Can Dave Leitao’s team build on last year’s 15-15 finish?
Optimism. Excitement. Unbridled enthusiasm. That’s what a sparkling new facility, a bright coach, a deep and talented roster, and returning experience will do for basketball fans. Yes, it’s a good time to be a Wahoo – even if it’s just because the new John Paul Jones Arena holds such tremendous promise.
Certainly, you can count coach Dave Leitao among those who understand the significance and anticipation surrounding the Cavaliers as they embark on the upcoming season. He quickly became engrossed and entrenched in UVa culture during his first year on the job as The Last Ball in U-Hall quickly brought the long history of Virginia basketball into focus. Coach Leitao has a firm grasp on the new journey as it starts with the JPJA serving as the architectural embodiment of a new beginning.
“It’s an extremely exciting time for everybody, but particularly for our program and myself … for how we move forward with the history of Virginia basketball,” Leitao said. “And not just how we do this year as it pertains to wins and losses, but [it’s] the significance of being in this building at this time plus the history and that perspective of our program.”
“I think everybody is as excited as I am to get this thing started on the right foot and going in the right direction – not just through the 12th of November or just this season or just this ACC season, but for years beyond [because of] the potential of what we can make this program become with this building in mind.”
The 15,000-seat basketball palace is really just the housing for current edition of Virginia basketball. The program itself features Leitao in his second year at the helm with a roster that returns almost fully intact after a 15-15 campaign and an NIT appearance last season. At the forefront is the returning backcourt battery of Sean Singletary and J.R. Reynolds, two of the most versatile and talented players in the ACC and beyond.
Singletary posted averages of 17.7 points, 4.4 rebounds, 4.2 assists, and 1.9 steals while Reynolds averaged 17.4 points, 4.0 rebounds, and 3.1 assists. Both are consistent 3-point and free-throw shooters as well. The best part about all that? The duo did it with limited post scoring presence and little depth on the roster in 2005-06.
Now, the cavalry has arrived. In addition to returning players Jason Cain, Mamadi Diane , Adrian Joseph , Laurynas Mikalauskas , and Tunji Soroye , the Hoos also have a host of newcomers on the roster. Freshmen Will Harris , Solomon Tat , Jamil Tucker , and Jerome Meyinsse join junior transfer Ryan Pettinella to form a quintet of depth-enhancing options.
Any number of those players could push for major playing time if certain situations unfold. But that’s not the most important factor on the horizon as practice starts at the end of the week. No, the Hoos suddenly look like an up-and-comer on the college basketball scene – and the first steps in that process begin with a more competitive atmosphere in practice thanks to improved depth. Leitao said during his Media Day press conference that the growth of the program is a step-by-step process of improving and that the increased pool of players will help get things rolling.
“I don’t know that any coach wants to play [with] seven or eight guys. You may have a seven- or eight-man rotation, but if that’s all you’re really dealing with on a day-to-day basis then you really can’t [do as much as you want to],” he said. “It doesn’t matter what style you play, how you want to coach, how conservative you are or how aggressive you are, you just don’t have the numbers or the options that every team needs to have.”
“As I’ve mentioned many times, it happened more on a day-to-day basis in practice with just being short-handed and ultimately asking guys to do more than you want them to do every single day. That long-term, wear-down effect physically and especially emotionally took its toll on us,” added Leitao, whose team slowly faded down the stretch despite noticeable desire on the floor. “We’re hoping that now we can alleviate that and get in a better place. And I joke with them, never once did I have an issue about playing time. Nobody said ‘Coach, you’re not playing me enough.’ Now that we have more options, just like every coach in America goes through, we’ll have to decide who’s going to play and who’s not going to play and that’s not going to keep everybody happy every minute.”
While there will be the need to divide up playing time, it won’t come at the point guard position. Singletary will man that slot for the majority of the minutes, while Reynolds is expected to move over when the starter needs breaks. The reason for this less-than-ideal situation (foul trouble, injuries, or other unforeseen circumstances could cause major point guard issues for this squad) is the departure of T.J. Bannister, who transferred to Liberty. Calvin Baker, the other option at that slot, is an incoming transfer from William & Mary, but he will have to sit out this season per NCAA rules.
Leitao, while a big believer in player versatility, knows that the lack of a back-up point could be a problem. However, he is confident that Reynolds can handle that role in addition to being the starting 2 guard. There is the possibility that Tat could play emergency minutes at the 1 as well while Harris and Diane are options in the backcourt as well at small forward.
“It’s a concern for us. I think in terms of having a back-up point guard, I have a level of confidence that J.R. will be able to fill that role but J.R. has his own role as our off guard so playing that dual role concerns me. More than anything for both Sean and J.R., I’m asking them and this team and this program are asking them to do a lot in so many areas,” Leitao said. “To have to fill that area with one of the two of them constantly is something we have to concern ourselves with but with every burden comes opportunity. So for the other guys – Solomon, Will, or whoever else plays in that role, and Mo will play some in the backcourt [too] – [it] will allow us to look at guys in different ways and hopefully they’ll be able to step up.”
That’s the other thing that Leitao fully understands about this point in UVa basketball history. Yes, the team has a lot of talented players on the roster. Yes, the current crop of talent has a blend of experience and potential. Yes, there’s a brand new building with an enticing schedule. What there isn’t is proof. The team finished .500 overall and below .500 in the ACC last season. The road performances left a lot to be desired and the team seemed to mentally and physically wear down during the February stretch run.
None of that is lost on the man in charge. He said that the team’s strength and conditioning coach, Shaun Brown, started the offseason program in the spring and the players have been working hard in that area. Players like Soroye have bulked up their frame and the roster has increased its overall strength.
The rest of the process is all about growth, both mentally and physically.
“It’s a work in progress. I think what they went through last year, preseason, during the season, and postseason, it helped them build that mental toughness they need to have. What Shaun Brown did physically carried over into the mental aspect of it,” Leitao said. “There’s still a lot of work to be done. We’re still not where we need to be in having 1 to 12 guys in exactly the mental place they need to be, but we’re a whole lot better off than we were last year.”
“We’re getting there. It will be important as we begin practice on Friday to see some of the effects of that and to challenge them in ways, especially on the court, that will give them decisions to make as to how mentally tough they will be to get through those situations.”
J.R. Reynolds and the Hoos know that hard work will be required again this year.
To the players’ credit, they seem to have bought into the process. Mikalauskas said last month in a Sabre article that the team had started working hard shortly after losing to Stanford in the NIT. Everyone knows that the expectations – fairly or not – are at a much higher level than one year ago at this time. Of course, it’s not surprise that players dream of the NCAA Tournament each and every year; the key is putting in the work to improve every day.
The Cavaliers’ players definitely speak as if they get it. They speak of hard work, staying dedicated, group focus, and chemistry. It’s a good thing that they get it too. After all, it’s just like Leitao said on Tuesday – Virginia is not the only team in the ACC or elsewhere that is expected to be better. In other words, continuing to climb toward the top of the conference, and maybe beyond, will not be easy.
“A lot of that answer is with our opponents. I like to think that we’ll be better, but that’s my view. I haven’t gotten a peek into anybody else’s gym and when you look at other teams in this league, Maryland is going to be better, Clemson is going to be better – there are enough teams that can stake the same claim that we can that we’re going to be better than we were last year,” Leitao said.
“With goals and expectations, especially this early, there are only a couple of teams in the country that when they start practice this weekend are going to say, ‘We’re trying to win a National Championship.’ There are very few teams that are will say, ‘We’re going to win a league championship or we’re trying to make the NCAA’ or whatever,” he added. “Those [goals for us] will be established once we get a better feel for our young guys, what they’ll be able to contribute, how we’re going to work on our chemistry, and ultimately figuring out what this season is going to be about. With everybody back, there’s room for optimism that we can be better and we’re hoping to be.”
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