Saturday, March 11, 2006

Season on the Brink

Virginia men's basketball came into the 2005-06 season with zero expectations, a unanimous pick to finish last. Virginia had a new coach with Dave Leitao and a new team in the ACC with Boston College. Virginia had lost Elton Brown, which certainly appeared like addition by subtraction but also had to recover from the graduation of Devin Smith and Jason Clark. As the season began, Virginia had to wonder how they could put a frontcourt on the floor. Problems got even worse when Gary Forbes transferred to UMass in the fall. Forbes and Singletary were the only bright spots to a terrible season last year, now Singletary was going to have to do it alone. The Cavaliers opened the year with a drubbing of Liberty University at home. Coach Leitao was vocal throughout, picking up a technical when Virginia was already up by over 20 points. The contrast between regimes was evident. What was also evident was the lack of T.J. Bannister and Donte Minter on the floor. Both players were out with injury, and soon Minter left the team for "personal reasons". The season had barely begun but the Cavaliers were in deep trouble. They had no depth, with transfers and injuries, the Cavaliers had 7 scholarship players available. With Minter gone, there was no depth in the front court and the options were sparse. Jason Cain had been a joke to most ACC teams, Soroye was tall but had very little ball handling or awareness skills. Laurynas Mikalauskas was a freshman, and the third option of a team that had no options.

Virginia picked up a 59-43 decision against Richmond on the road before an absolute annihilation by Arizona. The Cavaliers played a tough first half and impressed most before turnovers and frustration led to an absolute second half rout for a final score of 81-51. The Cavaliers bounced back though with an impressive victory over the Northwestern Wildcats in the ACC/Big Ten challenge, 72-57. A late run gave Virginia a decent 3-1 record thanks to 23 points by Sean Singletary. It also featured a big game by freshman Mamadi Diane. The jump shooter showed flashes of brilliance this season for the Cavaliers and when he plays well he can be the third option in the offense, his 18 points and 6 rebounds however proved to be the exception and not the norm. Virginia rolled into Atlanta with some momentum, and had a chance against the then 2-2 Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets. GT went out to a huge lead, maxing around 14-15 points. Virginia's ACC woes looked to continue, but the Cavaliers did make a charge. Instead of packing it in, Virginia went on a surprising run, cutting the defecit to four late in the second half before running out of steam and momentum. Virginia would lose their ACC opener 63-54. The bright spot in this game was Jason Cain. Thin as a rail and notorious for lack of concentration, the junior center had 15 points and 11 rebounds. It was amazing but it appeared that Cain was really starting to thrive under Leitao's tutelage. His concentration and focus were noticable, but despite the good news, it was still a loss for Virginia. Coach Leitao was not going to discuss moral victories.

The next game for the Cavaliers was the Fordham Rams. Singletary had a so-so performance against GT and sat this game out with an injured hip. Now Virginia's lack of depth was painfully obvious. Virginia could not handle the inside presence and Fordham gave the Cavaliers more than they could handle. With Sean out, the pressure was on junior J.R. Reynolds to shoulder the load and he could not. A missed three-pointer at the buzzer for Reynolds spelled the 62-60 loss for Virginia and a huge win for Fordham. Reynolds finished with just 8 points, while Cain finished with another amazing game of 16 points and 15 rebounds. It seemed obvious that Cain was shining under this system, and it appeared Reynolds was not. Could J.R. become the scorer and leader that Virginia needed? With the ACC schedule and a matchup against Gonzaga looming, the 3-3 Cavaliers needed to find answers, or face the season of futility that most had envisioned.


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