- The Washington Times - Friday, February 18, 2005

CHARLOTTESVILLE — In the last couple weeks, Virginia’s basketball team seems to have a new look.

A tweaked lineup, a more patient offense, solid defensive play ” all have been welcome changes for a team that was ensconced in a tailspin just two weeks ago.

And there are a few more victories ” a 3-1 stretch that at least has made the Cavaliers’ hopes for an NCAA tournament seem somewhat attainable instead of absurd and perhaps has taken some attention away from embattled coach Pete Gillen.

Virginia (13-10, 4-8 ACC) enters today’s game against No.22 Maryland (15-8, 6-6) at University Hall seeking to build on a recent three-game winning streak that was snapped Wednesday by a predictably unpleasant visit to North Carolina. With a ranking of 43 in the RPI and a schedule ranked fifth in the nation by collegerpi.com, the Cavaliers certainly aren’t out of the postseason mix.

Yet with home games against Maryland and N.C. State and road meetings with Wake Forest and Florida State remaining before the ACC tournament, Virginia’s margin for error is slight. The Cavaliers probably need to win at least four games before Selection Sunday to a have a chance at an NCAA tournament bid.

Not that Gillen wants any part of such talk.

“We’re just going to try to win as much as we can and let the experts, the writers and radio guys, let them determine what is needed,” Gillen said earlier this week. “We’re just going to try to do the best we can, … try to win as many as we can, whatever that is, and try to do a good job in the ACC tournament.”

It seemed like the Cavaliers would win plenty this season when they darted to an 8-1 start that included a thrashing of Pac-10 front-runner Arizona. Virginia was ranked for five weeks and, despite a youthful lineup, looked well on its way to an NCAA tournament berth.

That proved illusory. After losing their ACC opener, the Cavaliers edged Western Kentucky in double overtime before dropping four in a row. A two-point home defeat of league bottom feeder Clemson was a blip, followed quickly by a loss at Virginia Tech.

Some of the woes were brought on by injuries and unusual misfortune. Leading scorer Devin Smith missed three games with an ankle ailment, while sophomore center Donte Minter, expected to provide muscle off the bench, has been hampered all season, first by a dislocated kneecap and more recently by surgery on his left hand. Senior Jason Clark, who started 12 games at forward and averaged 6.7 points and 5.2 rebounds, was declared academically ineligible Jan.19. And freshman Adrian Joseph has missed the last five games with a quadriceps injury.

Yet it somehow got worse. The Cavaliers trailed by 36 at halftime in a 110-76 home loss to North Carolina, then allowed Providence’s Donnie McGrath to convert all nine of his 3-point attempts (tying an NCAA record) in a 98-79 loss to the struggling Friars. It was the 13th time in 14 games the Cavaliers had surrendered at least 77 points and dropped the Cavaliers to 10-9.

“It was [hard] in a way, but we just have to keep positive,” sophomore forward Gary Forbes said. “The season’s not over yet. It’s nowhere near over.”

Hope remains because Gillen revamped the Cavaliers’ approach, seemingly overnight. Gone was Gillen’s preferred frenetic (and turnover-plagued) tempo, replaced by a deliberate though opportunistic approach. Sophomore T.J. Bannister was inserted into the lineup, joining freshman Sean Singletary and sophomore J.R. Reynolds to create a three-guard set.

The change also boosted the defense, which allowed an average of 59 points in consecutive victories over N.C. State, Florida State and Virginia Tech. Even though the Cavaliers dropped an 85-61 decision at North Carolina, they still held the Tar Heels five points below their season average.

“Everyone’s playing a whole lot harder now, playing a whole lot more defense,” Bannister said. “You can’t give up 110 points like what happened here against Carolina. … There’s no reason for that. Providence was really only scoring 70 points a game and they scored 98 on us, so that’s how you know our defense had to get better.”

Still, the recent victories haven’t alleviated much of the pressure on Gillen, who is presumed to be on the hot seat after producing only one NCAA bid in his first six seasons. It’s possible Virginia will have to reach the NCAA tournament this year for Gillen to save his job.

“We can’t do anything about that,” said Forbes, who is averaging 9.6 points. “All we can do is play basketball. Coach Gillen’s a great coach. Of course we hear people say things on TV and people say things, but we’re not worrying about that.”

Making matters worse is sporadic attendance at tiny U-Hall, which seats 8,392. While games against the likes of Wake Forest and North Carolina have drawn well, there have been plenty of empty seats at others. The no-shows are even more noticeable with the 15,000-seat John Paul Jones Arena ” a $130million facility under construction across the street from U-Hall ” due to open in fall 2006.

Yet that isn’t a major concern right now for the Cavaliers, who still remember beating Georgia Tech, North Carolina and Wake Forest during last season’s closing stretch.

“We can only control what we can control,” Gillen said. “Historically fans only come to the big games. Every game is a big game for us.”

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