As the University of Virginia men’s basketball team prepares for its fourth season under head coach Pete Gillen, the evidence of how far the Cavaliers have come in three short years is not difficult to find. A quick glance back to last season provides a long list of accomplishments, including 20 wins, a second consecutive 9-7 record in the Atlantic Coast Conference, four wins over Top 10 teams, an NCAA Tournament invitation, and final rankings of 16th in The Associated Press Poll and 21st in the ESPN/USA Today Coaches Poll.
Gillen preached patience when he took over UVa’s head coaching position after the Cavaliers went 11-19 (3-13 in the ACC) during the 1997-98 season. He said the rebuilding of the Virginia program would not happen overnight and he was right.
The Cavaliers, however, are well on their way. In three seasons under Gillen, UVa has compiled an overall record of 53-37, participated in the National Invitation Tournament (2000) and the NCAA Tournament (2001). Virginia’s NIT appearance was its first postseason appearance in three years and the Cavaliers’ selection to the NCAA Tournament last year was its first in four years. Consider all this and then remember Gillen’s first Virginia team in 1998-99 consisted of six healthy scholarship players and seven walk-ons.
Last season, Virginia won 20 games for the first time since the 1994-95 season, compiled a second consecutive winning season in the ACC for the first time since Ralph Sampson played for the Cavaliers in the early 1980s and defeated three opponents ranked in the top five in the nation at game time for the first time in the program’s history. UVa had wins over North Carolina (#2), eventual national champion Duke (#3) and Tennessee (#4).
The Cavaliers also won all 11 of their regular-season non-conference games, marking the first time since the 1981-82 season UVa went undefeated in non-conference regular-season play. Included among the non-conference wins were victories over Purdue, Missouri, Tennessee and Virginia Tech.
UVa’s fast-paced style of play energized its fans at University Hall where the Cavaliers compiled a 14-1 record, the best home winning percentage in the ACC (.933) during the 2000-01 season. Five UVa players averaged in double figures and a sixth averaged 8.4 points a game as Virginia ranked fourth in the nation in scoring (85.0 ppg.) and 20th in the nation in scoring margin (+10.2).
“I thought last season was a very successful season,” Gillen says. “We made some significant strides with our basketball program and our players received some postseason recognition, but it’s important to realize we still have a long way to go. We need to do a better job on the road, especially against the elite teams in our conference, and we have to get a little bigger and stronger. Our team is not tall enough, so we need to recruit some bigger, stronger guys. We have some very, very good players, but a lot of them play out of position.
“Our fans were wonderful again last season, as good as any in the country. We made the NCAA Tournament and that was great. That was one of our goals. Hopefully, in the near future, we can get in the tournament again and win some games. It’s not easy to earn an invitation to the NCAA Tournament in our great conference.
“I feel we play in the best basketball conference in the country, so we have to continue to get better and climb the ladder. I know everyone else is trying to do the same, no one is going to stand still. Hopefully, we can continue to climb and improve.”
Last year’s NCAA Tournament invitation was very important to the Virginia program.
“I think the NCAA Tournament invitation was very important,” Gillen said. “When you consider where the program was when we started three years ago–the limited number of scholarship players, the talent level, the size and strength of the players, and the apathy in the student body, the Charlottesville community and the state of Virginia –to show progress has been very important. The first year we were competitive, the second year we were 19-12 and went to the NIT, and then we took the next step last year by winning 20 games and making the NCAA Tournament. It wasn’t easy to do. Our league is very tough and the outside competition on our schedule was very difficult.
“We don’t want to stop here. We want to try and reach the NCAA Tournament again, hopefully this season, and then win some games and advance in the tournament.”
UVa has nine lettermen, including four starters, returning from last year’s 20-9 team. Four of Virginia’s returning players earned conference recognition last season. The Cavaliers should also be bolstered by four highly-regarded freshmen.
UVa, however, suffered some significant losses with the departure of five lettermen. Gone from last year’s team are starting point guard Donald Hand, three-point shooting threat Keith Friel, forward Stephane Dondon, and guards Josh Hare and Greg Lyons.
The Cavaliers also got some bad news in early October when point guard Majestic Mapp decided he would undergo another operation on his right knee, meaning he would miss his second consecutive season in 2001-02.
Hand is the first player in Virginia men’s basketball history to be a team captain for three consecutive seasons and he is the only player in the history of the men’s basketball program to total at least 1,000 points, 300 rebounds, 500 assists and 175 steals in a career. He started 110 of the 120 games he played in and finished his UVa career ranked third on the career assists list (529), tied for third on the career steals list (179), fourth on the career three-point field goals list (156), fifth on the career free throws made list (444) and 12th on the career scoring list (1,486). Hand averaged 12.6 points, 3.2 rebounds and 6.0 assists (third in the ACC) a game last season, while shooting 81.3 percent (fifth in the ACC) from the free throw line. He earned honorable mention All-ACC honors last season.Friel provided instant offense off the Virginia bench with his long-range shooting during his two years in the program after transferring from Notre Dame. He led the ACC in three-point field goal percentage (42.8 percent, 62-145) in 2000-01 and ranks eighth on UVa’s career three-point field goals made list with 107 (107-254, 42.1 percent) despite playing just two seasons for the Cavaliers. Friel averaged 8.4 points a game last season and shot 90.3 percent (28-31) from the free throw line.
Dondon averaged 4.6 points and 3.2 rebounds a game primarily in a reserve capacity last season. He also provided Virginia with strong interior defense in his two years in the program after transferring from Collin County Community College (Texas).
Hare and Lyons saw limited game action last season, but contributed to UVa’s success with their positive attitudes and contributions to practice preparation.
“There’s a saying `you don’t know what you have until it’s gone’ and I think that will be appropriate for us this season in regard to the players we’ve lost,” Gillen says. “I think we’ll appreciate Donald Hand a lot more because despite the fact he had some inconsistent games, he also had some great games. We’ll also appreciate Keith Friel more because even when he didn’t score, he attracted so much defensive attention and emphasis it made other people’s jobs easier. We’ll miss those guys along with Stephane, Josh and Greg.”
Despite the losses, the Virginia coaching staff has a solid nucleus to build around in preparation for the 2001-02 season. The Cavaliers should benefit from their quickness and depth during the coming season, and Gillen hopes Virginia rebounds as well as it did a year ago despite its lack of significant size. UVa led the ACC in rebounding margin (+5.6), offensive rebounds (15.07) and rebounding defense (33.4).
The Cavaliers also ranked first in the conference in free throw shooting (73.6 percent), second in turnover margin (+3.45), and fourth in three-point field goals made (7.03 pg.) and three-point field goal percentage (36.9 percent).
After the success of the last two seasons, expectations figure to be high for Virginia in 2001-02.
“I like high expectations,” Gillen said. “I have high expectations and we have high expectations as a coaching staff. We never make predictions and we never guarantee a particular result, but we put pressure on ourselves to try to be as good as we can be and compete with the best.
“Each year since we’ve been here, the expectations have grown for our program and we put more pressure on ourselves than outside sources put on us. We want to be a nationally-elite program. We’re not there yet, but hopefully we’re heading in that direction.
“I think expectations will be higher for the coming season. We’ll have higher expectations of ourselves, but each year you start at ground zero. You start from scratch and must do it all over again. Whatever happened last year, is last year. That won’t help you this year in terms of concrete wins and losses. It will help your confidence, determination and the intangibles, but as far as productivity is concerned, you have to produce again.
“I don’t mind high expectations. That means our talent’s getting better, we’re getting more depth, and we’re getting a little bigger and a little stronger. It also shows there’s interest and excitement in the basketball program. I think people are starting to notice our team more in the community and throughout the state. Hopefully, we’ll get more recognition nationally. I think we’re getting some and it’s growing, but we’d like to be a nationally-elite program like the top teams in the ACC are now.”
Mapp was the leading candidate to replace Hand at the point guard position. The 6-2 red-shirt sophomore missed all of last season after suffering a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee in August of 2000.
As a freshman during the 1999-2000 season, Mapp provided valuable minutes at the point guard position. He played in all 31 games, starting two, and averaged 5.3 points, 2.2 assists and 18.7 minutes of playing time a game. An excellent passer, he was second on the team in assists (69) and fourth among ACC freshmen that season in that department.
“Majestic Mapp is a fine young man and a terrific player,” Gillen says. “There was some uncertainty as to Majestic’s status for this season. He made the decision to have the operation now so he would have time to rehabilitate before next season. Hopefully he’ll be ready to play next summer and set to go for the 2002-03 season.
“We feel very bad for Majestic and are hopeful he’ll be ready to go next season. This is a setback for our basketball team, but we’re more concerned about Majestic and what’s best for him.”
With the loss of Mapp, Roger Mason, Jr., could move into the starting position at point guard. Mason started opposite Hand in the backcourt and also served as the backup point guard last season. He could see a lot more action at point guard for the Cavaliers in 2001-02.
Mason emerged as a key player on last year’s team, leading the Cavaliers in scoring with an average of 15.7 points a game (sixth in the ACC) and leading the ACC in free throw percentage (88.4 percent, 122-138). He made 45 consecutive free throw attempts during a nine-game stretch of the season. The 6-5 junior earned third-team All-ACC honors and his free throw percentage established a Virginia record. He was second on the team in assists (72, 2.5 apg.), averaged 3.7 rebounds a game and shared the team’s Most Valuable Player Award with Travis Watson.
Mason also shot 47.6 percent (146-307) from the field, including 44.2 percent (42-95) from three-point range, while averaging a team-leading 32.0 minutes of playing time a game. His three-point basket with one second remaining enabled the Cavaliers to win at Florida State and he scored a career-high 30 points in UVa’s 86-85 loss to Gonzaga in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
Mason was a starter for the USA World University Games Team this past summer in Beijing, China. He started all eight games and helped the United States earn the bronze medal. Mason averaged 13.0 points and 4.8 rebounds a game, while shooting 51.9 percent (42-81) from the field and 75.0 percent (9-12) from the free throw line.
“Roger really finished strong at the end of last year,” Gillen said. “He was our go-to guy during the last seven or eight games of the season and he responded very well. He’s a versatile player. Roger is a two-guard who can also play some point guard as he did last year. With the injury to Majestic Mapp, he played about eight minutes a game at the point last season and did a good job. I think that helped make him a better player.
“Roger is a good three-point shooter and his perimeter shooting is getting more consistent. His ball handling has improved and he’s also a good defender.
“He’s a tremendous player and still has room to get better. If he stays healthy, he has a chance to have a terrific third year.”
Another versatile perimeter player for Virginia is 6-5 senior Adam Hall. An extremely athletic player and the team’s best defender, Hall averaged 10.1 points and 5.5 rebounds a game while shooting a team-leading 50.6 percent (118-233) from the field last season. He was selected to the 2001 ACC All-Defensive Team after consistently drawing the opposing team’s top perimeter scorer as his defensive assignment. He also improved his free throw shooting and shot 81.5 percent (22-27) from the free throw line in the last 10 games of 2000-01.
Hall started at small forward for UVa last season, but can also play second guard. He is known for his spectacular dunks in Virginia’s run and press style of play, and also asserted himself on the boards last season with 88 rebounds in the Cavaliers’ final 12 games (7.3 rpg.). He had a career-high 17 rebounds in UVa’s 82-71 victory at home over Wake Forest. His basket with under a second remaining to play provided Virginia with its margin of victory in a 91-89 win over Duke at University Hall.
“Adam Hall had a terrific third year,” Gillen says. “He made the ACC All-Defensive Team which is not easy to do. He sacrificed some of his offense to help us win. Adam can guard a point guard, a two-guard or a small forward on the perimeter. In a pinch, he can also guard a four-man.
“Adam improved his free throw shooting the last 10 or 12 games of last season. He worked very hard at it and shot his free throws well during that stretch. He’s also improving his ball handling and his passing. One area where he needs to be more consistent is in his perimeter shooting.
“In my opinion, Adam’s the best athlete in the ACC in terms of running, jumping and rebounding. He did a great job on the boards last year, in particular on the offensive boards. He’s a very important member of our team.”
Maurice Young is expected to compete for increased playing time at the small forward position in 2001-02. The 6-4 Young played in 25 games in a reserve capacity last season and averaged 2.6 points a game. He twice earned ACC Rookie of the Week honors a year ago.
“Mo Young didn’t get a chance to play a great deal last year because of the depth we had at the wing guard spot with Roger Mason and Keith Friel,” Gillen said. “This year he’s going to have a great opportunity to be an impact guy for us. He’s a scorer who can put the ball in the basket in many ways. Mo can hit the three-point basket, he can drive to the basket and score, or he can tip one in. He can also get to the free throw line.
“I think Mo’s a guy who has a good nose for the basket and a great feel for the game. He’s worked hard in the spring and summer, and he’s hungry to play. He’s gotten stronger and we’re hoping that he’s going to come off the bench and play a lot.
“We need Mo to score. We’re going to miss some scoring with the loss of Donald and Keith. I think Mo can help pick up some of that scoring. He’s going to get a chance to be a contributor at the small forward position and at times the second guard spot. We’re hoping that Mo takes a big step, and I think he will during his second year.”
Providing depth at the guard positions are freshmen Keith Jenifer, Jermaine Harper and Bret Gladstone, and senior Jason Dowling. The loss of Mapp for the season provides an opportunity for Jenifer and Harper, in particular, to earn playing time at point guard.
Jenifer is a point guard from Baltimore, Md., who played at Hargrave Military Academy last season. He averaged 13 points and 11 rebounds a game for Hargrave.
“Keith Jenifer is a young man who improved a lot in his year at Hargrave Military Academy,” Gillen says. “He played high school basketball at Towson Catholic where he had a very good career. He took a step up at Hargrave and it was a good year for him. He worked on his strength and had an opportunity to improve in all areas of his game.
“Keith’s very quick. I think he can penetrate into the lane against a lot of people. He’s a player who can play good defense and also score. Keith’s a good shooter who can hit the outside shot. I think he’s going to be a big plus for us and will play a lot as a freshman.
“He needs to get a little stronger, as most freshmen do, and work on consistency from the perimeter, but I think he’s going to be a very good point guard who has a tremendous up side.”
Harper, from Gardena, Calif., is expected to see action at both point guard and second guard. He played at the Blue Ridge School last season and averaged 21.2 points and 5.7 rebounds per game.
“Jermaine Harper is a wing guard who can play several positions on the perimeter,” Gillen said. “He can play the swing guard or small forward position in a pinch, and can also play point guard, but he’s more of a two guard. He’s a great athlete and a slasher who’s at his best in the open court.
“I think Jermaine’s also an excellent defender. His defensive ability is something that attracted me. He can really put pressure on the ball and guard the ball. In our full-court pressure defense and in a half-court situation, Jermaine can be an excellent on-the-ball defender.
“He’s a scorer rather than a pure shooter, so he has to continue to work on his consistency from the perimeter. Jermaine can score in a lot of different ways and I think he’s going to be a significant contributor as a freshman.”
Dowling, a three-year letterman, saw limited action last season when he played in 10 games. He joined the team as a walk-on prior to the 1998-99 season.
“I’m glad to have Jason back for his fourth year,” Gillen says. “He makes a valuable contribution to our team. He’s very quick and pushes our guards in practice. Jason’s gotten stronger and is a good player who would probably be playing more in another program. He came to Virginia for the academics and joined our program as a walk-on. He’s a good press player with a wonderful attitude who has made an important contribution to our team the last three years.”
Gladstone, from Greenwich, Conn., joins the Virginia program after scoring 2,468 career points at the Brunswick School.
Up front, UVa could have more depth than it’s had in any of Gillen’s three previous seasons as head coach. Senior Chris Williams and junior Travis Watson head the list of returning players which also includes sophomore J.C. Mathis and junior Jason Rogers.
Williams, a team tri-captain last season, has started for the Cavaliers since his freshman season and has been a model of consistency. The 6-7 forward earned third-team All-ACC honors in 2000-01 when he averaged 14.5 points, 6.7 rebounds and 2.0 assists a game, while shooting 50.3 percent from the field (147-292) and 76.0 percent (95-125) from the free throw line. He ranked third in the ACC in field goal percentage, 10th in scoring, rebounding and defensive rebounds (4.41 pg.), 11th in free throw percentage, 12th in offensive rebounds (2.24 pg.) and 13th in steals (1.52 spg.) last season.
Williams ranks in a tie for eighth on Virginia’s career steals list (140), is ninth on the career lists for three-point field goals made (102) and blocked shots (81), and is 18th on UVa’s career scoring list with 1,405 points. During his three seasons in the UVa program, he’s averaged 15.6 points and 6.8 rebounds a game while making 50.8 percent (508-1000) of his shots from the field and 72.8 percent (287-394) of his free throw attempts.
“I thought Chris had a terrific year last year,” Gillen said. “I call him the `silent assassin’ because he might score 21 points and you don’t even realize it. I thought he had a tremendously consistent season and made third-team All-ACC. He usually has his best games against the best teams.
“As our team has gotten stronger, Chris has not been called on to be Hercules or Atlas and carry the world. That does not diminish how good a player he is. Some people read that wrong and I don’t think he’s as appreciated as he should be.
“Chris has had to sacrifice like Travis Watson and has had to play a lot at the four position. That means he’s had to guard the power forward on the other team, and I think he’s gotten beat up and worn down a little for the offensive end. I believe he had a better season than people gave him credit for last season.
“He’s a terrific player and we’re going to need him to have another quality year if our team is going to continue to improve. He’s tough to guard because his three-point shooting improved last season, he gets to the line and is a good free throw shooter, and he goes to the boards. Versatility is his strength.”
Watson has anchored Virginia’s front line for the last two seasons while providing the Cavaliers with a physical presence inside. A true power forward at 6-8 and 255 pounds, he’s more than held his own while playing against some of the finest collegiate centers in the nation. Last year he battled through five significant injuries to play in every game for Virginia and start all but one.
Watson earned second-team All-ACC honors last season when he averaged 12.3 points a game and ranked second in the conference with an average of 9.1 rebounds a game. He led the team in blocked shots with 35 and made 49.7 percent (149-300) of his shots from the field. He led the ACC in double-doubles (13) and offensive rebounds (3.45 pg.) last season, ranked second in defensive rebounds (5.66 pg.), was fourth in the conference in field goal percentage and ranked eighth in blocked shots (1.21 bpg.).
A fierce rebounder, Watson led the Cavaliers in rebounding 20 times during the 2000-01 season and was in double figures in rebounds 14 times. He is just the second player in the history of the UVa program to have more than 500 rebounds (522) in his first two seasons (Ralph Sampson is the other) and he has 21 double-doubles for his career. He’s averaging 11.8 points and 8.7 rebounds a game for his Virginia career, and has made 51.4 percent (286-556) of his shots from the field.
“Travis had a tremendous sophomore season,” Gillen says. “He was voted second-team All-ACC and I think people appreciated what a great job he did. He was our inside scoring presence, was the second leading rebounder in the ACC and had more double-doubles than anyone else in the conference. Many times he was out-sized and out-weighed, but he did a marvelous job.
“What impressed me so much was Travis played with injuries and pain. He had five significant injuries that would have prevented a lot of guys from playing in games. He overcame all that and played. Without him playing, we probably would have lost some of those games and not had as good a year. He stepped up. I think our fans really appreciated what a warrior Travis was, how courageous and tough he was last season.
“Travis was chosen the team’s co-MVP with Roger Mason and he certainly deserved that honor. Hopefully, he’ll be a little healthier this year and will have a lot more help.
The 6-8, 224-pound Mathis made significant improvement during the 2000-01 season and was a key reserve for the Cavaliers. An aggressive player, he averaged 3.4 points, 2.1 rebounds and 11.9 minutes of playing time a game while playing in every game a year ago. He earned ACC Co-Rookie of the Week honors for his play in UVa’s victories over two nationally-ranked teams, Maryland and Wake Forest.
“J.C. really improved the final 10 or 12 games of last season,” Gillen said. “I thought he had a terrific season and he was chosen our Most Improved Player. He’s one of our hardest workers.
“The best way to describe J.C. is that he’s a basketball player. He can handle the ball, shoot from the perimeter, score inside and rebound. He’s very valuable and is a player who will get better and better each year. I think J.C. will develop into a tremendous player in the ACC. His dad’s a coach so he really knows the game and is one of our smartest players. He has a great feel for the game.
“J.C. played more as last season went along and we’re very excited about him. We think he’s going to be a big plus for us this year. I think he’ll take a big step up during his sophomore year.”
The 6-11 Rogers has lettered twice for the Cavaliers. He played in 16 games last season and averaged 1.9 points a game.
“We need Jason to help us this season because of our lack of size,” Gillen says. “He’s our tallest player and he’s worked hard in the weight room. His strength has been his biggest problem. He just hasn’t been strong enough to bang bodies in the low post with some of the players we compete against.
“He has stretches in practice where he plays very well and I hope with some added strength he can give us some significant minutes this season. He can change a game by blocking shots, contesting shots and providing interior defense. I hope he can make a difference and help us win some games.”
Freshmen Elton Brown (Newport News, Va.) and Jason Clark (Virginia Beach, Va.) are expected to make an immediate impact for the Cavaliers in 2001-02. The 6-9, 265-pound Brown played at Warwick High School last year and averaged 28.4 points and 9.8 rebounds a game, while the 6-8, 225-pound Clark was a teammate of Jenifer’s at Hargrave Military Academy. Clark averaged 17 points and 10 rebounds a game last season.
“Elton Brown is a young freshman from an age standpoint who is a terrific offensive player in the low post area,” Gillen said. “He’s a wide body who’s very strong and has excellent moves in the low post. He’ll be one of our top scorers in the low post area because he has excellent moves, good hands and a great feel for scoring down close to the basket. He’s also a good rebounder and a tremendous competitor.
“We’re very excited about Elton and think he has a great up side. He’s versatile offensively in that he can also hit the shot from 18 or 19 feet. He will be a very valuable player for us.”
Clark is also expected to make a significant contribution to the 2001-02 Virginia team.
“Jason Clark is a young man who plays bigger than his size,” Gillen says. “He’s a tremendous athlete who does a lot of the dirty work. He does whatever it takes to win. He can guard a small forward, he can guard a power forward and at times he can guard the center. Along with J.C. Mathis, Elton Brown and Jason Rogers, Jason will take some pressure off Travis Watson. Travis won’t have to guard the opposing center all of the time.
“I think Jason’s strength is his great athleticism. He runs very well, he blocks shots, rebounds, and I think he’ll help us in our pressing and running style. He needs to continue to polish his offensive game. Jason can score, but I think his defense is ahead of his offense. He’s looking to help his teammates by screening, going to the offensive glass and rebounding. He doesn’t think of himself and is the consummate team player. I think our fans are going to enjoy watching him play.”
Transfers Todd Billet and Nick Vander Laan have also joined the Virginia program. Billet is a 6-0 guard who played the last two seasons at Rutgers University and Vander Laan is a 6-10 center who played the last two seasons at the University of California-Berkeley. They will work with the team in practice but will not be able to play in games until the 2002-03 season.
Looking ahead to the 2001-02 campaign, Gillen feels his team should have good depth and improved quickness.
“I think we’ll have excellent depth and quickness on our team,” Gillen said. “All of the players coming in should be contributors. How many minutes they’ll play will be determined by how hard they worked during the summer and in the preseason. I think our depth and quickness will help us. We should be a quick team.
“We’ll have good experience with four starters back. The returning starters have played a lot of minutes and some of them have had international experience. Our team has played in different parts of the country and the world in recent seasons, we’ve played in the NIT and the NCAA Tournament, and we’ve played in some high-profile national games.
“We’ve got two quick guards joining the program in Keith Jenifer and Jermaine Harper. Keith is a point guard and Jermaine can play several positions on the perimeter. Jason Clark is also very quick and a great athlete. Elton Brown is a tremendous low post presence who can score. He adds another dimension in the low-post with his scoring and rebounding ability. We’re excited about all of these new players.”
Gillen also recognizes there are things to overcome during the upcoming season.
“We’re going to miss Donald Hand,” Gillen says. “He was inconsistent at times, but he’s a tremendous player and we’ll miss his quickness at the point guard spot. We’ll miss Keith Friel’s long range shooting and Stephane Dondon’s solid, experienced play. We had also hoped to have Majestic Mapp back this season and we’ll miss his presence on the court.
“Hopefully the five freshmen can help us replace the loss of Donald, Keith, Stephane and Majestic.”
As mentioned earlier, Virginia ranked fourth in the nation in scoring last season and Gillen believes his team will be solid offensively again in 2001-02. What remains to be seen is whether the Cavaliers will approach the 85 points a game they averaged last season.
“We’ve lost two good scorers in Donald Hand and Keith Friel who accounted for 21 points a game,” Gillen said. “Donald was a scoring point guard and Keith a great perimeter shooter. That’s a concern, but I think we’ll be able to score. We’re going to have to score more off our defense and with our quickness. I still think we’ll be a very good scoring team. Whether we can score 85 points a game, that’s a tremendous challenge.
Hopefully, our improved quickness will mean a little better overall defensive pressure that could generate some offense. I also hope we’ll continue to aggressively attack the basket, get to the free throw line and do a good job on the offensive boards.
“We’re going to play the same style and hopefully we’ll still be able to score very well, but it’s going to be a big challenge to match the 85 points we averaged a year ago.”
UVa was the top free throw shooting team in the ACC last season and that was an important factor in the Cavaliers’ offensive output.
“We were fortunate last year to lead the ACC in free throw shooting,” Gillen says.
“That’s important for us because we attack the basket aggressively. Free throw shooting wins a lot of games and we lost two very good free throw shooters in Donald Hand and Keith Friel. Donald shot a lot of free throws and made over 80 percent of his attempts. We’ll have to have some other players pick up the slack with him gone.
“We’ve worked on our free throw shooting a lot, and done a lot of things with different free throw drills and philosophies. Hopefully we’ll continue to get better and shoot well from the free throw line.
“Free throw shooting can really help you win the close games. It’s like field goal kicking and extra points in football to some degree. You need good execution in special situations, like out of bounds and free throw shooting, to win close games. We’ll work on it hard and hopefully we’ll still get to the line a lot with our aggressive style of play in both full-court and half-court situations.”
Virginia will also be challenged to rebound as well as it did a year ago. Despite their lack of size, the Cavaliers were a solid rebounding team last season.
“Our rebounding was a big surprise and a big plus last year,” Gillen said. “The year before rebounding was a negative, but last year we led the ACC in rebounding margin. We did a tremendous job on the offensive boards led by Travis, Adam and Chris. I think that’s helped a lot by our fast-breaking style. I think our guards also helped us by getting into the lane and getting their share of rebounds. Our defensive rebounding improved a lot, but still has to get better.”
Defensively, there’s still room for improvement.
“I thought we were a pretty good pressing team last season,” Gillen says. “Our opponents had a lot of turnovers, and our assist-to-turnover ratio was good. Especially early in the season, when we beat teams like Purdue and Tennessee and got off to a 10-0 start, I thought our pressure was very good. As the season went on, since we weren’t very big we got a little tired and teams also made adjustments, so our pressure wasn’t quite as effective.
“Our half-court defense improved last season. We helped out better and had some real good defensive moments during the year, but we still have to do a better job in that area. I think Jerry Tarkanian said it best when he was at UNLV and pointed out it’s tough, and almost impossible, to be a terrific full-court defensive pressure team and a terrific half-court defensive team. There’s a lot of truth to that, but we certainly can improve our half-court defense. If I had to give us a grade in that area last season, I’d give us a C.
“The teams in the ACC do a good job against our pressure because they prepare for it and know it so well. Because of that, we have to play a lot of half-court defense and I thought it got a little better. Our size, or lack of size, is another reason why our half-court defense isn’t quite as good. Teams can throw it inside and get us in foul trouble. Travis Watson played out of position again last year, a power forward playing center, and we didn’t have the depth of big, powerful guys on the front line like many teams in the ACC.
“We have to do a better job helping each other out. I really felt we made some strides and did improve in that area last season. That’s an area of emphasis this year and hopefully we’ll take a little step forward. We thought our overall philosophy of pressure defense last season helped us have some degree of success. If we played a slower style with our size, I don’t know if we would have been 20-9.”
The 2001-02 schedule is another challenging one for Virginia. In addition to the always difficult ACC schedule, the Cavaliers’ non-conference schedule includes games with Rutgers and Virginia Tech at home, Georgetown and Missouri on the road, and Auburn and Michigan State at neutral sites.
“I think our schedule is extremely difficult,” Gillen said. “That’s a good thing because it will help prepare us for the brutal competition in the ACC. We played a tough schedule last year, but this year’s schedule is even more demanding and more challenging. I think we’ll be able to answer the challenge, but you have to be lucky from the standpoint of injuries and team chemistry is important. I think this schedule will be exciting for our fans, exciting for our players and exciting for our coaching staff.”
UVa is scheduled to play 16 games at University Hall this season where Virginia’s fans have provided the Cavaliers with a definite home court advantage.
“I think our home court advantage is extremely important,” Gillen says. “You have to win at home. There’s pressure to be successful at home because you know when you go on the road it’s a big challenge to win. Our students and other fans were a big part of our success at home last season. The students camped out for our last three home games and were unbelievable. They give energy to the crowd and our players, and give us more courage and confidence. Winning at home is tremendously important because we know how difficult it is when we go on the road to play.”
Gillen also knows how difficult the task of rebuilding was when he arrived at Virginia three seasons ago. A lot of progress has been made and the UVa head coach hopes that trend continues for the Cavaliers in the season ahead.