Laurynas Mikalauskas is excited about this season.
Basketball practice starts in less than a month and tip-off is a little more than 40 days away. Preparing for the 2006-07 season, however, started the day after the loss to Stanford in the NIT. Laurynas Mikalauskas said the players have been thinking about the upcoming season for that long and that they’ve been working toward a goal that every Hoo wants: the NCAA Tournament.
That’s not too surprising to hear. After all, athletes are competitive by nature. Plus, when you have a brand new building like the John Paul Jones Arena and a coach like Dave Leitao, increased expectations are a given.
“I’m excited. It’s a really nice building. There are going to be bigger expectations so we just have to work really, really hard. Last year, we had to prove to people we can play and this year, we have to prove we can be the best,” Mikalauskas said. “It’s a whole new level right now. … I’m sure we’re going to do as much as we can and work as hard as we can to get the NCAA and hopefully then …”
Mikalauskas paused before continuing: “I guess our goal is to make the NCAA and go as far as we can and just see what happens there. We’ve been talking about it since the Stanford game. We promised as a team that we were going to stay here, work here this summer, and work out to get ready for next year. We’ve got all the right tools to be good. We’ve just got to put them in the right places.”
Indeed, the Cavaliers have every reason to be optimistic. The majority of the roster – including backcourt starts Sean Singletary and J.R. Reynolds – returns from the NIT-qualifying squad that finished 15-15 on the season. By making postseason play and performing at a high level, the team exceeded expectations in Leitao’s first season.
Add newcomers like Will Harris , Ryan Pettinella, Solomon Tat , and Jamil Tucker to the mix and the Hoos are a talented group on paper with depth, something they didn’t have last season. That immediately leads to an increased level of play in offseason pick-up games and Mikalauskas expects it to improve practice as well because “we have 12, maybe 15 people that can play at the ACC level.”
Beyond increased depth and talent, there’s another key ingredient at work in the offseason mix. The team’s strength and conditioning coach, Shaun Brown, has had his first full offseason program with the team. He was hired just before the start of last season (Oct. 13) so the majority of his focus was on an in-season program for the players.
The spring and summer months have allowed him to add strength and weight to the players’ frames (for example, Tunji Soroye gained “close to 30 pounds” according to Mikalauskas), which should better prepare them for the rigors of a college basketball season. Brown previously worked as the head strength coach of the Toronto Raptors for two years before coming to Charlottesville.
The focus rotates between upper body and lower body work with conditioning as a primary focus no matter what the day’s task may be. Brown mixes things up to keep it fresh as well so “it doesn’t ever really get boring” for the players, Mikalauskas said.
“We have workouts four times a week I’d say. We work out in the mornings. We have 6:30 a.m. workouts and conditioning and lifting and we work out with the coaches some. We have a lot of workouts getting ready for the season,” Mikalauskas said. “Shaun Brown, he’s really good. He’s our strength coach and he knows a lot about basketball and conditioning so I think we should be in a lot better shape than we were last year.”
Of course, the offseason isn’t just about strength and conditioning. Mikalauskas, who is tipping the scales at around 255 these days, said the players have worked on basketball skills in individual workouts with the assistant coaches as well. The sessions, which are allowed and monitored under NCAA guidelines, allow the players to add pieces to their games.
In Mikalauskas’ case, he has worked on everything from jump shots to free throws to post moves.
“They’re really good workouts. We work on jump shots, techniques, post moves so it’s pretty good I think. We try to push ourselves pretty hard because with this new building, we just can’t disappoint people this year,” he said. ““We’ve worked on a couple of moves. Coach Seymour gave me workouts for the summer. I’ve tried to work on my jump shot, a 15-footer, shooting from the sides, and screen and pop to shoot. We’ve worked on all kinds of different drills and in pick-up games, we try all kinds of new moves. We’ll see what happens this year, but hopefully I can add a couple of moves to my offensive game.”
All of the effort leads up to the October opening of practice. That’s when the journey begins for college basketball teams as everyone seeks out the ultimate goal of making the NCAA Tournament. So expect the Hoos to be just as dedicated as they were last year with one important twist – the players are much more familiar with Coach Leitao and his expectations.
“We were dedicated last year, but this year is a lot different. It’s our second year with Coach Leitao. We know him a lot better and we know his system. Last year, there was a lot more teaching from the beginning because we had to learn his system and learn his game style. This year, we just have to add a couple of pieces. … We should be ready. We should be a lot better this year,” Mikalauskas said.
If the Cavaliers prove to be a “lot better” in 2006-07, chances are they’ll be part of March Madness – after all, the Hoos were 14-10 before fading down the stretch last year as the long season without much depth seemed to take its toll. Rest assured, the goal is to finish strong and make the NCAA Tournament this time around.
“My goal is to make the NCAAs. Last year, the NIT – it was fun to make the postseason, but my goal is to make the NCAAs because I was watching all the excitement there was with the brackets and the different regions like Syracuse and New Mexico,” Mikalauskas said. “It was just like a whole new season. That’s what I want to experience here in my career at UVa.”
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