Gillen's Virginia turns woes to wins

Quick, aggressive Cavs bring 15-5 record to Cole

ACC notebook

February 02, 2000|By Paul McMullen | Paul McMullen,SUN STAFF

The wins are coming as fast as the one-liners again.

Equal parts Rick Majerus and Rodney Dangerfield, Pete Gillen needed all of his coaching savvy and self-deprecating humor to resurrect a Virginia program that had degenerated into the joke of the Atlantic Coast Conference.

Last season, he milked four conference wins out of the thinnest rotation in the ACC, and now the deepest is doing the laughing.

The Cavaliers continue their mission to climb from worst to well, second in the ACC at Cole Field House tonight. If Dangerfield doesn't get any respect, Gillen doesn't want any. He said so Sunday, after Virginia scored its fifth straight victory and the 11th in its last 13 games at Wake Forest, and Gillen practically begged not to be ranked.

It was a primer in the ways of the wisest guy with a New York accent since Bugs Bunny. Behind the "Woe is us, we're lucky to have a pulse" shtick is a coach who has sprung some monumental upsets in the NCAA tournament and shaken up the pecking order in the ACC quicker than even he expected.

Two years ago, the Cavaliers had two All-ACC-caliber players and three conference wins. Gillen was hired to clean up the mess left behind by Jeff Jones, and somehow he got four ACC victories out of six scholarship players last season.

A renowned recruiting class arrived last fall, but four holdovers remain a vital part of a mix that has made Virginia 15-5 overall, 5-2 in the ACC.

Skip Prosser was Gillen's right-hand man at Xavier from 1985 to 1993, and took over at the Cincinnati school in 1994, when his mentor moved to Providence. He said that Gillen has one act for the outside world and another for his team.

"Pete does an excellent job of instilling confidence in his kids," Prosser said. "Privately, he might tell you that he's walking into Armageddon, but when he's with his team, he does an excellent job of getting his players to believe in themselves."

Chris Williams, a lightly regarded recruit out of Birmingham, Ala., was the ACC Rookie of the Year under Gillen's prodding last season. Junior guard Donald Hand was a disaster two years ago, when he turned the ball over when he wasn't forcing a dubious shot. Circumstances forced Gillen to give him a free hand last season, and Hand has thrived in an up-tempo system.

Willie Dersch is another case in point. The 6-foot-6 wing was a McDonald's and Parade All-American in high school, but an enormous bust in two seasons under Jones. Out of necessity, he played 31 minutes a game last season. His time has been trimmed in half this season, but he's been more effective than ever.

"My second year, things were pretty tough here," Dersch said of a 1997-98 season in which Jones was fired after a series of player arrests and defections led to an 11-19 record, Virginia's worst in 30 years. "My confidence was gone. Coach Gillen came in and started working on the individuals that were here. I could see he was trying to make us believe in ourselves.

"I was the hungriest guy here. The recruits saw how hungry we were last year, and now that they've come in, we come at you in waves."

Ten different players have started, and four have been named ACC player or rookie of the week. Nine players average more than 10 minutes for the Cavaliers, who have seen their bench outscore the opposition's, 563-331. Dersch might start, but one of the freshmen, such as Roger Mason, is more likely to finish for Virginia.

"Last year's team showed a lot of heart and character, and we just picked up on that," Mason said.

A 6-5 wing from Good Counsel High in Wheaton, Mason was part of a stellar freshman class that was rated second in the nation, behind Duke's. Point guard Majestic Mapp was the first to commit, and Mason and Travis Watson followed suit. The perimeter game got a boost from Keith Friel, a transfer from Notre Dame, and junior college transfer Stephane Dondon provided another rebounder.

Watson, 6-7 and 251 pounds, is Virginia's prime low-post threat. The Cavaliers don't have a true center and their field-goal percentage defense is worst in the conference, but opponents can't always get the ball to the basket, as their pressure has forced an ACC-best 20.2 turnovers per game.

"Until you see them with the naked eye," Wake Forest coach Dave Odom said, "I don't think you have a real appreciation for the quickness of their entire team."

It would be interesting to see how Gillen adapts to being Goliath, because he has prospered in the David role.

Before the 1987 NCAA tournament, he said that fourth-seeded Missouri was "like Noah's Ark. They've got two of everybody." Xavier, a 13th seed, won. In 1990, the Musketeers knocked off a Georgetown team that had Alonzo Mourning and Dikembe Mutombo. A year later, Nebraska was a No. 3 seed and Xavier a 14 when Gillen spun more magic.

Closer to home, Duke was a No. 2 seed in 1997 when it was bounced out of the second round by Providence, a 10. "It's good to put the ball in God's hands at the end," Gillen said, since his point guard was God Shammgod.

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