1997-98 Virginia Men's Basketball Outlook
If you were to ask University of Virginia men's head basketball coach Jeff Jones about his primary concern as he looks ahead to the Cavaliers' 1997-98 season, he would no doubt come right to the point--the point guard position and how will his team score enough points.
|Head Coach Jeff Jones|
Virginia has 10 lettermen, including three starters, returning from last year's team that compiled an overall record of 18-13 and participated in the NCAA Tournament. The Cavaliers have two double-figure scorers returning, they have their leading rebounder back, they have one of the finest three-point shooters in the nation and they have a number of players they hope continue to develop at the inside positions. What they don't have is a proven point guard and their leading scorer from last season.
One of the starters missing from last year's team is point guard Harold Deane. Deane finished his career ranked fourth on Virginia's career assists list (468) and seventh on the Cavaliers' all-time scoring list (1,763 points). A third-team All-Atlantic Coast Conference selection last season, Deane averaged 12.9 points, 4.5 assists and 3.7 rebounds a game a year ago despite a leg injury that hampered his play most of the season.
Also missing from last year's team is Jamal Robinson, a 6-7 swingman who spelled Deane at point guard. Robinson averaged 5.6 points and 4.8 rebounds a game. He played in every game for the Cavaliers last season and started 13 games.
The leadership provided by Deane and Robinson last season helped the Cavaliers bounce back from a disappointing 12-15 1995-96 season.
"I think we turned some things around last season," Jones said. "It was certainly a big step in the right direction. There were some very positive moments and some disappointing moments, but I believe we accomplished what we needed to accomplish last season. Obviously, we didn't accomplish everything, but getting back to the NCAA Tournament was a big step in the right direction and gives us something to build on for the coming season.
"Last season was very important. The fact we bounced back as quickly as we did indicates things are in good shape."
So, who plays the point for Virginia in 1997-98 as the Cavaliers attempt to build on the success of a year ago? Jones does have some options. Willie Dersch, a 6-5 sophomore, is one option at that position. The other option for the UVa head coach is to put the ball in the hands of a true freshman, either Donald Hand or Chezley Watson.
"One of the big questions looking ahead to the 1997-98 season concerns our point guard position, and it's a legitimate question," Jones states. "It's a question I don't have an answer for right now, but we'll find out. Chezley and Donald will be given an opportunity to show what they can do at the point. Willie Dersch has expressed an interest in showing what he can do at that position.
"The big thing is for the pieces to fall together correctly. I'm not as concerned about who's going to play what position as I am about getting everyone to play together and developing the chemistry on the court that's so important."
Dersch saw limited action at point guard last season, primarily in the Cavaliers' game against Duke in Durham, N.C. He's an intelligent player who can also play the other two perimeter positions. Dersch averaged 2.8 points and 1.5 rebounds a game in 28 games during the 1996-97 season, and shot 82.1 percent (23-28) from the free throw line. He had 28 assists and only 17 turnovers while averaging 13.4 minutes of playing time a game.
"Willie already has the mental approach of getting others involved in the game," Jones said. "He did that from the wing spot last season, so I don't think the mental transition would be significant for him. Physically, we would have to make some adjustments and learn how to use his size and strength because he won't have the same speed as some of the players he would be facing. It's certainly something he's capable of doing. Whether or not it happens, we'll just have to wait and see."
The 6-1 Watson signed with the Cavaliers during the early signing period in November of 1996. He averaged 30.0 points and 6.6 assists while earning All-State honors at East Hall High School in Gainesville, Ga., as a senior last year.
Hand, a 6-0 All-State selection as a senior at Paterson Catholic High School in Paterson, N.J., signed with the Cavaliers in the spring of 1997. He averaged 19.8 points and 9.2 assists a game during the 1996-97 high school season.
"As a package, Chezley and Donald will definitely help our team," Jones states. "They will room together and through a combined effort, they'll make a contribution to our club. They are both soft spoken and polite, but seem confident in their abilities in a reserved way.
"Chezley is bigger and is a very powerful young man who plays a controlled style of basketball. Donald is a little bit smaller and seems to make a lot of things happen with his quickness. The one statistic that jumped out at me about Donald is that he had 15 triple-doubles as a high school senior. For someone his size playing against the competition he faced, I think that illustrates he's a very active basketball player.
"It's never easy for a first-year player to step in at point guard in this conference. A lot depends, however, on what you're asking the individual to do. Are you asking him to carry the team or are you asking him to play hard and complement other players on the court. If Chezley and Donald end up being our point guards, we're not going to ask them to do the things that Harold Deane did for us. What we will need for them to do is give us a great defensive effort, take care of the basketball and get the other players involved in the offense.
"It's difficult jumping from high school basketball to a prominent role as a point guard in the ACC, but it's not impossible and it's not without precedent."
One thing that could ease the transition to the college level for the two freshmen point guards is the experience available on the Virginia coaching staff. Jones, new assistant Ricky Stokes and assistant Anthony Solomon all played the position at Virginia. Stokes, an assistant at Wake Forest the last eight years, returned to UVa in the spring of 1997.
The losses at the point guard position aren't the only ones for UVa on the perimeter. Also gone is last year's leading scorer Courtney Alexander. Alexander, who transferred to Fresno State in September of 1997, averaged 14.8 points and 2.7 rebounds a game last season while shooting 44.4 percent from three point range to lead the ACC.
Senior guard Curtis Staples provides Virginia with long range shooting and scoring from the perimeter, and will also be expected to provide the Cavaliers with leadership. The 6-3 Staples was second on the team in scoring last season with an average of 13.9 points a game, and also was a fine rebounder with an average of 4.6 rebounds a game. He shot 43.3 percent from the field, including 38.7 percent from three-point range. Staples is UVa's all-time leader in three-point field goals with 283 and is fourth on the all-time Atlantic Coast Conference list in that category. He has scored 1,214 points during his Virginia career.
"Curtis had an outstanding season last year," Jones said. "He was more selective with his shots and I thought he hit more big shots than he had earlier in his career.
"I know how badly Curtis wants the team to win. I believe it's fairly obvious he's willing to work and accept whatever role he's assigned in order to accomplish that goal. He has the makings of an excellent leader and I look for him to have an outstanding year. Curtis will also benefit from the experience of playing with the United States University Games team this summer."
Providing depth in the backcourt are seniors Pete McLaughlin (6-2) and Mike Curtis (6-3), and freshman Greg Lyons. Curtis and McLaughlin are three-year lettermen who see little game action for the Cavaliers, but who provide valuable contributions on a daily basis in practice. McLaughlin played 24 minutes in nine games last season, while Curtis played 11 minutes in six games.
The 6-3 Lyons, a high school teammate of Dersch's, joins the UVa program this season.
"Players like Pete, Mike and Greg are so valuable to any basketball team," Jones said. "Greg is a newcomer, so he'll need to learn the ropes and what's expected.
"I can honestly say I love watching Mike Curtis and Pete McLaughlin practice. Pete is as fundamental, and perhaps more fundamental, as any player I've coached as an assistant or head coach. He does it the right way. Mike is a guy who sticks his nose in every day, gets beat up and just keeps coming back for more.
"The effort put forth by Pete and Mike help the players they play against in practice every day, the players getting the majority of the minutes in games, improve and get better. Their contributions come in practice, and they've done a fabulous job."
Despite the losses in the backcourt, Jones feels his team will adjust.
"We're going to miss Harold, Jamal and Courtney, there's no question about that," Jones states. "We might not have as many experienced players as we've had at our perimeter positions, but I still feel we can get the job done."
Up front, the Cavaliers have starters returning in forward Norman Nolan and center Colin Ducharme. Lettermen Monte Marcaccini, Chase Metheney, Kris Hunter and Craig McAndrew also return, providing UVa with depth in the front court.
The only player missing among Virginia's inside players of a year ago is four-year letterman Martin Walton. Walton saw limited game action last season, playing only 10 minutes in eight games.
The 6-8 Nolan led UVa in rebounding in 1996-97 with an average of 7.4 rebounds a game. He also averaged 11.3 points and played an average of 29.9 minutes a game. His inside scoring will be critical for Virginia again this season.
"Norman has had two solid years as a double figure scorer and our leading rebounder, but there is more out there for him to accomplish," Jones said. "He needs to be a more consistent scorer and rebounder, and needs to play more consistently at a high level. I don't know if his minutes on the court will increase, but his performance during the time he's on the court can certainly be improved.
"One specific area where Norman needs a lot of improvement is in his free throw shooting. If we are going to put the ball inside and he's going to be aggressive taking it to the basket, he's going to get to the free throw line. We need for him to convert a higher percentage of his free throw opportunities.
"Norman and I have talked about what he needs to do to prepare for the 1997-98 season. He understood it was going to be a difficult summer in terms of preparation time and physical exertion, but it should also be the most rewarding summer of his life. I want him to enter this season feeling good about his preparation and about what he should be able to accomplish."
Ducharme (6-9, 243) was a pleasant surprise as a freshman last season. He played in all 31 games and started 22, averaging 5.5 points and 4.4 rebounds a game. He shot 55.7 percent from the field and 68.8 percent from the free throw line, and blocked a team-high 41 shots.
Ducharme provided the Cavaliers with a physical presence inside and his field goal percentage last season is the third best for a freshman in UVa history. It's the best field goal percentage by any Virginia player with at least 75 attempts since Olden Polynice made 57.2 percent of his shots from the field during the 1985-86 season.
"I think by any measure, Colin had a successful first year,' Jones states. "He certainly surpassed the expectations of most folks. The nice thing about Colin is whether it's basketball, academic work, weight lifting or running sprints, he competes. He doesn't compete to do average or to do well, he competes to excel.
"He was a big surprise last year. Going into last fall, we didn't expect anything remotely like what he provided for our team. Once we got into preseason practices we saw there was potential for him to make a positive contribution, but I don't believe the expectation was that he would end up in the starting lineup and perform the way he did."
"By virtue of his makeup, he will come back a better player than he was last season. Our expectations for Colin will not be out of line. A fair expectation is for him to come back improved and ready to build on the success he had last year."
Marcaccini, a 6-5 junior, can play either forward position. He played in 22 games and started five for the Cavaliers last season. A rugged rebounder for his size, he averaged 2.8 rebounds and 1.6 points a game.
"Monte helped our basketball team in certain situations last season," Jones states. "He's a hard worker and a hard-nosed young man who's not afraid to go after the basketball even if he's a little undersized.
"The thing we need to address with Monte, and that he needs to address, is his confidence. In practice scrimmage situations, he often makes shot after shot. In games, he never seems confident enough to take those shots. We'd like to see the contributions he's capable of making on a more consistent basis."
The 7-4 Metheney played in 24 games and started eight at center for the Cavaliers last season. He averaged 2.4 points and 2.6 rebounds a game, and blocked 27 shots. He shot 68.8 percent from the field (22-32) and 76.5 percent (13-17) from the free throw line.
"Chase has made big strides, no pun intended, since his arrival at Virginia," Jones said. "The important thing for Chase is being able to feel comfortable and confident enough in game situations to contribute on a more consistent basis. He was a very important factor in a number of our wins last season. I'm hopeful that will be true more often during the coming season."
McAndrew and Hunter, both 6-10, are expected to make more significant contributions during the 1997-98 season. McAndrew saw action in 17 games last season and played an average of 10.5 minutes a game. He scored six points and grabbed 29 rebounds (1.7 rpg.). Hunter played in 15 games and averaged 1.4 points and 1.6 rebounds a game.
"I think Craig lost confidence last season," Jones states. "He entered the season playing well and actually earned a starting position prior to the Maui Invitational. He was going to miss seven games right after that tournament, so I thought it would be better to start Chase and have Craig come off the bench in Maui. Craig played well in the tournament when you consider those games were his first games at the college level. Then he missed the seven games, came back and was injured, and missed three more games. After that, he never really seemed to get back on track and I know it bothered him.
"Craig's a smart player and someone who understands the game. He's the best passer among our inside players and probably understands defensive positioning better than any of our other players. With his size and other attributes, I believe building up his confidence and getting him back to where he was at the beginning of last year is really the key for him."
Jones also looks for an increased contribution from Hunter during the 1997-98 season.
"Kris made steady improvement last season," Jones said. "He kept his head on straight and wasn't up and down. He was consistent in his approach and that enabled him to become a better player by the end of the season.
"Kris might have more natural ability than any of our other players on the front line in terms of rebounding and blocking shots. Now that he's gone through a season at the collegiate level, he understands the other parts of the game a little bit better and is better prepared to help his teammates. I look for Kris to be improved and to be a factor for us this season."
Virginia's six inside players provide the Cavaliers with the potential of good depth in that area, but the loss of Alexander, Deane and Robinson has left UVa without experienced depth on the perimeter.
"With the continued development of our young players up front, we should have good depth at the inside positions," Jones states. "On the perimeter, we don't have as much experience as we've had in the past. Obviously, the big question mark is at the point guard position.
"It's too early to tell about our overall depth. We have a lot of young players who don't have much experience. Given time, I think we have players who can provide us with good depth."
Virginia's depth will impact on other areas of the Cavaliers' game. UVa has struggled to improve its shooting percentage from the field for several years and Jones is contemplating changes in the team's style of play to help with the efforts in that area.
"I think there's a pattern in college basketball that shows a decline in shooting percentages," Jones said. "There's a lot of debate as to why that's the case and any number of different reasons are given--bad shots, better defense, the three-point line. It's well documented that we've had our troubles shooting the basketball and it's a concern. It's not the primary concern, the primary concern is winning, but our shooting is a concern.
"I feel the lack of a consistent low-post scorer has been our Achilles' heel offensively. We need a player who can get the tough baskets inside and who can also get the easy, high percentage baskets if people don't respect you down low. We've got to continue to work to develop and establish that with our big guys. Shot selection for all of our players is always a key.
"This year, we may have to rethink what we're doing defensively, not because of weaknesses in our defense, but to enhance our offensive capabilities. Our defense has been our strength and our foundation, and I'm not sure we'd be totally comfortable making changes in that area, but we may have to consider changes in order to put up more points and get more easy opportunities."
The Cavaliers are famous for their suffocating defense. Virginia's opponents shot a combined 40.9 percent from the field last season, 31.7 percent from three point range, and the Cavaliers' allowed an average of just 65.0 points a game.
"We might make changes in how we play defensively, trying to force additional turnovers or put us in better rebounding position so we can get out in transition, but defense has to be our bread and butter," Jones states. "You look at the Atlantic Coast Conference, the ACC is a defensive league. There are teams that do a great job in scoring, but it's a defensive league. That's why the league has improved from top to bottom in recent years. All of the teams put an emphasis on strong defensive play. If you don't, you're not going to win."
Another area of concern for the UVa head coach is Virginia's rebounding, specifically at the Cavaliers' defensive end.
"Rebounding is something that in my opinion should not have been an issue for us last year," Jones said. "We should have been a better rebounding team than we were, but the fact remains at times we struggled getting the ball off our defensive backboard. That's got to be a point of emphasis for us.
"Playing three smaller players on the perimeter puts us at a size disadvantage at the three spot. Whomever plays there has got to at least neutralize that position. We got killed at that spot last year. In close games, which is the case in most ACC games, an offensive rebound can really swing the game in one team's favor.
"It's something we must address. We must improve on being a little bit tougher and certainly more consistent with our rebounding effort, particularly at the defensive end."
As Jones looks ahead to the 1997-98 season, he's like many coaches in that it's easier for him to point to areas of concern for his team than to areas of strength.
"The point guard position is an area of concern along with offensive production and defensive rebounding," Jones states. "How our freshmen point guards acclimate themselves to college life and college basketball will be important to our team.
"We're happy with Chezley and Donald. They seem to be hungry players who are willing to do whatever it takes to make a contribution and to accept whatever role is assigned to them. That attitude is going to help them collectively make an impact.
"It's difficult to identify areas that might be considered strengths, but I can identify areas that could potentially be strong for us. Curtis Staples can put some points on the board. Our frontcourt has good potential, especially if Chase Metheney, Kris Hunter and Craig McAndrew show improvement."
Virginia's schedule is another challenging one. Last season, UVa's schedule was ranked the third most difficult among Division I teams by one publication. Over the last six years, the Cavaliers' schedule has been ranked among the 10 most difficult in the nation five times.
In addition to 16 games against Atlantic Coast Conference opponents, the Cavaliers non-conference schedule features a trip to the Rainbow Classic Tournament in Honolulu, Hawaii, in December, games with Appalachian State, Connecticut and Delaware, and seven games against in-state opponents including UVa's annual game with Virginia Tech.
"The ACC is going to be very, very good," Jones said. "In some ways it's going to be hard to duplicate the regular season of a year ago because it is such a powerful league. I don't see any reason why the league, as a whole, shouldn't be as good. It would not surprise me to see three teams in the preseason Top 10. As usual, a number of other teams, depending on how things develop, could end up among the top teams in the nation.
"If you can get through the ACC in good shape, then you know you can basically compete with anyone in the country. But you have to make sure it doesn't destroy you."
The 1997-98 season is Jones' eighth as the Cavaliers' head coach. His Virginia teams have compiled an overall record of 135-85, participated in five NCAA Tournaments and won the 1992 National Invitation Tournament (NIT) championship. He's hoping the coming season is yet another successful one to which Virginia fans can "point."
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A 1985 graduate of UVA, White worked at the Richmond Times-Dispatch until July 2009. He was honored six times as the state's Sportswriter of the Year.
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