March 8, 2009
Virginia athletic director Craig Littlepage summarized the Cavaliers' basketball team succinctly and accurately.
"We've kind of figured things out a little bit," he said early Saturday evening after Virginia monkey-wrenched Maryland's NCAA tournament hopes with a 68-63 victory in the regular-season finale for both.
Littlepage could have gushed about senior Mamadi Diane's Hollywood home farewell — 23 points and game-winning shot. He could have raved about the Cavaliers' comeback from 13 down and coach Dave Leitao's defensive strategy.
And each of those reactions would have been appropriate and understandable. But Littlepage, a former coach himself, understands the macro picture, and Saturday's kumbaya karma notwithstanding, this season has been undeniably troubling and intensifies pressure on Leitao as he prepares for his fifth year on the job.
Virginia enters this week's ACC tournament seeded 11th among 12 teams. Last year the Cavaliers were the 10th seed.
No school has won fewer conference games (nine) than Virginia in the past two seasons, and the last time one U.Va. coach endured a worse stretch was 1976 and '77, when Terry Holland's squads were a combined 6-18 in league play.
But as any Virginia fan worth his starched khakis knows, that blight was eased by three amazing days in Landover, Md. That's where in 1976 Wally Walker willed the Cavaliers to their first, and to this day only, ACC tournament championship, with upsets of nationally ranked North Carolina State, Maryland and North Carolina.
Can this Virginia bunch (10-17, 4-12 ACC) author a similar saga in Atlanta? A 1-9 record away from John Paul Jones Arena does not bode well, and if the Cavaliers lose in Thursday's first round, this will mark the first time in 41 years Virginia has won so few games away from its home arena.
That said, Leitao, his staff and the players merit admiration for not, to use Leitao's phrase, "cashing in" during dark times.
They resisted during an eight-game losing streak and defeated No. 12 Clemson and Virginia Tech in a four-day span. They rebounded from a four-game skid to beat Maryland (18-12, 7-9) on Saturday.
"That's the thing about this whole group," Leitao said. "They never gave up on the process whatsoever."
Accordingly, it's clear Leitao deserves a fifth season. Had Virginia's run of double-digit defeats continued, had the Cavaliers bailed on their coach, or vice-versa, the office stationery and door locks would have needed changing.
Not now. Diane and Tunji Soroye are the lone seniors, and incoming recruits Jontel Evans and Tristan Spurlock should mesh well with returnees Sylven Landesberg, Mike Scott and Jeff Jones.
Hey, you can make the case that Leitao outwitted Maryland's Gary Williams (two Final Fours and a national championship) on Saturday. Leitao's switch to a zone defense late in the first half bamboozled the Terps, and when Maryland went zone during the second half, the Cavaliers appeared far better prepared.
Remember, Virginia had darn little at stake. Conversely, the Terps had their hair on fire, desperate to impress the NCAA tournament selection ayatollahs.
Leitao relayed a conversation he had before the game with Maryland radio analyst Chris Knoche, a former coach at American University. The two spoke of how much better the Cavaliers are than on Inauguration Day, when Maryland beat them 84-78.
"We play differently," Leitao said. "It hasn't always resulted in wins. It hasn't always resulted in great performances. But we play differently … and better."
Virginia has, Leitao added, "a level of optimism moving forward."
"Coach Leitao's stayed positive throughout," point guard Calvin Baker said. "He didn't change, and that's what I really like about him."
Leitao feels the same about his players. When they gather for practice on days after games, he can not "for the life of me" tell whether they won or lost.
"We're a close team, and we just love playing together," freshman guard Sammy Zeglinski said. "We can't really dwell on the losses, and I think we do a pretty job with that."
Leitao is 63-59 with Virginia, 27-37 in the ACC. His 2007 team shared the conference regular-season title and advanced one round in the NCAA tournament, and this will be his first losing season.
Might Virginia return to championship contention in 2010? That's unlikely, but it's hardly unfair to expect, even demand, progress.
"Very gritty," Littlepage said of the Cavaliers. "They hung in there, together."
That last word is paramount.
David Teel can be reached at 247-4636 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more from Teel, read his blog at dailypress.com/teeltime.