Out-of-town Q&A: Virginia

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There might not be an out-of-town writer I’ll run into at more events than the Richmond Times-Dispatch’s Jeff White.

ACC media days, ACC tournament, lacrosse final four … Jeff is everywhere, and about as knowledgable as they come in regard to Virginia athletics.

That’s why I’m glad and appreciative he agreed to do another Q&A during basketball season after a football season swap.

You can check out his blog here and his every-day dead-tree edition work here.

Onto the three questions heading into tomorrow’s Maryland-Virginia tussle at Comcast Center:

1. Everyone figured the post-Sean Singletary era would not get off to a smooth start. Is 7-7 about what was expected at this stage, or is Virginia exceeding or falling shy of expectations this season?

JW: The Cavaliers were picked to finish last in the ACC, and that remains a distinct possibility, so they’re probably about where people figured they’d be. Four of their losses have come against top-shelf opponents: Syracuse, Minnesota, Xavier and North Carolina. More troubling to U.Va. fans were the losses to Auburn, Liberty and Virginia Tech, particularly the first two, which were in Charlottesville. The win over Georgia Tech in the conference openner was important for Virginia on many fronts, not the least of which was that it meant Dave Leitao and his players wouldn’t have to read/hear about the possibility of their going 0-16 in ACC play.

I’ve thought all along that what U.Va. needed to do this season was build some momentum - and hope — to carry the program into 2009-10 and beyond. In freshmen Sylven Landesberg, Assane Sene and Sammy Zeglinski and sophomores Mike Scott and Mustapha Farrakhan, Dave Leitao has the nucleus of a team that should be good next season and better in 2010-11. That doesn’t make the present any easier for Virginia fans, though, especially given their frustration over the 2008 football season. To keep a beaten-down fan base from bailing out entirely, U.Va. needs at least periodic victories the rest of the way to remind people that better times are coming.

2. If there was any recognizable returning player who figured to play a crucial role for Virginia, it was Mamadi Diane. Yet the DeMatha product, long a pain for the Terps, is averaging 4.5 points and shooting 2-for-29 from 3-point land. What happened to this guy?

JW: That’s a question to which Leitao, in particular, wishes he had a answer. Diane led Virginia with 60 treys last season and averaged 11.8 points. If he were averaging even 9 points this season, U.Va. might well be 10-4 instead of 7-7 at this point.

Inconsistency has been a problem for Diane throughout his time at U.Va., but unitl now he’s always managed to fight through his slumps.

He closed the 2007-08 season by scoring at least 10 points in each of his final seven games - the longest streak of his college career - and was expected to be a pillar for a young U.Va. team in 2008-09.

Diane had surgery on his left foot in June, however, and that limited the amount of time he could spend in the gym preparing for the season. He sat out the Cavaliers’ exhibition games in Montreal in August and has rarely looked in sync this season. Diane recently regained his starting job, but if he doesn’t start producing, he could soon find himself back on the bench, particularly if Mustapha Farrakhan continues to progress.

The bottom line is that on a team dominated by freshmen and sophomores, a significant contribution from Diane, the only senior in the rotation, is desperately needed. And he hasn’t provided it.

3. Virginia has used seven different starting lineups, but the staples are the two guys who seem like they’re reliable on most night – Mike Scott (14 starts) and Sylven Landesberg (13 starts). How badly do the Cavaliers need another consistent player and, at this stage, who would be the best candidate for second-half improvement?

JW: If Diane were not in such a funk, I’d say he’s the best candidate, but nobody knows what to expect from him the rest of the season.

Redshirt freshman point guard Sammy Zeglinski, who’s from Penn Charter, the same Philadelphia high school that produced Sean Singletary, had been that No. 3 guy until recently, but he struggled in the losses to Virginia Tech and North Carolina. Zeglinski is not a formidable one-on-one defender - as the Hokies’ Malcolm Delaney will attest — and he needs to score to negate some of the points he’s giving up at the other end. He’s a streaky shooter but capable of getting hot very quickly. Zeglinski scored 24 second-half points against Liberty in November.

Assane Sene, a 7-footer from Senegal, has the potential to become the best true center at U.Va. since Olden Polynice in the ‘80s, but he’s still raw, particularly on offense. He’s a force, though, as a shot-blocker, and his presence inside makes Virginia much tougher defensively.

Farrakhan, whose grandfather is Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, scored 15 points in span of about 5 minutes against Virginia Tech, and his playing time has increased recently.

Maryland fans probably will remember Jamil Tucker, who’s had two good games against the Terps. Tucker is gifted offensively, but Leitao never knows from game to game what to expect from the 6-9 junior forward. Unbelievable as it may seem, Tucker never has scored in double figures in three straight games as a college player.

Thanks again to Jeff White for lending his insight on the Cavaliers.

Patrick Stevens

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