Four of Virginia's starters are underclassmen, which creates an interesting predicament for Cavaliers Coach Dave Leitao. He's sees the promise in his young squad, sees flashes of their potential shine through. But he also has to live through the present, where there are, at best, overcast skies.
Virginia is 7-7 overall and 1-2 in ACC play entering tomorrow night's matchup against Maryland at Comcast Center, and on Sunday, Leitao spoke over the phone about some of the highs and lows his squad has experienced so far this season.
"There obviously is an upside (to having a young lineup), because you hope that at some point, sooner rather than later, the maturity will kick in and their experiences will pay off and they'll be able to call on yesterday in order to get ready for tomorrow," said Leitao, who is in his fourth season at the helm in Charlottesville. "When you don't have a yesterday it makes it a little bit of a challenge. The other part of it is I'm making sure I'm patient in coming to the gym everyday from a very optomistic point of view in terms of making them better and more experienced."
One player who seems to be coming along quite nicely is freshman guard Sylven Landesberg (6-foot-6, 205 lbs.), who is averaging a team-high 17.3 points per game. Leitao admits neither he nor his coaching staff nor Landesberg himself expected this kind of offensive outpouring so early in Landesberg's career, but the coach certainly isn't complaining.
"Defenses are only going to get more difficult as scouting reports catch up and take away some of the things he does, so he'll have to adjust, but we're very happy with his output," Leitao said. "I saw some of it coming cause I knew he was good, but at the same time, the kind of points that he's putting up, it was pleasantly surprising for all of us."
Leitao noted driving the ball at opposing defenses and accumulating free throw attempts are the two areas in which Landesberg especially has excelled. Landesberg is shooting 46.6 percent from the field and 82.4 percent (84-for-102) from the free throw line.
But as opposing defenses become more familiar with Landesberg's tendencies, Leitao said the precocious guard will have to hone his mid- and long-range shooting abilities to counteract defensive adjustments. Landesberg is shooting 27.3 percent from three-point range.
Another player who Leitao would like to see become more well-rounded is sophomore forward Mike Scott (6-foot-8, 233 lbs.). Scott averages 11.6 points and a team-high 8.9 rebounds per game. He is shooting 57.4 percent from the field.
"To have a presence down there that can get almost 10 rebounds a game is something that becomes a pretty good luxury to have," Leitao said. "Like most guys that play in the frontcourt it's just the ability to diversify his offense and be consistent with it, not just with how he scores the ball or rebounds the ball, but in his impact on the team and his defense, especially."
Defense was a significant concern of Leitao's early in the season, but it also is an area in which he feels the team has developed significantly in recent weeks. Virginia ranks last in the ACC in scoring defense, allowing 72.1 points per game.
"We started off a little disappointing defensively at the beginning of the year, and I think we've talked about it and worked on it as a group, and over the last two or three weeks, we've seen some pretty good improvement, not only in our energy level, but also with how we've been able to stay with certain positions," Leitao said. "Although we're not nearly where we want to be at, there has been improvement in that area. Transition defense is still a work in progress."
The Cavaliers have some promising defensive talents. Freshman guard Sammy Zeglinski (6-foot-0, 179 lbs.) has tallied 19 steals to go along with his 10.8 points per game. He also leads the team with 55 assists.
Freshman center Assane Sene (7-foot-0, 234 lbs.) leads the team with 21 blocks and also contributes 5.8 rebounds per game.
And then there's senior swingman Mamadi Diane (6-foot-5, 204 lbs.), who has not had as solid a season as some observers originally believed he would. Diane recovered slowly from surgery on his right foot that he underwent during the summer. While working his way back into shape, Diane developed pain in his right knee. As a result, his numbers -- 4.5 points and 2.5 rebounds per game; 29.3 percent shooting from the field -- have been sub-par.
"When you sit out a whole summer, it kind of affects a lot of different things, one of which is your game and the kind of rhythm that you're accustomed to," Leitao said. "When that's the case, it can affect your confidence, so what we're trying to do with him is simplify and manage him through that by just having him focus on smaller things -- running the court, boxing out, getting to the foul line, offensive rebounding, things that you can do that take you away from looking specifically at the stat sheet and thinking, 'How many points did I get,' and 'What'd I shoot?' or 'I missed that shot.'
"I think a lot of young guys think of it like that, and I'm not saying Mo is one of them, but I just want to make sure to kind of have him zero in on the right things."
Virginia holds a +4.7 average rebounding margin, but its number and frequency of turnovers are more of a concern for Leitao heading into Tuesday night's game against the Terps. The Cavaliers hold a -0.4 turnover margin and a 1.0 assist/turnover ratio, which means they're not sloppy with the ball, but they're not exactly the most solid caretakers, either.
As for reserves, Virginia can bring some size (6-foot-9, 241-lb. junior forward Jamil Tucker), some defensive acumen (6-foot-2, 186-lb. junior guard Calvin Baker) and some three-point shooting prowess (6-foot-4, 179-lb. sophomore guard Mustapha Farrakhan) off the bench.
"Fortunately or unfortunately, we've had enough games to kind of judge some things that we do pretty well and some holes that we need to continue to fill and get better at," Leitao said. "I'm not nearly to the point where I'm satisfied with everything that we're doing cause we still have to get better in a number of areas or have to become more consistent in some areas."
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