Gonzaga #12 ever again.
But in the end, the money changed everything. Despite never winning a postseason game of any kind during his first three years, Pete Gillen was rewarded with a 10-year, $9 million extension which paradoxically was short-sighted and crippling in the long term at the same time. That’s right: if you can keep a sinking ship just above water for a two-year span at UVA, you get rewarded with what I like to call the Craig Littlepage Fellowship. It should come as no surprise that the grumblings about Al Groh, months after his whopping $1 million raise, have a very similar tenor to the ones about Pete Gillen in 2002.
Expectations went through the roof, and Gillen was unable to deliver. No one expected him to bring back the Ralph Sampson Era, but if we were only a couple of years removed from reaching the Elite Eight. And yet, under the Craig Littlepage Fellowship, here’s Gillen’s victories in the postseason: Brown (NIT, 1st round. Yes- that Brown), GW (NIT, 1st round), Miami (ACC play-in game). That’s it.
All the goodwill from UVA’s quick turnaround and his affable press conference persona was squandered and the focus went on all the things that were undeniably becoming endemic to Virginia basketball. Players failed to improve over time. Defense was sloppy, if not non-committal. Questionable use of timeouts. The baffling inability to win on the road anywhere.
The worst part was that Virginia really did have some talent on the floor. It’s a little hard to illustrate considering that the only guy to even get a cup of joe on the NBA level was Roger Mason, and I’m pretty sure he and Rick Brunson got traded for each other every February. But the problem is, there was no system and even in the good days, it hardly resembled organized basketball. Adam Hall had the leaping and defensive skills of Andre Iguodala, but he never found a steady spot in the rotation. Donald Hand was fearless to the hoop, but was allowed to freelance too much. Chris Williams won ACC Freshman of the Year and plateaued, never becoming more than a guy who could get you the quietest 15 points you’ve ever seen. Travis Watson gave up five inches to Brendan Haywood and still schooled him. But he never had any other legitimate inside presence to take the heat off. Todd Billet and Keith Friel were pretty much the same guy, white boy transfers with almost Redick-like skills from the foul line and a knack for hitting the clutch three. But they were novelties with limited defensive skills. And the less said about the development of J.C. Mathis, Jason Rogers and Jason Clark, the better.
And worse yet, there was no indication that things would improve. And we weren’t even putting kids who were representative of the University on the floor anymore. Keith Jenifer was straight Baltimore thug, and after an illustrious career of turnovers, missed free throws and calling girls at O’Neill’s “white bitches,” he now plays at Murray State. Donte Minter couldn’t cut it in the classroom, and neither could Gary Forbes, who took his academically ineligible ass to U-Mass. Have all the fun you want with that one.
Gillen was defeated last year, and it showed. Had Todd Billett not made three game-winning shots within a month during the 2003-2004 season, it’s questionable whether Gillen even would’ve been around last season. Gillen had a habit of getting a couple of huge late-season wins to keep the wolves at bay, but the program unquestionably going backwards. Something, anything, had to be done before we attempted to fill an arena that stands to be twice as big as the already difficult to fill University Hall. As I’ll flesh out in Question 2, Leitao is the right guy for the team as it currently stands, but the most important thing for Virginia to do is start fresh in any way possible.
2. The Cavs offensive numbers are still pedestrian, but their adjusted defensive efficiency is surprisingly strong (ranked 48). What is the source of improvement: scheme, attitude or new players?
In terms of defense, when you consider what Gillen was throwing out there, the Hoos might as well be wearing different uniforms this year. They are straight up unrecognizable to me. Last year, UVA had the worst rebound differential in the ACC by a large distance, and now they’re in the top four, despite not having any legitimate post threat. This is completely attributable to the new regime. Fundamentally, UVA rebounds so well these days, it’s almost funny to watch. They boxed out so hard against ‘Zona that sometimes long rebounds would take two bounces. In the end, this is why Leitao was the smart choice as a coach in the short-term, and if his recruiting is any indication, in the long-term as well. To be quite honest, there were questions on how much Leitao could energize the community; while no one said it was a bad choice, it wasn’t a particularly sexy one. We got complimented in the same way people get props for picking a car with good gas mileage or taking a scholarship to Penn State instead of spending $30,000 a year to go to Penn.
But in the end, it made the most sense considering the alternatives. Most of our choices were a little too pipe dreamy (Rick Carlisle, Rick Barnes, Tubby Smith…who we might’ve been able to get if we waited a year) or clearly not that much of an improvement over Pete Gillen (Mike Brey, Karl Hobbs). And of course, there was the near-miss that would’ve sent stock in Charlottesville Pitchfork-and-Torch through the roof (Dave Odom).
For me, it was down to Leitao and my personal choice, Mark Iavaroni. The latter would’ve been the more creative choice, and he did bring a lot to the table, being an alumni and a big cog in creating the NBA’s most exciting attack (Phoenix). But there was no way that Iavaroni could’ve gotten off to a start this successful with the current roster. And moreover, I think UVA needed to go a different direction, because Gillen ran a running offense too. As the Chicago Bears have proven, the easiest way to mask offensive deficiency is to slow the game down and emphasize defense. Which leads us to #3…
3. All the improvements aside, is the key to beating UVA as simple as shutting down Sean Singletary?
Besides J.J. Redick, no one is more important to their offense in the ACC than Sean Singletary. Okay, he had just shot 3-21 against Georgia Tech, but he was out against Fordham, and we lost. At home. Granted, that probably doesn’t happen in January or 49 out of 50 times, but when Singletary struggles, the shooters just aren’t there yet to pick up the slack. J.R. Reynolds has become a good second option, but the recipe for a UVA win is to get Singletary and Reynolds to lead the way and some timely buckets (preferably on offensive rebounds) from Jason Cain and Milauskas.
Fortunately, Leitao is addressing this on the recruiting trail. His class for next year is easily Top 50 and possibly Top 25, having received commitments from places like Philadelphia, Stockbridge, GA, Gary, IN and Dallas, GA. While I am a little concerned about the reliance on outside talent (a trademark of the Gillen Era), I think that will hopefully change once the kids see the John Paul Jones Arena and UVA becomes a hot program.
For more on UVA and camp life in the Poconos check out Sexy Results.