Ushering In A New Season
Dec. 5, 2001
By Trent Packer
After leading Virginia to its first 20-win season in his tenure and helping the Cavaliers capture their first NCAA Tournament berth since 1997, head coach Pete Gillen had a lot to be proud of this summer. But between recruiting, taking part in community activities and keeping track of his players during the off season, Gillen hasn’t done much in the way of coaching since the first round of the 2001 NCAA tourney. So forgive Gillen if he appears anxious for the start of basketball season.
“The last thing you do as a college basketball coach is coach basketball very often,” Gillen says. “I enjoy all parts of the game, please don’t misunderstand me, but what I enjoy most is coaching basketball. We are looking forward to [the season].”
For the second consecutive season, Gillen and his staff experienced a disheartening blow before practice even started, when they learned that point guard Majestic Mapp will have to miss another season due to a recurring knee injury. Mapp, who made significant contributions as a freshman before injuring his knee in August 2000, was expected to take over starting point guard duties after the graduation of 2000-01 starter Donald Hand.
“We had sad news with Majestic Mapp, losing him for another season,” Gillen says. “Certainly our team will be weakened without Majestic Mapp. I feel badly for our team, but I feel 10 times worse for Majestic. Our thoughts and prayers are with him.”
With Mapp’s injury, UVa will be forced to use Roger Mason, Jr., as its starting point guard at least until freshman Keith Jenifer can make the adjustment from the high school game to its college equivalent. Mason led the team in scoring last season from his two-guard position, and played an estimated eight minutes per contest at the point in relief of Hand.
“There’s no question [Mapp’s injury] is going to hurt our team because he is a great passer, he’s a pure point guard,” Gillen says. “Now [Roger’s] move to the point might take away some scoring, so we’ll have to see how that affects our scoring.
“Keith Jenifer has the potential to earn a starting spot down the road if he shows some growth.”
Aside from the potentially devastating loss of Mapp, the Cavaliers also lost a crop of talented senior players, including Hand, three-point specialist Keith Friel and front court player Stephane Dondon. Hand is the first player in Virginia men’s basketball history to serve as team captain for three consecutive years. He averaged 12.6 points, 3.2 rebounds and 6.0 assists a game last season and shot 81.3 percent from the free throw line. Meanwhile, Friel was a three-point threat every time he stepped on the court. He made 107 threes in his brief two-year career at UVa, and was a source of instant offense for the Cavaliers.
“We are going to miss Donald Hand, we are going to miss Keith Friel, and we are going to miss Stephane Dondon,” Gillen says. “I know a lot of times people got on Donald Hand, but Donald had a great career here. He helped us get a top 10 ranking for a while. “Keith Friel is the best shooter I’ve ever coached as a college head coach or as an assistant.”
Despite the roster changes, Virginia will not be given any breaks by its 2001-02 opponents. The Cavaliers face a difficult non-conference schedule, which features games against 2001 NCAA Final Four participant Michigan State, and 2001 Sweet Sixteen participant Georgetown. Virginia will also take on Southeastern Conference standout Auburn.
“We have a big challenge with our schedule. We are looking forward to playing Michigan State in Richmond,” Gillen says. “That will be a big challenge for us. They did lose a lot of guys, but they still have some great players back.”
After a difficult non-conference docket, the Cavaliers have an even more demanding Atlantic Coast Conference schedule to look forward to. The ACC is perennially among the toughest conferences in the country. This season will be no exception.
Defending national champion Duke is widely considered the preseason favorite to repeat as national champions. The Blue Devils lost 2001 Naismith Award winner Shane Battier off of last year’s squad, but still feature an outstanding lineup. Meanwhile Maryland, which lost to Duke in the national semifinals last season, returns the nucleus of its team. And, of course, the rest of the ACC is no picnic.
“I think [Duke and Maryland] will be the premier teams in the ACC, and I think it’s a dogfight for third heading into the season,” Gillen says. “There are going to be some hungry teams, like Georgia Tech was a hungry, surprise team last year.”
Virginia’s success against a formidable slate of opponents could hinge on the performance of its younger role players.
“Hopefully the five freshman can help us replace the loss of Donald, Keith, Stephane and Majestic,” Gillen says.
More importantly for the team’s development, the squad will need to rely on the leadership of its nucleus of experienced players to help bring the freshmen along. In that vain, the Cavalier team members chose their 2001-02 captains in a team vote that did not include the coaching staff. Gillen was pleased with the selections.
In addition to helping motivate the young players, the captains will also have to help Gillen and his staff foster a sense of community within the team. The squad’s practice shorts read “family” across the back, and underscore Gillen’s desire to create an atmosphere free from internal division. Creating that kind of team environment and avoiding the injury bug are Gillen’s chief concerns heading into the 2001-02 campaign.
“The biggest things I’m concerned about going into the season are chemistry and staying healthy,” Gillen says. “You have to be lucky with injuries. If we have those two things, I think we have a chance to be successful. We have four talented guys who are starters, but we need everybody to buy into the team concept and to sacrifice and not be worried about me, me, me.”