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VIRGINIA: Cavs start with Gillen on ropes

The Virginia Cavaliers finished seventh in the ACC last season and will be hard-pressed to repeat that performance in a conference as competitive as this year’s ACC.

Seventh-year head coach Pete Gillen will lead a veteran team through the stacked conference in hopes of capturing an NCAA bid. With a 6-10 ACC record last season, the Cavaliers failed to make the NCAA Tournament and bowed out in the second round of the NIT with a loss to Villanova.

UVa’s 2004-2005 season—and possibly Gillen’s job—will be in the hands of senior co-captains Elton Brown, Devin Smith and Jason Clark. Brown is the most experienced player on the team and led UVa in scoring and rebounding last season. Conditioning could be a problem for Brown; the 6-foot-9 forward/center has been battling weight problems throughout his career and will have a difficult time keeping up with the fast-paced ACC teams in the upcoming season.

“He does a good job attacking the basket,” Gillen said. “He was our leading scorer last year and I’m hoping he’ll be a big scorer for us in the upcoming season.”

Hampered by a herniated disk last year, Smith still put together a solid season and had much-needed surgery in the off-season. If he is fully healed, Smith may be Virginia’s top player and the team’s best hope for beating its formidable ACC opponents.

Clark started almost every game last season but did not end up seeing a great deal of playing time because of his scoring struggles. But Clark led the team in blocked shots and placed second in rebounding and should be Virginia’s best defensive player in the upcoming season.

Also returning from last year’s squad will be sophomore guards J.R. Reynolds, T.J. Bannister and Gary Forbes. Each member of the threesome averaged about 20 minutes per game last season, and Reynolds finished with almost 10 points per game.

“J.R. had a tremendous freshman year,” Gillen said. “He made the ACC-All American Freshman Team with some great players, and he has an opportunity to build on that success and be a very good player in this league.”

The only starter to graduate was sharpshooter Todd Billet, but with incoming freshman guard Sean Singletary lighting up the court in preseason play, UVa could be poised for improvement.

“Sean is a very talented point guard,” Gillen said. “He’s extremely quick and can hurt an opponent with his penetration to the basket as well as with his perimeter shooting.”

With a total of 11 games against Duke, UNC, Wake Forest, Maryland, Florida State, Georgia Tech and N.C. State, the Cavs may find themselves with double-digit conference losses and have a difficult time earning a trip to the NCAA Tournament despite potential improvement.

Gillen has not led UVa to the Big Dance since 2001, and with a strong recruiting class and almost every key player returning, another failed attempt could cost the coach his job. Since that 2001 season, the Cavaliers have yet to post a winning record in the ACC and have only finished above .500 because of relatively easy out-of-conference schedules. Looking ahead to the 2004-2005 slate, UVa has to face a highly regarded Arizona squad, as well as Auburn and Providence on the road.

“We are playing a very different schedule, and hopefully that will get us ready to play in the best basketball conference in the country,” Gillen said. “We are excited about playing these quality teams. Our players like playing against the best. Hopefully this schedule will help us meet the goal of returning to the NCAA Tournament.”

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