CHARLOTTESVILLE -- Look closely here, and the subtle changes in the Virginia basketball program become apparent. The office furniture has been rearranged, a cosmetic refurbishing of University Hall has been completed, and a certain lanky, silver-haired gentleman has departed.
But except for a new scheme involving a gambling defense and an up-tempo offense, the system established in 16 years under Terry Holland remains largely intact, so much so that his successor -- longtime assistant Jeff Jones -- wears the label of "new coach" with reluctant acquiescence.
"I really don't feel like a new coach," said Jones, who succeeded Holland in April after a 10-month national search. "The framework of what we're trying to do is pretty much the same. One of the strengths of this team is that the players know the system that they've come from and have confidence in it. To change that would be like bringing in a new coach."
Recruiting concerns about Jones's youth -- he'll become the ACC's youngest head coach ever at 30 when Virginia opens its conference schedule Jan. 5 at Duke -- seemingly have been alleviated with four top prospects committing to Virginia for next season, leaving other recruiters trying to keep up.
His players suggest half-jokingly that the early commitments were the result of a party thrown by point guard John Crotty following the annual "Blue-Orange" basketball scrimmage two weeks ago, when honorary celebrity coaches Woody Harrelson of "Cheers" and singer Bruce Hornsby appeared at Crotty's apartment, where recruits of both the men's and women's basketball teams were in attendance.
"I was impressed with Coach Jones because he went here and can relate to the players so well," said 6-foot-9 forward Chris Alexander of Long Branch (N.J.) High, who chose Virginia on Nov. 7. "I saw his youth as a positive thing."
Virginia's top seven players return from last season's squad, which finished 20-12 despite the distractions of Holland's swan song tour and the marathon search for his successor.
Jones will stick with last season's starting lineup of guards Crotty and Anthony Oliver, center Ted Jeffries, and forwards Bryant Stith and Kenny Turner. Highly regarded Cornel Parker, who spent a year at Fork Union Military Academy after failing to score 700 on his SAT at Maury (Va.) High, should compete for playing time.
Forward Matt Blundin, the football team's backup quarterback, again will juggle his December between the two sports while off-guard Terry Kirby, the starting tailback, will join the basketball team after the Sugar Bowl.
Jones has implemented a pressing defense and a fast-break offense to capitalize on Virginia's deepest bench in years and Jeffries' 20-pound offseason weight loss. "Ted worked his butt off," Jones said. The first result was a fast-paced 92-75 victory over the German national team here Tuesday, although the Cavaliers' sporadic effectiveness on defense was the biggest departure from Holland thus far.
Virginia has been ranked No. 7 by one preseason publication and No. 18 by the Associated Press, giving rise to such optimism that scalpers were commanding $25 for tickets to the soldout intrasquad game.
"This is the first time in my four years that we have an experienced team coming back and haven't had to start from scratch," said Crotty, an honorable mention all-American last season. "We can say, for the first time, that an ACC championship is a realistic goal without having anyone chuckle."
For Jones, it's a far cry from March, when he was recruiting for a program that gave him no guarantees of future employment. But Athletic Director Jim Copeland's odyssey for Holland's replacement ended just steps from where it began, with the former Virginia player, graduate assistant, and full-time staff member named to the position he always wanted.
"Right now, we're so involved with recruiting and preparing for the year, that there's no time to sit back and say that things are going pretty good," Jones said. "I wouldn't want to get carried away, since our staff and players have been working so hard, but things have turned out nicely."