By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — He’s better as a sophomore than he was as a freshman, and he wasn’t bad then.
Far from it. On a UVa men’s basketball team that finished 10-18, Sylven Landesberg was one of the few players who gave fans hope for the program’s future.
The 6-6 swingman from Queens, N.Y., averaged 16.6 points, 6 rebounds and 2.8 assists and became the first Cavalier since Chris Williams in 1999 to be named ACC rookie of the year.
A season later, Landesberg’s numbers haven’t changed dramatically. Heading into Virginia’s ACC opener at N.C. State this weekend, he’s averaging 16.5 points, 5.4 rebounds and 2.8 assists.
Defensive lapses can still be a problem for No. 15, but his turnovers are down, he’s blocking more shots and his shooting has improved, especially from 3-point range. He’s consistently hitting mid-range jumpers, shots that weren’t part of his repertoire in 2008-09. And he’s doing it all against defenses designed to stop his signature slashes to the hoop.
“Just mentally I think he’s stepped his game up from last year,” sophomore guard Sammy Zeglinski said. “He knows defenses are scheming against him, he knows defenses are going to collapse against him. He’s got a bull’s eye on his chest.
“I think he’s shown a lot of poise when he gets in the lane at making the right decision. He’s great at getting fouled, but this year I think he’s shown people his vision and his ability to find the open guy when the defense collapses on him.”
One such play came last week, late in Virginia’s upset of then-No. 24 Alabama-Birmingham at John Paul Jones Arena. With the outcome still in question and the shot clock winding down, Landesberg drew two defenders on a drive and fed forward Mike Scott for a layup that pushed UVa’s lead to four with 2:35 to play.
“It’s a great feeling, especially when we needed a bucket at that point, and it was a big play,” said Landesberg, who doubts he would have made that pass as a freshman.
“Just the fact that I was able to make a play, come down and find Mike, and he was able to finish. It felt just as good as scoring myself.”
The coach for whom Landesberg expected to play throughout his college career, Dave Leitao, was replaced after the 2008-09 season. In came Tony Bennett, who’d spent the previous three seasons as head coach at Washington State, where his teams went 69-33 and twice advanced to the NCAA tournament.
Bennett’s directive to Landesberg: Make your teammates better by becoming a more complete player.
Outside the program, observers raised questions about Bennett’s offensive philosophy and how Landesberg would fit into a system that supposedly did not accommodate creativity — or fast breaks.
The concerns about Bennett’s offense appear to have been unfounded. In Leitao’s final season at UVa, his team averaged 70 points per game. After beating the University of Texas-Pan American on Tuesday night, Virginia is averaging 70.2 points.
Still, Landesberg admits he’s struggled at times under Bennett.
“It wasn’t really his system I was hesitant about,” Landesberg said. “It was basically the whole thing. He’s always saying, ‘Try to make your teammates better,’ and I didn’t really know what he meant by that when he was telling me it.
“I just continued playing my way. I guess I was a little hard-headed. I didn’t really understand what he meant, so I just continued playing the way I felt like was the right way. But as practice kept going on, as we kept playing games, he would talk me through it. Just being the coach he is, he’s just real easy to talk to. Whatever is on his mind, he says.
“Maybe at times he’ll push me or yell at me to get the message through to me. But him doing all those little things helped me better understand what he wanted to do, and I think it’s taken me a long way.”
Bennett said he’s seen Landesberg “getting his teammates involved more, just using more parts of his game. I think his ability to draw and create and pass has maybe been understated, and when he does that, it helps our team. And then when he needs to be aggressive, he will.
“I don’t think you’ll ever have to get on Sylven for passing up shots or not being aggressive enough offensively. He’s wired that way, and that’s OK. I just want him to keep becoming as cerebral and as sound as possible in terms of creating more himself, creating for others and developing his [defensive] slides. I think he’s improved on the ball with his slides. Again, I think that it helps us and helps him to be as complete and well-rounded at both ends of the floor.”
Among those following Landesberg’s progress closely is Craig Littlepage, Virginia’s athletics director and a man with an extensive background in hoops. Littlepage is a former head coach at Penn and Rutgers and a former assistant at Villanova, Yale and UVa.
“He’s becoming, I think, a much more complete player,” Littlepage said. “It’s not always about scoring, but being a threat. When he is a threat for longer periods in the game, he’s drawing the defense, and that’s where the extra pass comes in.”
To raise his game, Littlepage said, Landesberg also needed to get stronger physically after his freshman season. The added strength would allow Landesberg to finish more plays around the basket, to remain effective at the end of games and to hold up through a grinding campaign.
“The hope is that he’ll have the strength and physical maturity that allows him to finish the season as well as he started,” Littlepage said.
Landesberg made the McDonald’s All-America team as a Holy Cross High senior, so it’s not accurate to say he was unheralded as a UVa freshman. Still, opponents weren’t fully prepared for his unconventional game, at the heart of which is Landesberg’s uncanny ability to get to the basket.
Rest assured, scouting reports on Landesberg are more detailed this season.
“It’s definitely a lot harder than it was last year,” he said. “The fact that I have to shoot more mid-range shots is a little bit because I worked on them, but it’s also because I’m not able to get into the lane and get those open looks like I was last year. So I had to make little adjustments.”
His coach can empathize. Bennett had an illustrious career as a point guard at Wisconsin-Green Bay.
“I understand the challenges he faces as a marked man,” Bennett said. “And that’s why I keep challenging him and I’m delighted when I see that completeness. Because if certain people take away things, boy, you can make differences in other ways, and I just know how that will help him in the long run and help this team.
“At this position, that completeness [is crucial]. You’ve got to be able to do all things well, and that’s why I’ll keep harping on that and keep trying to get him to raise the play of his teammates. Because when he’s drawing a crowd and he’s finding [other UVa players], he’s making the game a lot easier for his teammates.”
With one non-conference game left — Jan. 18 against UNC Wilmington — Virginia is 8-4 outside the ACC. As always, though, however the ‘Hoos fare in league play will determine how their season is remembered.
The ride starts Saturday in Raleigh.
“I know what to expect from last year, and we all can’t wait,” Landesberg said of the ACC schedule.
“It’s definitely more intense. The scouting reports are a lot more in-depth, so each team knows each player a little bit more, and that makes the games a lot tougher, a lot more competitive. And also there’s some teams you won’t be seeing just once, you’ll be seeing them multiple times, and just having that in the back of your head, you want to get the best of them each time you play. It’s just a lot of competition.”