Tuesday, March 23, 2010

what could have been

Yup, time to play "Coulda, Shoulda, Woulda: Basketball Edition." Why now? Because today we learned officially what all the signs have been pointing to for weeks: Sylven Landesberg is done at UVA.

We're not going into whatever illustriousness would have happened in the next two years that would have put the #15 into the rafters blah blah blah. I have not much interest in trying to make sense of what the lineup will actually look like next year and how they'll perform - not when the 2010 recruits haven't even gone to senior prom yet let alone get themselves on Grounds. So it stands to reason I have even less interest in pontificating over spilled milk.

I don't know when the hell we've ever seen a five-star basketball recruit actually enroll at UVA. Recruiting five-stars always ends up with UVA as the bridesmaid. Ed Davis, Patrick Patterson, DeSagana "it's pronounced JOP" Diop. You know the story, cause it turns out the same every time. But we've been pretty successful bringing in four-star types, the sort that you still ought to be able to build your team around and maybe even expect them to stay awhile. The Rivals database goes back to 2002, so here's the list of four-star recruits (not counting the '10 class of James Johnson and K.T. Harrell) that have said yes, Virginia:

Derrick Byars ('02)
Devin Smith ('02)
Gary Forbes ('03)
Sean Singletary ('04)
Will Harris ('06)
Jamil Tucker ('06)
Jeff Jones ('07)
John Brandenburg ('08)
Sylven Landesberg ('08)
Tristan Spurlock ('09)

Of those 10 players, exactly three have finished or will finish their eligibility at UVA, and that number includes Jeff Jones who shows every intention of doing so as well as Devin Smith who only had three years to begin with.

- Byars stopped wanting to play for Pete Gillen and transferred to Vanderbilt, where he morphed from useful reserve to SEC Player of the Year.
- Forbes transferred to Manhattan after becoming ineligible at UVA, and ended up eventually at UMass where he morphed from useful reserve to A-10 Player of the Year. (Damn these patterns.)
- Harris kept getting hurt at UVA and led a terrible Albany team in scoring this year.
- Tucker didn't show any interest in the academic side of his obligations and was more or less kicked off the team, having never suited up for Tony Bennett. At least he made it three years.
- Brandenburg was very sparingly used, had some murky family stuff going on, and you'll see him in a Colgate uniform next year.
- Landesberg is singin' dolla dolla bill, y'all.
- Spurlock is off to parts unknown.

Wait! That's not all:

- Donte Minter transferred to Appalachian State.
- T.J. Bannister transferred to Liberty after his minutes went backwards in his junior year.
- Sam Warren left much as Spurlock did: spent a year in the new program after committing to the old coach, and gave up. At least Spurlock didn't wait til the beginning of fall practice.
- Lars Mikalauskas was booted from the team after pissing off Leitao one too many times.

It's hard to find a recruiting class that managed to make it all the way through school without losing some of its members. Only 2004 (Adrian Joseph, Sean Singletary, and Tunji Soroye) and 2007 (Mustapha Farrakhan, Jeff Jones, Mike Scott, Sammy Zeglinski) qualify, and we're not done with '07 yet. Anything could happen. Because the theme here is that if you're going to be a UVA basketball fan, then transfers, academic casualties, and behavior casualties have been par for the course this decade.

And I only started at 2002 arbitarily. We could go back farther: Jermaine Harper to Cal-State Fullerton. Maurice Young to St. Bonaventure. J.C. Mathis to Michigan. Nick VanderLaan in and out again. Majestic Mapp and his injury troubles. Keith Jenifer acted the part of a cementheaded thug, managed to kill our chances for an upset win at Maryland by taunting Gary Williams and motivating the Terps, was accused of assaulting people on the Corner, and ended up at Murray State. (Where by at least this account he screwed his head on straight a little bit, something he desperately needed. In that case, though, the parting of the ways was addition by subtraction for UVA.)

Normally when players leave early, they're off to the pros, which you can deal with because it means they were pretty good; Landesberg and Roger Mason are the only ones in this category.

Basically, though, it boils down to using a lot of guys that were loads of fun to root for and terrific, upstanding people on and off the court, but out of their league in an ACC starting lineup. Jason Cain. Tunji Soroye. Jerome Meyinsse. And a lot of borderline ACC talent that should be competing against the other bench guys but instead have to contend with the Tyler Hansbroughs and J.J. Redicks.

A lot of this we've brought on ourselves. You expect transfers when you change coaches, and we've seen that twice this decade. Even more so, the coaches have been cut from entirely different cloth. Way, way different personalities. Pete Gillen was a nice guy, laid-back, let people get away with a lot. Dave Leitao swore like a sailor and yelled a lot, but doled out playing time pretty liberally. Tony Bennett is soft-spoken and not screamy at all, but not the tiniest bit flexible on his off-the-court standards and uses playing time as both his carrot and stick.

Plus, UVA is always going to be UVA, where the NCAA might say you're eligible, but the registrar has the final word.

But this brings us to the main thing I was thinking about, which is, what this team was really supposed to look like this year:

PG - Sammy Zeglinski
Wing - Sylven Landesberg
Wing - Jamil Tucker
PF - Mike Scott
C - John Brandenburg
Bench - Will Harris, Jeff Jones, Tristan Spurlock, Assane Sene, Jontel Evans

Tucker and Harris would leave after this year and Spurlock would slide into a featured role alongside Landesberg, and Mychal Parker probably would have joined the rotation. That's how it was all supposed to play out.

I don't know how that team would be on defense. It might be better than you think, being that a lot of the lousy defensive reputation of some of these players comes from their ability or maybe lack thereof to grasp Bennett's system. Tucker was never too committed on the defensive end, and this year, neither was Spurlock, but he committed to play Leitao's defense, not Bennett's. So it's not fair to assume he'd have been a liability on defense.

But man would this team score. A lot. And it would start a 7-footer and bring another off the bench. That's the team we'd have had without rotten luck and coaching changes. With the state of the ACC this year, that team would have won 9 or 10 games in conference and gone to the tournament for sure. And barring the sort of luck that tore it apart in real life, it'd be looking at another trip next year, too.

This is why I once said - and still say - that Leitao would have brought this year's team to the NIT. You can't control the luck, and without Brandenburg this team was always going to be a donut team. We knew that. But there's no way Leitao would have kept Spurlock on the bench. Tucker'd still be around too, maddening us with his indifferent defense but bringing a steady, reliable jump shot to the game. And there wouldn't be any issues with struggling to learn a totally new defensive system that requires you to unlearn all your ingrained fundamentals.

This is where I put in the obligatory caveat that this doesn't mean I'm not totally on board with Tony Bennett, here. I'm won over by his recruiting chops and his standards. The fact that he improved the team by five games and one ACC game is impressive, given the above-mentioned attrition and the fact that he's in tear-down mode. But that doesn't change that I don't think Leitao ought to have been fired. I think he'd have had this program on the upswing as well and deserved the chance to see it through. This lack of continuity combined with our higher academic standards is just murder on a basketball program.

The upshot of it all is that for the Tony Bennett program to work, both the admin and Bennett need to be totally committed to it for the very long term. That means four more years at an absolute, rock-bottom, bare minimum. No getting cold feet four years in and firing Tony the same way they did Leitao. You knew what he was going to do and how he was going to do it, and he deserves the chance to see his project all the way through, the way Leitao did not, without having the rug pulled out from underneath. And for Tony, no running off for bigger bucks at a bigger program. Normally I understand that's the nature of the business, but you don't come in, change all the standards and expectations, and tear down a program this way and then leave it half-done. Finish your legacy, whatever that is. And the fans, alums, and donors need to let it play out and not get all impatient and pissy when we don't make the tournament next season, because we won't. Bennett, hopefully, is the guy to reverse this pattern of playing season-to-season and losing all our players all the time, instead of program-building. Turn on him before he's had his chance and we'll find it harder and harder to bring coaches in here and relegate ourselves to the second divison forever.

No comments: