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Virginia Cavaliers

by Rick Dimon | February 9th, 2007

Team Personality: Two-headed monster. Perhaps no team in the nation relies more heavily on two players than the Virginia Cavaliers. The backcourt duo of Sean Singletary, a junior point guard, and J.R. Reynolds, a senior shooting guard, run the show in Charlottesville. As the star tandem goes, so go the Wahoos. While UVA sometimes gets contributions from post player Jason Cain and a few others, there is almost no way the ‘Hoos can win when Singletary and Reynolds are off their games.

The “monster” aspect of the team’s personality is one that the Virginia fans do not often see around those parts. But in just his second season as head coach of the Cavaliers, Dave Leitao has UVA playing like a whole different beast.

The primary reason for that is a new attitude, one that Leitao brought with him when he left DePaul for greener pastures in 2005. With former coach Pete Gillen out and Leitao in, UVA players were confident that wins were on the way, but also soon found out that winning would not come without a price. That price, if one can call it that, manifested itself in the form of mandatory team breakfasts, early-morning workouts, and long, arduous practices.

“There wasn’t a lot of discipline here before coach Leitao came in,” Singletary said. “He taught us (Singletary and Reynolds) how to get the attention of our teammates.”

The members of the supporting cast, especially Cain, Mamadi Diane, and Adrian Joseph, know their roles and adhere to them. While it’s clearly Singletary’s and Reynolds’ team, the rest of the guys know they can’t just sit back and watch, taking possessions off now and then. Instead, they’re doing dirty-work things like crashing the boards, setting screens, playing tenacious defense, and chipping in points when necessary.

It is a testament to coach Leitao that the Cavaliers consistently manage to play disciplined, smart basketball even though they are a high-energy team who likes nothing more than to run opponents ragged up and down the court and wear them out with in-your-face defense.

It’s a special blend of basketball, and finally that blend has all come together this season in Charlottesville.

Biggest Games: Virginia already has several enormous wins this season, but the two that stand out came back-to-back on January 28 and February 1. The first was a stunning 64-63 win at Clemson, in which the Cavaliers scored the last 15 points of the game. Four days later, UVA christened the new $129.8 million John Paul Jones Arena with a come-from-behind overtime win over Duke. Singletary tied the game late in regulation and won it with less than a second remaining in the extra frame on an incredible off-balance baseline jumper.

The two biggest games remaining on the schedule are both tilts with the rival Virginia Tech Hokies. Virginia travels to Blacksburg on Saturday afternoon and will host the Hokies on March 1. These matchups feature the two most surprising teams in the Atlantic Coast Conference. UVA is currently tied for first with UNC at 8-2 and VT is sitting in fine position alone in fourth place at 6-3 in league play.

Has to be on the Floor, Last Shot: J.R. Reynolds and Sean Singletary. Both of these guys have to be on the floor at almost all times and when UVA needs a shot late in the game to win or tie, it will without question come from one of the two guards.

Reynolds and Singletary combine for 37.3 points per game, almost half of Virginia’s scoring. Take one of them off the floor and the defense really only has one guy to worry about. They also handle and take care of the ball much better than anyone else on the UVA roster; they’re the only two Wahoos with assist to turnover ratios well above 1:1.

They are also, by far, the two best shooters on the team. Recently Singletary has been the guy with the ball in his hands at the end of games, as we saw against Duke. He just seems to have that killer instinct and is also much better at creating his own shot than Reynolds or anyone other Cavalier. When Singletary chooses to drive and his penetration is stopped, he can simply kick it out to Reynolds, who is more comfortable spotting up and shooting from the outside.

You would be hard-pressed to find another team in the nation with two equally good options for last-second shots.

Crunchtime Crutch: Backcourt and free throw shooting. UVA has won three games during their current seven-game streak by four points or less. The reason for being able to pull out close games starts and ends with Singletary and Reynolds. There’s nothing like having two reliable guards who can remain calm and immune to pressure in late-game situations. The fact that those two can hit shots from anywhere on the court in clutch situations also does not hurt.

With two lights-out options for icing games at the free-throw line, it’s tough to overcome the Wahoos when they are protecting a late lead. Singletary shoots 89% from the line and Reynolds is knocking them down at an 82% clip. The next two leading scorers on the team, Diane and Joseph, both shoot better than 72% from the charity stripe.

Straw that stirs the Drink: Mamadi Diane. Obviously Singletary is the guy that makes this team go, but he has been talked about enough and Diane is, in a way, Virginia’s X-factor.

If the Wahoos are to continue this recent hot streak (seven game winning streak) and ultimately make some noise in the NCAA Tournament, someone other than Singletary and Reynolds has to consistently step up. As good as those two guards are, some of the pressure will have to be alleviated in March. Diane is the top candidate to emerge as third offensive threat. Technically he already is that third scoring option, as he is third on the team in scoring at 11.2 points per game. Still, Diane has to step up night in and night out—especially come tournament time—to prevent the swarming defenses that UVA will be facing in March from honing in on Singletary and Reynolds.

Diane has put up double figures in five of the seven games during UVA’s current streak, including a 26-point outburst at Maryland. When the guards are getting help, Virginia almost always wins. When they have to go it alone (such as when Diane scored 2 points against Stanford and 4 points against Appalachian State), the ‘Hoos can lose to less talented opponents.

Impact Newcomer: Will Harris. Coach Leitao is not really getting much out of any freshman or out of transfer Ryan Pettinella, but Harris is probably producing the most of any newcomer. The 6-6 small forward is logging some quality minutes, averaging 15.3 per game. He is not a great shooter, but Harris plays great defense and his physical prowess allows him to matchup with bigger players on the defensive end of the floor. Harris also grabs a ton of rebounds considering the minimal amount of time he spends on the court.

Potential Pitfall: Inconsistency and a monotonous offensive attack. The two are undoubtedly linked, as UVA’s one-dimensional offense can lead to off-and-on results. Currently inconsistency is not a factor, as this is one of the hottest teams in America. But early in the season, especially in the San Juan Shootout in Puerto Rico, UVA was handled by App. State, got blown out by Utah, and barely scraped by Division II PR Mayaguez. If Singletary and Reynolds are forced to shoulder the entire load and their outside shots are not falling, this promising season could be erased in the blink of an eye come tournament time.

How to reach the Sweet 16: The quest to reach the Sweet 16 is already in progress, and this recent surge is certainly helping matters. If the Cavaliers keep it up and finish in the top two or three of the ACC, as they are in line to do, they should be seeded such that they’ll avoid all of the nation’s top-tier teams in the first two rounds.

Even if that happens, two crucial factors that have already been discussed will loom large in determining UVA’s postseason fate. Singletary and Reynolds must play like the stars they are every time on the court, and a consistent third option must emerge to shoulder some of the load and keep opposing defenses honest.

–Rick Dimon

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