Saturday, March 14, 2009

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Cavs in need of change, but will they deliver?

ATLANTA -- Virginia's worst men's basketball season in decades ended mercifully and quietly at 11:34 p.m. on Thursday, in front of a few thousand fans at the Georgia Dome.

Entire rows of seats in the lower bowl sat empty in the second half, as the Cavaliers turnover total reached 20. The public address announcer's voice echoed in the cavernous arena when he reported every foul. The thud-thud-thud of ball meeting wood could be heard clearly as Boston College's Tyrese Rice dribbled out the final seconds, with UVa conceding a 76-63 first-round defeat in the ACC tournament.

Sad. That's what this was: Sad. This night. This scene. This whole season.

And the Cavaliers had better improve in a hurry, or next year's atmosphere at sparkling John Paul Jones Arena will look eerily similar. And their coach will be out of a job.

Where's the hope? That's what you have to ask yourself. After UVa completed a 10-18 campaign, compiling its lowest winning percentage since it went 9-17 under coach William J. Gibson in 1966-67, there still wasn't much anticipation for change.

Coach Dave Leitao will be here next year. So will all but two of these same players. What reason is there to believe the scoring will go up, the defense will be better and misery will end?

"I really can't say," junior Calvin Baker said, when asked where UVa fans should look for hope. "It's up for us to give them hope. We have to get back and get into the gym as soon as possible and start building our team identity, and hopefully we can have a better season next year."

The team identity -- at least the one Leitao wants to instill -- is one of defense and rebounding. Toughness. Gritty play.

But for the second straight year, the Cavaliers finished among the ACC's worst in those categories. They ranked last in field-goal percentage defense. They were 10th in rebounding margin. And their offense sputtered outside of freshman sensation Sylven Landesberg, who might have been the only player on the floor Thursday who wasn't ready for it to end.

"Definitely not," an emotional Landesberg said in the locker room. "No matter how bad the season was going, I always thought we could turn it around."

Landesberg is the best argument -- one of the few arguments -- for keeping Leitao for next season. The ACC Freshman of the Year honoree is the coach's top recruit in four years, a passionate, talented player who is likely to improve.

And Landesberg credits Leitao for making him a more complete player, for working with him on his pull-up jumper after ACC teams adjusted to his drives to the hoop.

"He helped me a lot," Landesberg said. "If he tells me something, I'm going to listen."

Leitao was the ACC Coach of the Year in 2007, but how far his team now seems from that one. Those Cavaliers, led by Pete Gillen recruits Sean Singletary and J.R. Reynolds, advanced to the second round of the NCAA tournament. This bunch isn't eligible for any postseason play, not even the College Basketball Invitational or the new 16-team event, the Postseason Tournament.

"They played with an air of confidence that no team could shake," Baker said of the 2006-07 squad. "At home. On the road. Anywhere. And I think that's what our team was missing this year. We were playing not to lose a lot of times. That team was playing to win.

"We didn't know what to expect [this year]. We didn't know our rotations, we didn't know who was going to be playing, anything like that. It was just a different feel. That team really knew who they were. They knew who the core guys were. Everybody knew their role and everything."

The Cavs will have a better idea of that heading into next year, with only two recruits entering the fold. Maybe freshman post player Assane Sene will add polish. Maybe sophomore Mike Scott will unlock more of his potential. Maybe Baker will become the kind of senior mentor every team needs.

Facilitating those improvements is Leitao's biggest challenge -- and his final chance.

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