What if this were year one?
Yes, Virginia basketball fans, I’m talking to you. What if this were year one of the Dave Leitao era? It’s a serious question. It’s not an ‘excuse the coach’ justification exercise. It’s merely a query. One based on perspective and perception.
What if this were year one?
Would you be as frustrated with the results? Would close road losses feel any different? Would player progress be recognized not chastised? Would more schemes and in-season adjustments be more accepted?
Would the fact that Mike Scott has gone from just two double-doubles and four total double figure rebound games as a freshman to six double-doubles and seven total double figure rebound games just halfway through his sophomore year matter?
Would the fact that opponent shooting percentage is down two percent overall and down three percent on 3-pointers seem like progress? Last season at this point, the team had 5 losses (9 by season’s end) by at least 10 points while this season the team only has 3 but have you noticed the more competitive nature of this edition?
I could go on about game-to-game improvement, individual player development, and things of that sort. I won’t. Besides, I’m sure you could provide counter-arguments with some players and in-game anecdotes.
Plus, I know what you’re probably thinking if you’ve made it this far in the column: This isn’t year one, it’s year four.
Yes. And no.
When Dave Leitao took the Virginia men’s basketball coaching job, the program had tattered fabric and was worn around the edges. Sure, you love that old hat but it won’t bring much bidding on eBay. Just one NCAA Tournament appearance in 10 years, waning recruiting success, and growing fan apathy. As Leitao and others have pointed out, the Virginia basketball brand in recruits’ eyes had little to no significance. Sure, it is in the ACC, but so are other non-Duke, non-Carolina programs like Wake Forest, Maryland, and Georgia Tech for example. All of those programs had deep NCAA Tournament runs and recognizable NBA players in recent years. UVa? A one-and-done against Gonzaga and only one NBA player period.
These types of rebuilding jobs follow a familiar formula in college athletics. Coach takes job. Coach blows up program, weeds out players, and starts from scratch. Coach has mediocre or worse results in years one and two. Window of progress or great success opens and coach has a short time (maybe 2 to 3 seasons) to capitalize and build long-term success. Sometimes, it works. Sometimes, it doesn’t. Sometimes, it works and then something derails it all, like a recruit leaving school early or a more attractive job opens or what have you.
That’s where this Virginia journey is different and where perspective is needed. When Dave Leitao took over the UVa program, he evaluated the situation and took a calculated risk on Sean Singletary and J.R. Reynolds. He saw that he had two extremely talented guards – and perhaps one all-time great player and competitor on the roster – and a capable supporting cast.
Rather than completely scrap the situation, Leitao figured out a way to build the team around that duo’s talents, motivate Jason Cain, a previous afterthought, and get something out of young players like Tunji Soroye , Lars Mikalauskas, Mamadi Diane , and Adrian Joseph . Leitao pushed that team, picked to finish 12th in the ACC, to the NCAA bubble in the middle of the ACC season and eventually to the NIT. Overachievers that beat expectations. What if that was year three? You know, the normal arc for program rebuilding?
The next season, Leitao took essentially the same cast with some additional, though not highly productive, depth and did it again. The Hoos shared the top spot in the ACC regular season standings, made the NCAA Tournament, and won the first round game in the Big Dance, the program’s first since 1994-95. Read that again. What if that was year four?
Still, this is where the calculated risk came in. He probably had a hunch that he could create some momentum with the fan base and make a run at some positive program results with those two players. He also knew that one half of the dynamic duo would graduate a year ahead of the other along with Cain, the dirty work extraordinaire. He didn’t know whether the Singletary half would come back for a senior tour or not. Regardless, Leitao knew that year three would be the challenge and would determine if the program needed to go back to square one in year four. The calculated risk part centered on the former supporting cast – could Diane, Joseph, Mikalauskas, and Soroye provide quality elder statesmen minutes – and the recruiting classes collected for a down-and-out program.
Leitao has said in the past that the first recruiting class of Jamil Tucker , Will Harris , Solomon Tat , and Jerome Meyinsse was assembled late in the process. It’s also a class that was put together with a character-mending eye; each of those players has unique stories, great personalities, and academic ability. It’s something the Virginia basketball program desperately needed. From a talent standpoint, it was decent on paper; it has been inconsistent on hardwood. The second class of Mike Scott, Sammy Zeglinski, Jeff Jones , and Mustapha Farrakhan blended the quality character with growing talent. Jones and Scott were both highly touted while Zeglinski and Farrakhan were viewed as solid pick-ups for the program.
Leitao bet that he could get enough out of that collection of talent to make year three a successful season behind the competitive leadership of Singletary. He was almost right thanks to a 10-2 start and a win at Arizona. But injuries to Joseph, who played with a bum Achilles for much of the season, Mikalauskas, who sat out with shoulder issues before returning with a brace contraption, and Soroye, who was slowed with back and knee problems, depleted the veteran depth, particularly in the post. Calvin Baker, a transfer, Tucker, Harris, Tat, and Meyinsse didn’t progress quite as rapidly as needed or expected on the consistency front, particularly in terms of the increased production needed in lieu of the injuries issues. The season spiraled and a late surge (4 wins in the last 6 regular season games) wasn’t enough to get UVa anywhere other than the CBI. Keep in mind, the Hoos still finished with a winning record, a benchmark Leitao has reached in each of his first three years.
Calculated risk, no reward. And he’s paying for that risk now with Cavalier fans. It’s year four after all and people used to the typical arch of rebuilding are frustrated. Forget the two postseason appearances in year one and two that broke the classic mold.
That brings us back to the beginning. Or the new beginning at least. Year one in year four. When the first recruiting class didn’t rise as hoped, when the season slipped out of hand, and when the calculated risk didn’t work out, Leitao started what normally occurs early in a coach’s tenure. He shifted to rebuilding and reworking the program in the offseason. He promised a renewed focus on defense. He evaluated everything.
Virginia fans are now watching that process unfold. It’s why year one glasses are needed to gain the perspective needed. Would you be as frustrated with the results? Would close road losses feel any different? Would player progress be recognized not chastised? Would more schemes (more zone and fullcourt pressure) and in-season adjustments (more structured offensive sets) be more accepted?
What if this were year one?
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