University of Virginia men's head basketball coach Jeff Jones is in uncharted territory as he prepares for the 1996-97 season. For the first time as the Cavaliers' head coach, Jones' team is coming off a losing season.
In his first five seasons as UVa's head coach, Jones' teams won 20 or more games four times and never won fewer than 18 games. The Cavaliers made four NCAA Tournament appearances (6-4 record, reached the "Sweet 16" in 1993 and the "Elite Eight" in 1995) and won the National Invitation Tournament (NIT) Championship in 1992.
Last season Virginia struggled to a 12-15 overall record and a seventh place finish (6-10) in the Atlantic Coast Conference. That came a year after the Cavaliers compiled a 25-9 overall record, tied for the ACC regular season championship with a league mark of 12-4, reached the championship game of the NCAA Midwest Regional and finished the season ranked in both major polls (eighth in the USA Today/CNN poll and 13th in The Associated Press poll).
The first few months after the 1995-96 season were also unsettling off the court, but as Jones looks ahead to the 1996-97 season, he is hopeful his team has weathered the difficulties of last season.
"Last season was disappointing on a number of fronts," Jones said. "It was painful for all of us to go through some of the things that we faced, but I think our attitude has been to fight through them and to look forward.
"It was frustrating and draining at times last year, for both the coaching staff and the players. When you're fighting the distractions we had, whether it be losing or issues away from the basketball court, it makes it more difficult to fully concentrate and focus on the task at hand. I think the inconsistency we had last season was probably an extension of not having real good concentration and not focusing on doing all of the little things that a good basketball team needs to do."
Jones has nine lettermen, including four starters, returning from last season. On paper, the perimeter positions look talented and deep, but inside the Cavaliers need to overcome considerable inexperience to provide the physical presence Jones desires.
"We're not going to be facing the unrealistic expectations this season that we faced early last year," Jones states. "Things will be a little more balanced and maybe that's going to be good for this group.
"We're not going to go out and try to prove anything based on last year. What we want to do is go out and do the absolute best job possible. If we do the best job we possibly can, the season will be, on all fronts, a much better season than we experienced last year.
"We can't keep trying to make up for last year. That's done; it's in the books and we're not going to change anything. What we can do is something about the coming year. We can work our tails off, pull together in one direction and focus on one goal. That goal is to be the very best basketball team and the very best representative we can be, collectively, for the University of Virginia."
Junior Norman Nolan returns to the starting position at power forward and is the most experienced of Virginia's inside players. The 6-8 Nolan averaged 9.5 points a game and led UVa in rebounding with an average of 7.0 a game (eighth in the ACC) last season. UVa was 7-2 when Nolan scored 12 or more points, and he's the man expected to provide a good bit of Virginia's inside offense during the 1996-97 season.
"Norman had a solid sophomore year," Jones said. "Maybe it didn't meet what the team needed, but there was clearly improvement from his freshman year to his sophomore year. It's not a stretch of the imagination to expect Norman to improve at least as much between his sophomore and junior years.
"He has really worked on trying to become better physically. In terms of his on-the-court performance, I think he'd like to be more consistent. Norman understands there's a clear connection between your physical preparation and your mental discipline."
Red-shirt sophomore Chase Metheney and senior Martin Walton are the only other players with collegiate experience returning to the two inside positions. The 7-4 Metheney played in 22 games last season and started two. He averaged 1.9 points and 2.1 rebounds a game, and blocked 20 shots while averaging 8.0 minutes played a game. He provides an obvious presence when he's in the game and will be counted on to play more minutes.
"Chase has continued to develop," Jones states. "At times last season he showed why the coaches and his teammates have so much faith in the type of player he is going to become. It's a matter of experience and time for him.
"He improved a great deal between his first and second year in the program. I think this might be the year Chase feels more comfortable on the court and is able to make a big contribution."
Walton, a 6-9 walk-on who is in his fourth year in the UVa program, saw the most action of his career last season. He played in 13 games, scoring four points and grabbing 17 rebounds.
"Martin has worked hard," Jones said. "It hasn't always been a smooth ride, but he's built himself up in terms of his strength and is likely to see some minutes this year. When called on last season, particularly in the Virginia Commonwealth game, Martin responded with some tough, hard-nosed basketball. That's what we've grown accustomed to seeing from him in practice and I'm sure he hopes he'll have more opportunities to show his ability in game situations."
Virginia's remaining inside players are freshmen Colin Ducharme (6-9), Kris Hunter (6-10) and Craig McAndrew (6-10). Ducharme averaged 17 points, 11 rebounds and five blocked shots a game at Douglas Freeman High School in Richmond, Va., last year.
"Colin has worked extremely hard since the end of his senior season in high school on his basketball skills and his physical strength," Jones states. "He definitely has an aggressiveness and an attitude that enables him to be physical and very effective down low. Those are qualities that will serve him well, but also are qualities that I hope will rub off on our basketball team. Whether it's just Colin's makeup or his football side coming out, that type of physical competitiveness is a welcome addition to our team."
Hunter averaged 15.4 points, 13.8 rebounds and 7.1 blocked shots a game as a senior at Florida A&M University Development Research High School in Tallahassee, Fla.
"Kris Hunter is a player full of potential and very hungry to learn," Jones said. "That's an extremely desirable combination for a coach. He's athletic with extremely long arms. While his defensive skills, especially his shot-blocking skills, are ahead of his offense, he possesses the ability to finish around the basket. I think people should look for Kris to get minutes early and to be a player that progresses and improves from game to game.
McAndrew, from Wonga Beach, Australia, was a member of the Australian team that finished second at the World Junior Championships in the summer of 1995. The NCAA has ruled him ineligible for seven games during the 1996-97 season because he was a developmental player with an Australian professional team, the Perth Wildcats, last season. McAndrew can play in the season-opening Maui Invitational (November 25-27) but then must sit out the Cavaliers' next seven games. He is eligible to play in UVa's two exhibition games and can practice with the team through the preseason and regular season.
"Craig McAndrew, quite honestly, was a pleasant surprise," Jones states. "We were very late getting involved with Craig, but fortunately for us it worked out.
"He is a very mature young man for his age, both physically and emotionally. He's very focused on his goals and what it's going to take to reach those goals. Craig's played against older players for awhile, so he's aggressive and used to physical contact. He can give us a physical presence inside and has the ability to make good basketball plays."
Jones has some very definite thoughts about what's needed from his inside players during the upcoming season.
"It's very important for us to establish ourselves in the lane and have a physical presence that we lacked many times last season," Jones said. "We'll work on being physically tough, but also on being mentally tough, and not having the lapses and inconsistencies we had last year.
"While we have some young players, they are competitive young men who expect to do well. I think they understand what we need to do inside this season in order for the team to be successful."
The Cavaliers have depth and versatility at the perimeter positions. Senior guard Harold Deane led the Cavaliers in scoring (16.7), assists (3.7) and minutes played (35.6 ) last season. He is the fourth player in school history to lead the team in scoring and assists in the same season. The 6-2 Deane has been a second-team All-Atlantic Coast Conference selection each of the last two seasons.
Deane took a leave of absence from the team following the 1995-96 season and did not participate in UVa's European trip in August. He rejoined the team for preseason activities--including individual skill sessions with members of the coaching staff, and strength and conditioning workouts--in September of 1996.
"When Harold is relaxed and focused, he's a tremendous basketball player," said Jones. "He's not the flashy, glamourous type of player that some people might want him to be. Harold Deane is a throw back. He's a hard-nosed, solid, fundamental basketball player, who sometimes by sheer will is able to help his basketball team win.
"It's important that our team learns what makes you good and takes it to heart. We're not a finesse team and we're not a glamourous team. We're a team that needs to out-work, out-hustle and out-scrap our opponent. That needs to be our mindset from day one.
"Harold contributes to that mentality for our team."
The other returning starters on the perimeter are 6-3 junior guard Curtis Staples and 6-6 sophomore forward/guard Courtney Alexander. Staples was second on the team in scoring last season with an average of 14.0 points a game and also averaged 2.1 assists a game. He led the team in three-point field goals for the second year in a row (82) and his 185 three-point field goals his first two seasons in the UVa program rank him first on the Cavaliers' career list in that category. Staples averaged 35.4 minutes played a game last season and teamed with Deane to become the first backcourt in school history to average over 35 minutes played a game.
"Curtis was hurt badly by the disappointments of last season," Jones said. "I think he wants to assume more of a leadership role this season, if not vocally at least by example. He's worked extremely hard in the offseason. I think he's ready to have a very good year and to assist his teammates in having a good year."
Alexander was named to the ACC's All-Freshman Team after averaging 13.9 points and 4.5 rebounds a game, and shooting 48.7 percent from the field (147-302) during the 1995-96 season. In the final nine games of last season, Alexander averaged 19.9 points a game and shot 52 percent from the field. His scoring average last year is the fourth highest by a freshman in school history.
"Courtney is our most talented basketball player," Jones states. "He's the player I think, in all likelihood, will be the key figure for us as far as scoring is concerned. He can put points on the board in a lot of different ways. We're expecting him to pick up where he left off last season.
"The important thing is for Courtney to understand there are other areas where he needs considerable improvement. If a team relys on someone to score, that player is very important, but it can't be a tradeoff to a great degree. His defense and his court awareness need to move to the next level for our basketball team to fully enjoy Courtney's outstanding scoring ability."
Team captain Jamal Robinson, a 6-7 senior, saw most of his action off the bench for UVa a year ago and averaged 7.5 points and 2.5 assists a game. He was third on the team in rebounds with an average of 5.3 a game. An exceptional athlete, Robinson can play the point, second guard or small forward.
"It's an important year for Jamal," Jones said. "He is taking very seriously his responsibility as team captain. I think he knows that since his freshman year, everyone has been waiting for him to blossom into the type of player we think and hope he can become.
"He has to be comfortable with who Jamal Robinson is, particularly as a basketball player. With the added maturity we've seen, I think that will happen. Once he's able to relax, accept that he's not a big scorer, but that he does a lot of other very, very important things on the court, then I think we'll see him confident. With confidence, his play will be more consistent over time.
"Jamal has been, and will continue to be, a big part of our basketball team's success."
Adding to Virginia's perimeter depth are red-shirt sophomore Monte Marcaccini and freshman Willie Dersch. The 6-5 Marcaccini sat out last season after transferring to Virginia from Pepperdine University. He started 26 games as a freshman at Pepperdine during the 1994-95 season and averaged 9.9 points and 4.6 rebounds a game.
"Monte had a good year behind the scenes as a transfer last year," Jones states. "He's very serious about his basketball and he'll practice for hours trying to improve. His willingness to be physical combined with his perimeter shooting touch will make him a valuable asset for our team.
"Monte probably won't be a creator, but he finds himself open and last year showed consistent ability in practice to knock down those open shots. If he can do that for us this coming season, that will be a very important contribution from the small forward position."
The 6-5 Dersch, from Floral Park, N.Y., averaged 19.9 points, seven rebounds and four assists a game as a senior at Holy Cross High School. He was a McDonald's All-America selection.
"Willie has a lot to learn, but he's played against great competition and he's a confident young player," Jones said. "He won't be intimidated by the other quality players we have in the program. Willie will determine what he needs to do, whether it be scoring, playmaking, moving without the ball, or as a defensive catalyst, to help the team be successful.
"He is an intelligent basketball player that has an outstanding feel for the game. He wants to be on the court contributing in any way possible."
Providing additional depth in the backcourt are walk-on junior guards Michael Curtis (6-3) and Peter McLaughlin (6-2). They both saw limited action last year, but have lettered for the Cavaliers each of the last two seasons.
"Mike Curtis and Pete McLaughlin are two of my favorites," Jones states. "I love their attitude, their hustle and the fact they don't cut themselves or anyone else any slack during practice. They do a lot to push the guys ahead of them. In doing that, they've improved their own games to the point where if we need them to, they can step in and do a commendable job in game situations."
Virginia's versatility on the perimeter comes from the fact that Robinson can play anywhere from point guard to small forward, while Deane can play either point or second guard, and Alexander and Dersch can play either second guard or small forward. Staples is primarily a second guard and Marcaccini is likely to see most of his action at small forward.
"I think it's obvious for even the most casual observer that we're going to have some pretty competitive early season practices," Jones said. "At the three perimeter spots, we've got as many as six players who are going to seriously compete for playing time. I think that can end up being very much a positive for our basketball team.
"The competition will be healthy and it will be hard fought, but it will be done in the right way with the idea that we all want to help the team. I think in some ways all of our players are looking forward to being pushed in a way that maybe they haven't been recently.
"The perimeter should be a strength for us, but the bottom line is what we do on the court. As we saw last year, a lot of factors can impact on how an individual or how a group of individuals play. We can't count on how good things look on paper. We've got to make sure that our actions speak much louder than our words."
One area where Virginia's actions are normally very good is in the area of team defense. Last season, the Cavaliers held their opponents to 39.4 percent shooting from the field and an average of 68.8 points a game. UVa ranked second in the ACC and 10th among Division I teams in the nation in field goal percentage defense, and third in the conference in scoring defense.
"Our defense is something that we consider the cornerstone of any success we might experience," Jones states. "We take a lot of pride in our defense. While statistically our defense last season seemed to be a strength, we were never really satisfied with our ability to stop people when it really counted. We've got to do a much better job at the defensive end."
Virginia's defensive rebounding was a concern for Jones last year and continues to be a concern as he prepares for the season ahead. The Cavaliers were sixth in the ACC in rebound margin (+1.4) and as far as their coach is concerned, allowed opponents far too many second chance opportunities.
"Along with our lack of inside scoring, our defensive rebounding probably stood out to me as being one of our biggest problems last season," Jones said. "As a team, we need to do a much better job of taking care of our defensive boards.
"Defensive rebounding is an important part of a team's defensive performance because it's basically the end of a defensive possession and the start of an offensive possession. If you're going to work real hard defensively, it's vitally important that you not only make your opponent miss, but you claim the rebound. If you don't, in some ways it's a wasted effort.
"We've got to be more physical, we've got to be more active and we've got to take greater pride in stopping our opponent and finishing the defensive possession with a rebound. If we can do that, the additional bonus is the opportunity to get in the open court offensively with players like Courtney Alexander, Curtis Staples and Jamal Robinson."
Additional open court opportunities on offense could also help the Cavaliers' field goal percentage. After improving to 44.4 percent in 1994-95, UVa dropped to 41.6 percent last season and ranked last in the conference in that department.
"We've got to be more selective on the perimeter, and towards the end of last season I think we were doing a better job of choosing our shots," Jones states. "We must make the defense honor us inside. If we're able to do that, not only will we get some high percentage shots, but it will give our perimeter shooters more room so they're not shooting guarded shots as often as they did last season.
"If we can do a better job on the defensive boards and get out in transition, that should help our shooting percentage a little bit too."
As far as the Cavaliers' style of play in 1996-97, that will be determined once preseason practice is underway.
"People shouldn't expect any drastic changes, but at the same time we have to find a way for our basketball team to be successful with the talent on hand," Jones said. "If the makeup of our team is such that we have to make some significant and noticeable changes in our style of play, that's what we'll do. We won't make any final decisions until we actually get on the court."
One thing is certain: Virginia's schedule will be another challenging one. Last season, UVa's schedule was ranked the third most difficult among Division I teams by one publication. In addition to 16 games against Atlantic Coast Conference opponents, the Cavaliers non-conference schedule features a trip to the Maui Invitational in November, a game at Connecticut in December and six games against in-state opponents including UVa's annual game with Virginia Tech.
"I think our schedule once again is going to be very difficult and very challenging," Jones states. "We take pride in the quality of our schedule, but it often goes unnoticed. That made me re-evaluate how desirable it is to play a schedule that is going to be in the top five or 10 in the country. Virtually every year, our schedule is among the nation's most difficult, but somewhere along the line that's forgotten or overlooked.
"We've got some very tough non-conference games in addition to our conference schedule. We've also got several in-state games which always take on added emotion and importance because of the rivalries within the state. As far as the ACC is concerned, I think the coming season has the potential to be a great one for our league."
Jones recognizes there is work to be done after Virginia's disappointing 1995-96 season, and he's not shying away from that work.
"For years, the Virginia basketball program has been a model of consistency," Jones said. "In recent years, we've tried to take that next step and we saw some signs that we were close to accomplishing that goal. Clearly the past season was a setback of sorts, but by no means do I think we aren't able to rebound from that and come back strong.
"We've got good people in the program and surrounding the program, individuals that expect to be successful and know what it takes to be successful. There's a commitment here and we'll work together to gradually get back where we belong."
Jones doesn't have to look very far back to see where he thinks his Cavaliers belong. As he approaches his seventh season as UVa's head coach (117-72 record in six seasons), he remembers the lessons learned a year ago, but is anxious to put the disappointment of the 1995-96 season behind him and his team.