Team preview: Virginia

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(Information in this team report is as of October 1.)


Third-year coach Dave Leitao says the answer to everyone's questions about his Virginia basketball program is ''commitment.''

The lanky Leitao has refashioned Virginia's proud program faster than anyone, maybe even Leitao himself, thought.

''I think the guys bought into what we were doing in terms of how we wanted to run our program and organize our team in playing defense,'' said the 2006-07 ACC Coach of the Year. ''I think the combination of that commitment [and outstanding guard play] helped us out a little bit.''

Virginia Cavaliers

Leitao is soft selling what his essentially undermanned band of players achieved last year, winning 21 games, placing second in the unforgiving ACC and ranking among the top defensive teams in the league, allowing just .408 shooting from the field.

All this achieved with an undersized, unheralded squad that had been picked eighth in the league's preseason poll. The Cavaliers were 15-15 the year before, had played in their fifth NIT in the last six years, and hadn't been in the NCAA Tournament since 2001.

But all that changed last year, Leitao turning the fortunes of the team over to his dynamic backcourt of senior J.R. Reynolds and then-junior Sean Singletary. The duo scored in double fig-ures in each of Virginia's final 22 games, and combined to score 30 or more points in 26-of-32 contests, including the last 13.

How important were they? One of the two led the Cavs in scoring in 30-of-32 games and they were also the team's second- and third-leading rebounders.

Singletary (19.0 ppg, 4.6 rpg, 4.7 apg), a singular talent at point guard, was first-team All-ACC for the second straight season, and also was a third team NABC All-American. He led the team in scoring and assists, three-point field goals made (2.47 per game), free-throw percentage (.872), steals (1.2) and minutes played (33.2).

''He's very talented, his speed is unquestioned and he has a skill package that's very good,'' Leitao said. ''But more than anything I think his will and his desire to be the best and put himself on center stage is unmatched. You can't measure him in terms of size unless you talk about the size of his heart.''

The 6-0 senior's desire to excel, though, drove him to test the NBA draft waters in the spring before he ultimately decided to stick around. Suffice to say, the outlook for the Cavaliers would be much bleaker without him and all-conference running mate Reynolds. As is, Leitao just has to replace the gutsy Reynolds and forward Jason Cain, who brought a lot of experience, a lot of fight around the basket and 6.8 points and a team-leading 6.3 rebounds per game.


''In [Cain and Reynolds] you had our best front-line defender and our best perimeter defender, so on a team that was based a lot on defense, you're taking the two best defenders out,'' Leitao said. ''I'm as concerned about that as I am about replacing the points they gave us. Are individuals ready to step on the defensive end of the floor and make that kind of commitment, and is the team ready to get better defensively?''

There's that word again -- commitment.

But Singletary is committed to his senior season and he's the kind of player that makes others around him better. If that trait includes more defense this year, the Cavs can continue to prove the experts wrong. Meantime, Leitao is importing more of his kind of players -- athletic and versatile, and able to defend, rebound and run.

He already has a couple of them at small forward in 6-5 junior Mamadi Diane and 6-7 senior Adrian Joseph. Diane came into his own last season, starting all 32 games and increasing his scoring average to 9.6 points per game, and shooting 44 percent from the field and 35 percent behind the arc.

Joseph (7.2 ppg, 3.5 rpg) was the first Cavalier off the bench and provided long-range firepower. His 42 three-pointers tied Diane for the third most on the team behind Singletary and Rey-nolds. Leitao loves the versatility of the veteran forward duo. Diane may see more action at guard this year if his scoring and perimeter defense continue to escalate. Joseph goes the other way, able to play power forward and give the Cavs a smaller, quicker lineup.

Leitao also has considerably more depth on the perimeter. Joining holdover Solomon Tat are transfer sophomore Calvin Baker and three promising freshmen. The 6-5 Tat missed 12 games with groin and leg injuries but he proved a valuable reserve when he was healthy, chipping in 2.0 points, 1.6 rebounds and showing the makings of a solid defender.

He and Baker, a transfer eligible from William & Mary, will probably see a lot of action early based on their experience.

Going up against Reynolds and Singletary every day will get play-ers ready. The 6-2 Baker was on the Colonial Athletic Association All-Freshman team after averaging 11.6 points and 3.6 assists in 2005-06.

Jeff Jones, from Chester, Pa., headlines the incoming guards. The 6-4 wing averaged 22.7 points, 6.0 rebounds and 3.0 assists at Monsignor Bonner High School and was rated the No. 17 shooting guard in the country by Rivals.com.

He has the potential as a shooter and a slasher to help fill Reynolds' huge offensive shoes.

Mustapha Farrakhan, a 6-4 shooter from Harvey, Ill., near Chicago, was rated the No. 28 shooting guard on that same list. He averaged 18.9 points, 3.8 rebounds and 2.7 assists at Thorn-ton Township High School, and he can also play point, though his long-term prospects are on the wing.

Sammy Zeglinski, a 6-0 point guard from Philadelphia, and the same school -- the William Penn Charter School -- that produced Singletary, also joins the team as a true back-up to Singletary, a luxury Leitao didn't have last season.

Zeglinski, who has that Philly toughness in his game, averaged 18.9 points as a senior. He is a true point to take over once Singletary is gone.

''All three have different skills and they'll bring something new and different to the table for us,'' said Leitao, who looks forward to having greater depth across the perimeter. ''We have to reserve getting too excited until we can find out if they defend with any consistency.''

Zeglinski's presence may even allow Singletary to bump over to shooting guard and do what he does best, create shots for himself. A key in the backcourt could be the emergence of Jones, who would give the Cavaliers a little more size and take some of the scoring pressure off Singletary by drawing defenders like Reynolds did.

The Cavaliers will also miss Cain's versatile game. In addition to that defense, he was a gifted passer from the post. Vertically undersized Will Harris (3.6 ppg, 3.2 rpg), a sophomore swingman, will vie for more minutes there against 6-8 sophomore Jamil Tucker (3.4 ppg, 2.1 rpg).

Harris is power-packed at 6-6, 230 pounds, and Virginia coaches love his energy. He can play anywhere from big guard to power forward, and he's great at using his body around the bas-ket.

Tucker is a big man that can bounce outside and hit the three-pointer (15-of-27, .488), but Leitao would like to see more of him with his back to the basket. The coach would also like more consistency on the boards and on defense, but pick a Cavalier and Leitao will add that codicil.

Another option, 6-8 sophomore Jerome Meyinsee (1.1 ppg, 1.3 rpg), played sparingly in 15 games and appears to still be growing into that body, even at 230 pounds. Leitao would like to get him on the floor more this year to see what he can do.

The most intriguing power forward possibility, though, is 6-8 freshman Mike Scott of Chesapeake, Va. Scott, who could be Leitao's first legitimate low post presence in Charlottesville, averaged 18.5 points, 8.0 rebounds and 5.0 assists at powerhouse Hargrave (Va.) Military Academy last year.

''In my opinion, Mike Scott has a chance to be a better version of Jason [Cain] in that he can put the ball on the floor, he can shoot it from the perimeter, he can post up and he's extremely athletic,'' Leitao said.

Scott averaged 21 points, 12 rebounds and four blocks at Deep Creek High School in 2005-06, competing in one of the state's toughest regions for basketball.

The potential of Scott is big news because 6-8, 255-pound junior Laurynas Mikalauskas was Virginia's top scoring threat in the post last year with all of 3.7 points per game. The big Lithuanian shot 55 percent from the field and also averaged 2.0 rebounds. He started 12 consecutive games at mid-season and he tries to make up what he lacks in athleticism with hustle.

Tunji Soroye (2.1 ppg, 3.2 rpg, 0.9 bpg) started 11 games and averaged the most minutes on the floor of the centers, a modest 14.0. The 6-11, 245-pound senior is a quick and skilled de-fender and any offense from him is a bonus.

Ryan Pettinella (2.8 ppg, 2.5 rpg), a 6-9, 238-pound senior, joined the mix after transferring from Penn.
He started seven of the first 10 games but was then knocked out of action by a knee injury, missing nine games at mid-season.

It was a true center-by-committee, and the lack of any single player to win the position and put up consistent numbers was part of the charm of the over-achieving Cavaliers. Though that dynamic likely played a part in Leitao winning league coach-of-the-year honors, he'd just as soon see someone rise up and nail down the position.

''Between Mikalauskas and Pettinella and Soroye, we have guys that are older, that are big and strong and that can protect the paint,'' Leitao said. ''I don't think much will change except it's my hope that we get better versions of them all this year with another year of experience.''

Singletary and Reynolds replaced some of that low-post scoring void last season just with their ability to attack the basket and get to the free-throw line. With younger players filling bigger roles, Leitao's not sure his team will have that ability, at least not early this season. More players will have to chip in offensively, including the scoring-challenged post players.


The Cavaliers will be a little bigger. The stylish Leitao prefers to say their ''length will be better.'' Leitao also likes the improved depth on the perimeter. Both of those factors figure into de-fense, the coach's primary concern.
The returning players know the type of commitment to defense, to conditioning that Leitao requires, and they saw tangible evidence that Leitao knows what he's doing in their transforma-tion into a serious ACC contender last season.

Now for the bad news: Reynolds averaged 18.4 points per game, many of them coming at the most opportune times on key possessions or at the end of a shot clock. His uncanny ability to score inside and to get to the free throw line was a big part of Virginia's secret in getting away with such little offensive production from the low-scoring post players.

Even the scrappy Cain melded his outside-inside game perfectly with Singletary and Reynolds, and like Leitao said, he has lost his two best defenders. The ''multidimensional'' skills they brought to the table will be hard to replace, particularly by freshmen.

Moreover, Singletary needs to step up his effort on the defensive end of the court and lead by example for those newcomers. At the other end, Singletary also has had a tendency to play a little out of control, and he will have to be an even steadier hand this year with so many youngsters working in. Of course the fact that there are several talented youngsters gives Leitao unprecedented depth to launch that defense in waves, if they're all ready to make that commitment.

Still, it's hard to imagine this year's Cavs duplicating last year's surprising success. The ACC could be stronger, and until Jones, Scott and the other freshmen prove their mettle, the Cava-liers are not.

That's not to say Leitao won't find some way to make this group overachieve. He has done it before.

For the most comprehensive previews available on all 328 Division I teams, order the "Bible" of college basketball, the 2007-08 Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook, at www.blueribbonyearbook.com or call 1-866-805-BALL (2255).