At a preseason pep rally for the Virginia men's basketball team last Friday, noted musician and local resident Bruce Hornsby asked Cavaliers freshman Roger Mason to join him on the piano. Mason held his own during a 10-minute duet that brought the crowd to its feet. In much the same way, Mason and the rest of Virginia's heralded recruiting class will be asked to step in immediately and play with the best once the season starts in two weeks.
"We think they are the real deal," Virginia Coach Pete Gillen said. "We don't think they are paper tigers. We think they are good players. Time will tell how good. They are going to compete for starting jobs. Whoever earns it, earns it. I wouldn't be surprised if we have some of our new guys in the starting lineup."
This year's depth, variety and weakened ACC offer hope for Virginia's first postseason berth since 1996-97. The foundation, based on Williams, sophomore guard-forward Adam Hall and the freshman class, is young enough--forward Willie Dersch is the team's lone senior--that this season might be the harbinger of better years to come.
"We're tremendously excited for a lot of reasons," Gillen said. "We have some very talented players. We have a lot of options; we can play big, we can play small. [The young players] have done very well at this early stage. They are all going to contribute. They've showed they are legitimate players."
Gillen said recently only two players are certain starters: small forward Chris Williams, the 1999 ACC rookie of the year, and junior point guard Donald Hand. According to the coaches, two recruits--freshman power forward Travis Watson and junior college transfer Stephane Dondon, a forward--are on the inside track for spots, but the coaches plan to change the starting lineup often during the early going. Mason and junior shooting guard Keith Friel, a Notre Dame transfer, are also in the mix.
The six recruits join five scholarship returnees from Gillen's first season, in addition to junior forward Colin Ducharme, a redshirt in 1998-99 after an ankle injury. Gillen plans to go 10-deep during games, but which 10 he will use remains to be decided.
The talent of the recruits and the returnees gives Gillen a variety of options, a stark contrast to the struggles of the depleted Cavaliers' 14-16 season in 1998-99. Losses to graduation and injury left Gillen with six scholarship players last season, yet the team nearly ended up with a National Invitation Tournament berth.
Perhaps the most exciting position for both the present and the future is at point guard, at which the Cavaliers have an excellent starter in Hand and a highly touted prospect in freshman Majestic Mapp. A Bronx, N.Y., native, Mapp has dramatically improved his shooting during the preseason and figures to compete for playing time. While it is unlikely he will unseat Hand for the starting spot, Mapp's presence will allow Hand to play fewer than the 34.9 minutes per game he averaged last season. Gillen said Hand often will shift to the shooting guard spot and play alongside Mapp.
Hand, a Paterson, N.J., native, has begun grooming Mapp for the rigors of the ACC.
"I have a great relationship with him," Hand said. "We're from the same area up north. We can relate no matter [who plays]. This here is a business. To be the best, we have to bring in the best players. I feel he's a great addition to the team."
Mason, a first-team All-Met from Good Counsel, offers more than a mean keyboard solo. A 6-foot-5, 195-pound guard-forward, Mason played all three perimeter positions in high school.
Friel will fight with Mason and Hall for time at shooting guard. Friel, a strong shooter from long range, averaged 8.9 points in 17.9 minutes per game while a sophomore at Notre Dame in 1997-98.
Watson, a 6-7 power forward originally from Dallas, figures to play significant minutes alongside or in place of Ducharme at power forward or center. But while Watson's rebounding and inside scoring have been impressive, his weight, listed at 251 pounds, is too much and has concerned the coaches during practice.
The only true center the Cavaliers have is 6-10 freshman Jason Rogers, from nearby Staunton, Va. Rogers's inside defense, particularly his shot blocking, could come in handy on a roster that has just two other players--Ducharme and Dondon--listed at 6-8 or taller.
The biggest surprise of the preseason has been the development of Dondon, who transferred from Collins County Community College in Dallas after averaging 14.2 points and 8.5 rebounds per game as a sophomore last season. Coaches said that Dondon, a Toulouse, France, native by way of Senegal, has impressed them with his athleticism and shooting range. At 6-8 and 239 pounds, he provides one of the Cavaliers' few big options and could play significant minutes in the post.
"I don't mind what position I play," Dondon said. "I just want to be on the court, helping my team with what I bring to the table."