2007-08 Men's Basketball Preview
Momentum. The University of Virginia men’s basketball team generated a lot of it during the 2006-07 season when the Cavaliers compiled an overall record of 21-11, were regular-season co-champions of the Atlantic Coast Conference with an 11-5 conference record and participated in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2001.
The challenge now is to maintain that momentum in 2007-08. The return of three starters, including All-America guard Sean Singletary, and eight other lettermen are certainly positives as is the fact that 2007 ACC Coach of the Year Dave Leitao is now in his third year as the Cavaliers’ head coach.
“One of the things that’s critical in building a program is to be able to present to everyone your opponents, your fan base and everybody who is involved in the operation an understanding of where you’re going,” Leitao said. “Last year brought us to a point where people understood better what we’re doing. Up until that point we were talking about how to build a program and it was more of the intangibles. Now I think, when you can do what we were able to do last season, it makes things more tangible.”
The Virginia head coach has talked about creating an identity for the program and the 2006-07 season moved the Cavaliers closer to that goal.
“Last year was another step in that direction,” Leitao says. “I don’t know that we’re exactly there in terms of having a true definition in everyone’s mind when the words Virginia and basketball are put together. We’re a step closer because I think all the things I’ve talked about from day one, like how we’ll defend, people can start to see on a consistent basis and not just for one game.”
Virginia will be missing two key components as it tries to build on last season’s success. Forward Jason Cain and guard J.R. Reynolds are gone after graduating from UVa last spring.
Reynolds earned second-team All-ACC honors after averaging 18.4 points, 4.0 rebounds, 3.7 assists and 32.2 minutes played a game in 2006-07. Cain averaged 6.8 points a game and led the team in rebounding for the second consecutive season with an average of 6.3 rebounds a game.
The loss of Cain and Reynolds changes the look of the Cavaliers when compared with last season.
“Every year your team changes to a degree, even if you have the same lineup,” Leitao said. “For us, because we have to adjust to the graduation of two players, and integrate the first-years and even some second-years who haven’t played as much, those changes will define us and make us different than we were last year. We hope to be more versatile in terms of our lineup, to be able to put more people and more different lineups on the floor, and create different looks. Hopefully, that process will create advantages to help the team.
“We’ll still be the same as far as our important issues, like protecting the basket and those kinds of things, but it’s our hope we can be faster and push the ball up a little bit more consistently. Obviously with Sean, he’ll be and will remain our focal point for what we’re doing, but we’re going to have to build around him with some inexperience and that’s going to lead us in a couple of different directions.”
A co-captain of the team each of the last two seasons, Singletary’s return is obviously a major factor for the Cavaliers as they prepare for the 2007-08 season. His ability, leadership, experience, and mental and physical toughness are important for a team that has 11 freshmen and sophomores on its roster. He put his name into consideration for the NBA draft in the spring of 2007, but did not sign with an agent and withdrew his name from consideration by the withdrawal deadline.
“You are talking about, in my opinion, the best player in our league and one of the best players in the country,” Leitao says. “He’s a building block unlike what many people have in their programs and it’s not only his ability on the court. He brings a certain level of toughness, understanding and hard work that most guys don’t have, and he will hopefully enable us to create some advantages. Having him, especially in the locker room, is going to be really good for our young guys.”
The 6-0 Singletary has played mostly at the point for Virginia the last three seasons, but can also play second guard. With more point guards on the roster this season, he may have the opportunity to play even more off the ball in 2007-08.
“That’s an option we’ll look at and consider,” Leitao said. “I think Calvin Baker and Sammy Zeglinski have the ability to play both on and off the ball. Even when you include Sean, I don’t think there’s one guy among our perimeter players who’s restricted to one position. I believe they all have the ability to put the ball in the basket and do different things. There are enough of them who can handle the ball to create opportunities for Sean and other players to be off the ball.”
Singletary earned several All-America honors last season, including third-team recognition from the National Association of Basketball Coaches. He also earned first-team All-ACC honors after averaging 19.0 points, 4.7 assists, 4.6 rebounds and 33.2 minutes played a game. He ranked second in the ACC in three-point field goals made (2.47 a game) and free throw percentage (.872, 190-218), third in scoring, fifth in assists and 10th in minutes played. He led the team in points, assists, three-point field goals made, free throw percentage, steals and minutes played.
Singletary has scored 1,426 points during his three years in the Virginia program and is tied for 18th on the school’s career scoring list. He ranks fifth in career three-point field goals made (164) and eighth in assists (385).
There are a number of players who could share the backcourt with Singletary. Among the returning players who may compete for playing time in the backcourt are junior Mamadi Diane, sophomores Solomon Tat and Calvin Baker, and freshmen Mustapha Farrakhan, Jeff Jones and Sammy Zeglinski.
Leitao likes versatile players and Virginia’s 2007-08 roster reflects that preference. Diane and Tat can play second guard or the wing position, while Baker, Farrakhan, Jones and Zeglinski can play either guard position. The players’ versatility combined with the addition of Baker and the three freshmen provide the Cavaliers with significantly more depth in the backcourt than last season.
“I need to find a balance between not having too many options last year in the backcourt and the additional options we may have this season,” Leitao says. “Last season we had the luxury of having two experienced players in J.R. and Sean, so I could ride them a little bit more. We may have more options this season, but the players aren’t as experienced.
“Solomon Tat is relatively inexperienced in terms of his participation from a major minutes standpoint and Calvin Baker didn’t play in games last season. Then we have the young guys we recruited on the perimeter Sammy, Jeff and Mustapha who will have opportunities to be alongside Sean and see what kind of advantages that creates for us.
“We experimented some the last two years in playing a little bigger with Mamadi in the backcourt and Adrian Joseph in the lineup. That’s something we’ll consider and look at for this season. I think the good part is we have enough options to look at that something solid will be created from them.”
The Cavaliers will look for improved consistency from Diane in 2007-08 and are hopeful he will provide additional scoring to help make up for the loss of Reynolds. He played mostly at the wing position last season, but could see playing time at second guard in 2007-08.
The 6-5 Diane started every game last season and finished third on the team in scoring with an average of 9.6 points a game. He scored in double figures 17 times, including a career-high 26 points in a home victory over Maryland. He was named the ACC Player of the Week after scoring 25 points and totaling four rebounds, two assists and two steals in 28 minutes in the season-opening win over Arizona.
Diane improved his field goal shooting percentage from his freshman season by more than 10 percentage points last season. He made 44.2 percent (111-251) of his shots from the field last season compared to 33.7 percent (65-193) as a freshman in 2005-06. Diane also improved his three-point shooting percentage by more than 10 percentage points. He made 35.0 percent (42-120) of his three-point attempts last season compared to 24.2 percent (16-66) as a freshman in 2005-06.
Tat (6-5) is a strong, athletic, physical player and is a fine on the ball defender. He missed 10 of the first 11 games last season because of an injury before playing as a reserve in 19 of the last 21 games. He averaged 2.0 points, 1.6 rebounds and 8.3 minutes played a game in the 20 games he played in last season. Virginia’s coaches are anticipating improved production from Tat in 2007-08.
Baker led William and Mary in scoring (11.6 ppg.), assists (3.6 apg.) and minutes played (31.4 mpg.) as a freshman in 2005-06 and was named to the Colonial Athletic Association All-Rookie Team before transferring to Virginia. A Newport News, Va., native, the 6-2 guard also averaged 2.7 rebounds and 1.5 steals a game, and started all but one game for the Tribe in 2005-06.
Farrakhan (6-4) is from Harvey, Ill., and averaged 20.3 points, 3.8 rebounds and 2.7 assists a game as a senior at Thornton Township High School. He was a 2007 Illinois Basketball Coaches Association first-team All-State selection, a Class AA All-State selection by MidStateHoops.com and a second-team All-State selection by The Associated Press.
Jones is from Chester, Pa., and averaged 22.7 points, six rebounds and three assists a game as a senior last season at Monsignor Bonner High School in Drexel Hill, Pa. The 6-4 guard scored 1,923 career points to become the leading scorer in the history of the Philadelphia Catholic League and was the 2007 Gatorade Pennsylvania Player of the Year.
Zeglinski (6-0) is from Philadelphia, Pa., and is primarily a point guard who will have the opportunity to learn behind Singletary during the 2007-08 season. He and Singletary were high school teammates on the 2003-04 William Penn Charter School team. Zeglinski was a four-year starter in high school and averaged 18.9 points a game as a senior when he earned first-team Class AA All-State honors.
Senior forward Adrian Joseph is expected to see action at the wing or three position where Diane played a lot last season. Diane could also play the wing position again in 2007-08. Sophomore forward Andy Burns provides additional depth at a position where the Cavaliers have many options.
“Again, the versatility of our players provides us with options,” Leitao said. “Adrian has played the wing position throughout his career. Mamadi has done it, Solomon has played alongside Sean and J.R. so he’s capable of doing it, Will Harris can play that position and so can Jamil Tucker. Jeff Jones is big enough to play the wing and hopefully, in time, Mike Scott will be able to play that position. We have to look at it and make it work, but on paper it gives us at least the opportunity to look at ourselves in a lot of different ways. That’s a position where we have at least as many options as any other position on the team.”
The 6-7 Joseph has played significant minutes for the Cavaliers the last three years. After starting the first three games last season, he missed a game because of an injury and then played off the bench the last 28 games of the season. Joseph averaged 7.2 points, 3.5 rebounds and 22.1 minutes played a game in 2006-07. A fine long-range shooter, he is another player who could contribute more offensively this coming season. Joseph started 19 games in 2004-05 and averaged 9.4 points and 4.5 rebounds a game for the season. He has made 102 three-point field goals during his three years in the Virginia program.
“Every player wants to expand and do a little bit more than he did the previous year,” Leitao said. “Our expectations for players like Adrian Joseph and Mamadi Diane are that they will be more diverse in their approach to the game and do more things for us to help us win. Most importantly, with the loss of Jason and J.R., is for them to be much more of an up front presence every day. They need to be a presence in the locker room, in practice and in directing our team so the burden doesn’t fall on any one guy. The older guys can share from their experiences what it’s like, what to do and what you have to go through in order to attain any level of success.”
Harris, a sophomore forward/guard, and Tucker, a sophomore forward, are versatile enough to possibly see action at the wing or inside where they played some last season.
Harris played in all 32 of the team’s games last season, starting three. A physical player at 6-6, he averaged 3.6 points, 3.2 rebounds and 13.9 minutes played a game. Harris scored a season-high 16 points and led the team with a season-high eight rebounds in 25 minutes in a win over Morgan State. He tied for the team scoring lead with 14 points and had six rebounds in 17 minutes in a home victory over NC State.
Tucker (6-8) played in 29 games off the bench last season and shot 48.8 percent (21-43) from three-point range. He averaged 3.4 points, 2.1 rebounds and 10.0 minutes played a game. Tucker scored a season-high 12 points in home victories over Gonzaga and Maryland.
The 6-8 Burns joined the team as a walk-on last season and played in 13 games as a reserve. He scored seven points and had six rebounds.
Several of Virginia’s inside players were hampered by injuries in 2006-07. Senior center Tunji Soroye and senior forward/center Ryan Pettinella both missed several games because of injury, and junior forward Laurynas Mikalauskas was slowed by injuries during the preseason.
Soroye missed the first four games of last season, but played in the final 28 games, starting 11. A defensive presence inside at 6-11, he blocked 26 shots while averaging 2.1 points, 3.2 rebounds and 14.0 minutes played a game. He scored nine points, a season high, and had five rebounds in a victory over Albany in the 2007 NCAA Tournament. Soroye established a career high with 11 rebounds in a victory at Maryland last season. He attempted just 35 field goals (18-35, .514) in 2006-07 and the Virginia coaching staff is hoping he can contribute more offensively during the upcoming season.
Pettinella (6-9) is a hard-working player who started seven of the first 10 games last season. He suffered a knee injury in the victory over Puerto Rico-Mayaguez at the Puerto Rico Shootout and missed nine games before returning to play off the bench in the final 13 games of the season. Pettinella averaged 2.8 points, 2.5 rebounds and 10.0 minutes played a game while shooting 70.0 percent (28-40) from the field.
Pettinella played two seasons at Pennsylvania before transferring to UVa.
Mikalauskas played in 30 games last season, starting 12. He averaged 3.7 points, 2.0 rebounds and 12.3 minutes played a game. As a freshman in 2005-06, the 6-8 Mikalauskas averaged 6.2 points, 4.5 rebounds and 23.6 minutes played a game. He also started 12 games that season. He has made 56.3 percent (120-213) of his shots from the field the last two seasons, including 55.4 percent (41-74) last season.
“These guys have been through enough games, both good and bad, and they’ve had their moments,” Leitao says. “They’ve had their day in the sun and had setbacks as well, on the court and physically. They are experienced enough where I’m comfortable with where they are and what they bring to the team. Obviously, continuing to improve is something we’ll push for them to do.”
Harris and Tucker are also options inside along with sophomore forward/center Jerome Meyinsse and freshman forward Mike Scott who should compete for playing time up front.
Meyinsse (6-8) played in 15 games as a freshman last season and averaged 6.7 minutes of playing time a game. He scored 17 points and had 20 rebounds. He is a good athlete who is expected to make more of a contribution this season.
The 6-8 Scott could make an immediate contribution for the Cavaliers. He averaged 18.5 points, eight rebounds and five assists a game last season for Hargrave Military Academy. Scott, who is from Chesapeake, Va., and is a graduate of Deep Creek High School, scored 25 points for the U.S. All-Stars in the 2007 Capital Classic.
Will Sherrill, a 6-9 freshman forward who joined the team as a walk-on, provides depth.
The team’s returning inside players haven’t put up big numbers offensively, but Leitao indicates they’ve contributed in other ways.
“Our experienced inside players are not as much the natural scorers that perhaps other teams have, so we’ve tried to work around it and they’ve done a great job at being opportunistic in scoring,” Leitao said. “Most importantly, they provide us with other things that help teams be good. We’ve fortunately gotten enough scoring from other positions so our inside scoring hasn’t really been as much of an issue as some people make it out to be.
“As I mentioned with Mamadi and Adrian getting better, it’s my hope the guys down low, through a lot of hard work since last season ended, will be a little bit better, be more comfortable and provide more options. I don’t know that we’re looking for any one of them to be a 20-point scorer on our team because I don’t think that’s going to happen. At the same time, they are all very valuable to our team in what they bring to the table.
“Jason Cain being gone not only takes a little bit of the scoring away that we had, but most importantly his activity, his rebounding, his presence and his defensive intelligence will be missed. I’m more concerned about making up for those things than I am getting more touches down low because I think we’ll get enough of those.”
As he looks at his team’s 2007-08 roster, Leitao feels its getting closer to what he envisioned when he arrived in Charlottesville in the spring of 2005.
“We’re getting closer to what I envisioned,” he says. “Tunji is probably the one guy who doesn’t move positions very much and Ryan didn’t last year, but Laurynas has played two positions and Jerome can play two positions. Jamil and Will, who played behind Jason, can play a couple of different positions and do different things, and I think Mike Scott will be able to do that too. I talked about the versatility of the guards earlier.
“We might have only one or two guys who are defined by just one spot on the floor. That versatility is what we’re looking for and now we have to make it work as best we can.”
As you would expect, the Virginia head coach believes the freshmen players and Calvin Baker bring a lot to the team.
“Our new players improve our depth and flexibility,” Leitao said. “They are all athletic enough with a combination of speed, quickness and athleticism, and they are also multi-dimensional with the ability to do different things. We needed to continue to get better in certain areas, one of them being skill, and all of them are threats offensively.
“Hopefully in time, once they get some experience, they’ll be respected offensively and have to be guarded, which opens up things for everybody else. We made a lot of three pointers last year and these players can shoot the three. It’s my hope we can continue to go in that direction, not become a team that throws up three-point attempts all the time, but be a team that can use it as a serious weapon.”
Leitao believes a team’s success starts with defense and rebounding, and his emphasis in those areas has paid off. In conference games during the 2006-07 regular season, Virginia finished first in field goal percentage defense (.408), third in three-point field goal percentage defense (.339), fourth in scoring defense (70.8) and fourth in rebounding margin (+1.9). In all games, the Cavaliers ranked second in the conference in field goal percentage defense (.408) and fourth in rebounding margin (+4.5).
“Defense is a concern of mine every year because our players need to accept defense as their mantra,” Leitao said. “This group will be no different, particularly because we’re adding new people.
“With last year’s team, for example, I was a lot less patient with the young guys in terms of their playing time largely because of their feel and lack of experience on the defensive end. Now I’ve got another group behind them that is going to learn how to defend individually and collectively. They need to do that before they can gain their teammates’ and their coaches’ trust, and be on the floor for the kind of minutes that make teams better. Defense is always a concern and will be our number one concern going into preseason practice.”
Leitao would like to extend the Cavaliers’ defense, but is uncertain at this time how that will be done.
“My hope is to be able to extend our defense, but I don’t know if we’re quite ready to get into 40 minutes of full court pressure,” he says. “Teams didn’t get challenged by us the last two seasons until they basically got within 20 or 25 feet of the basket and we’ve got to be able to extend that out some. In my mind, I hope it’s something we can do more of this season. Whether it’s half court, three-quarter court, full court, part-time, we’ll find that out once we get into the gym. We need to learn who’s consistently going to be out there so we can take advantage of our depth.”
Like defense, Leitao will continue to emphasize the importance of rebounding to the Cavaliers.
“With the graduation of Jason and J.R. we lost our two best defenders, and with Jason we lost our best rebounder, particularly on the offensive end,” Leitao said. “Like defense, rebounding is another area you have to emphasize very early. It’s something you have to demand and the players have to accept as a way of life. I think we have the makings of a good rebounding team, particularly with some of the experience we’ve got coming back, but the proof obviously will be on the practice court day in and day out.”
Despite his emphasis on defense, the Virginia coach realized his team had to improve offensively in 2006-07. The Cavaliers were near or at the bottom of the league in a number of offensive categories after the 2005-06 season. Led by Singletary and Reynolds, Virginia showed significant improvement in 2006-07. In all games during the 2006-07 season, Virginia finished first in the ACC in three-point field goals made (8.03 pg.), second in free throw percentage (.742) and fourth in scoring offense (77.0). The team established a school record with 257 three-point field goals made.
“My hope is we become a little better offensively,” Leitao said. “We changed the offense last year so the guys who are back should be more comfortable in year two of this offense. They should understand where and how they are best able to help when they’re on the floor offensively.
“Just bringing more people who are skilled offensively to the table should add more potential. We’re all hoping that’s the case. I think we’ll do more scoring the better we play on the defensive end and are able to get out in transition and get easier baskets.”
The Cavaliers have shot free throws well the last two seasons and the team will work to ensure that continues.
“Usually what you emphasize you become better at and we spend a lot of time working on our free throw shooting,” Leitao said. “As you would expect, a lot of it has to do with the players’ ability to be skilled enough and confident enough to make those shots. J.R. was great at it and we still have Sean so he’ll lead the way. We have enough skill guys that it’s our hope this area will continue to be a strength, but you still have to get up there and be very confident. We’ll spend a lot of time on free throw shooting again this season.”
The 2006-07 season was Virginia’s first in the John Paul Jones Arena where the Cavaliers have a practice facility, locker room, weight room and training room. The team took quite well to its new surroundings, compiling a home record of 16-1 last season (8-0 against ACC opponents). The 16 home wins are the most in the history of the UVa men’s basketball program.
With a schedule featuring 16 regular-season games against ACC opponents in 2007-08, Dave Leitao knows the Cavaliers will be challenged as they work to maintain the momentum established last season.