Tuesday, March 10, 2009

the basketball season: an autopsy

First thing on the docket is the congratulations that are in order for ACC Rookie of the Year Sylven Landesberg. Truly deserving - and the vote was much less close than I thought it would be. Landesberg is the fourth UVA player to win the award, and all the first two ever did was become UVA's only first overall NBA draft pick, and become UVA's all-time scoring leader. So, no pressure?

Unfortunately that's about three-fourths of the good news for this season. It was not, on the whole, good. 17 losses. In every conference but a select few of the worst (MEAC, for example), 17 regular season losses will land you squarely in the bottom half of the seedings. Whether it's the ACC or the Ivy League, 17 losses sucks. The season is about four months long - in the cutthroat world of the ACC, if you lose just three times a month, your ticket is punched for the bottom half of the conference and you tend to wonder if perhaps a change of head coaches is needed.

So it was a bad season, and you knew this. What you may find it interesting to be reminded of is that, as bad as things looked, we actually outperformed expectations. You'll note we were picked dead last in the preseason poll. A crude but fair way to use the poll to find the media's projection of conference wins is to divide the number of points in the poll by the total number possible (480) and multiply that by 16. That gives us a projected record of 2-14, which actually is what the last-place team got, only it wasn't us. We doubled that win total and did not finish last -take that, pundits.

I'll divide this up into four sections: the pluses, the "non-negatives" (of which there is only one), the minuses (AKA "What Went Wrong") and a premature look at what the future holds. The first two parts are today; the second two are Thursday or Friday otherwise this will turn into some kind of huge postmonster. Without further ado....


- Sylven Landesberg, obviously. There's little need to expand much here. After two games it was evident the kid had major talent; after three, it seemed clear he was taking the reins as the go-to guy. If he stays four years, his #15 is the next number to be retired.

- Timely wins. Entries to the win column were few and far between. After beating Brown on January 7 to move to 7-5, there would be only three more victories in the following two months. But you couldn't have picked a better three to win. A home game romp over Virginia Tech and a season-finale, storybook victory over Maryland to give Mamadi Diane a night to remember. And a stirring home overtime win over Clemson to put an exclamation point on Sean Singletary's ceremony. Sometimes it's not how much you win but who you beat and when.

- Starting to crack the road jinx. Historically, we suck, and I mean suck, outside of Charlottesville. Especially in places like oh say Puerto Rico. Worse than a normal team. Now, we had some awful clunkers on the road, of course, but we had some awful clunkers at home, too. The point here is that going on the road, for once, didn't cause the clunkers, and we had some very good competitive games away from JPJA. Especially early in the season - right after the loss to Liberty would have been a great time for a Pete Gillen team to go to Syracuse and then Minnesota (two teams that are likely to end up in the Dance) and be a floormat. But we played those guys tough and could have beaten Syracuse with a little second-half defense. We went on the road for our first ACC win and played some very gutsy games in other teams' gyms as the season went on.


There's really only one entry here, and his name is Dave Leitao. Most UVA fans have some kind of complaint about Leitao, and most of these fall into one of two categories. 1, he can't coach offense, and 2, he can't develop players. To be bluntly honest, I don't think there's much wrong with the offense that couldn't be fixed by having a couple players that could hit a gotdamn jump shot once in a while. Last in the conference in shooting both beyond and in front of the arc.

As for player development, one of the arguments that he can't develop players properly centers around John Brandenburg, a highly rated four-star recruit. The obvious counter is Assane Sene, a guy most thought would take tons of seasoning and experience before he really became useful. Turns out the guy can defend.

Anyway, the evidence just doesn't stack up. To say that Leitao can't develop players is to suggest that six-foot-nothing Sean Singletary should have been a first-round draft pick. Or maybe that Leitao turned Mamadi Diane from a real threat from outside into a benchwarmer. Or that a lightly-recruited transfer/walk-on from a local mid-major should somehow develop into a stud.

Another sometimes-cited example is Jeff Jones. True, Jones is one fine example of a guy who hasn't lived up to the recruiting ratings. But a guy who can't shoot, can't shoot. A coach can teach a lot of things. He can inspire a guy to play defense and he can teach how to run an offense and where to be, when. He can teach a guard the proper way to come off a screen and he can teach a post player correct footwork techniques. He can teach a point guard how to recognize a trap in a half-court press, and he can instill in his players a sense of when to shoot and when to pass. But if a guy can't shoot, he can't shoot, and two seasons of sub-.370 shooting is enough for me to know, Jeff Jones can't shoot. There's only so much a coach can do. Leitao's task here is not to wave a magic wand and turn Jeff Jones into J.J. Redick. He will have to find a role for Jones that minimizes his bad shots and sets him up for good ones.

I don't blame Dave Leitao for going 10-17. Leitao took what he was given, which was essentially a roll-of-the-dice recruiting pipeline and a superstud backcourt that covered up a lot of flaws, and molded it as best he could into as much success as could reasonably be expected. Pete Gillen didn't leave the cupboard bare, but if he'd had a really quality program to turn over to Leitao, he wouldn't have been let go in the first place. Having Sean Singletary and J.R. Reynolds around masked a ton of weaknesses and made a lot of players look better than they really were. With them both gone, Leitao is now rebuilding with his own pieces. And it's worth noting the cliff of irrelevance that DePaul has fallen off of in the four years since Leitao left.

In the next installment of this, I'll get down to the heart of the matter: Why We Sucked. And I'll try to guess at what next year might look like, and offer up my opinion on just how long 'Hoos should be patient with Dave Leitao

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