- The Washington Times - Friday, October 11, 2002

CHARLOTTESVILLE Since its 1995 victory over top-seeded Kansas in the Sweet 16, the Virginia men's basketball program has not won a postseason basketball game of any kind.

After starting 14-2 and achieving a top-10 ranking in both major polls last season, the Cavaliers looked ready to make a postseason run. Instead, Virginia lost 10 of its last 13 games and finished 17-12, losing in the first round of the NIT to South Carolina.

Although Virginia averaged 79.6 points, the Cavaliers struggled with their backs to the basket, especially in the ACC, giving up 79.3.

"We were capable of playing better 'D' last year, but we didn't, and I'll take the blame for that," admitted coach Pete Gillen, entering his fifth season at Virginia and 18th in college ranks.

It starts with Virginia's man-in-the-middle, Travis Watson (6-foot-8, 255), the first Virginia center to lead the ACC in rebounding since Ralph Sampson in 1983. Watson also led the league in double-doubles en route to his second team All-ACC selection.

Watson, an All-America candidate, said the players have learned a lot from last year's free-fall and need "just a hard work ethic. Nothing is given to us; we have to earn everything that we want to do."

The departure of two key seniors, a sophomore transfer, and the loss of Roger Mason Jr. a year early to the NBA Draft accounts for approximately 60 percent of Virginia's offensive production.

With sophomores who saw extensive action as freshmen in guards Keith Jenifer (6-foot) and Jermaine Harper (6-3) and forwards Jason Clark (6-8) and Elton Brown (6-9), Virginia has a solid nucleus with big-time game experience.

"I think our four second-year guys are all much more ready for the ACC battles than they were last year," Gillen said. "All of them started games, so I think they will all be better players because they've worked on their games and they are more ready."

Jenifer, from Towson (Md.) Catholic, started 15 games last season and averaged 21.3 minutes an outing while playing point guard. Thrown into the mix after Majestic Mapp sat out a second straight season with a knee injury, Jenifer was often matched against the best of the best.

"I went through my ups and downs and some days I struggled, but I learned as a freshman it is hard to play in the ACC," said Jenifer, eager to get back on the court.

The Cavaliers also benefit from the addition of two transfers who sat out last season after transferring: 6-10 center Nick Vander Laan from California and point guard Todd Billet (6-0), a third-team All-Big East selection as a sophomore at Rutgers in 2001.

Swingman Devin Smith, a 6-5, top-five JUCO transfer who chose Virginia over Kansas; 6-7 freshman Derrick Byars, the Tennessee Gatorade Player of the Year; and the return of Mapp, round out a solid squad.

"There is a lot of unknowns in the league," Gillen said. "There's going to be young guys that blossom and flourish across the conference. We look to be competitive and at the top of the league."

Virginia starts its preseason tonight with Midnight Madness, beginning at 10.


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