Tod Kowalczyk and Dan Hurley warmly recall their last years as Rutgers assistants, the back-to-back NIT bids and the promise of a young, homegrown backcourt of Dahntay Jones and Todd Billet.
"Getting him meant everything to Rutgers basketball," said Kowalczyk, coach of Wisconsin-Green Bay after a stint at Marquette. "It doesn't get any better for a place like Rutgers than Todd Billet."
In a matter of weeks, Jones transferred to Duke and Kowalczyk moved on to Marquette, and Rutgers was sent into a tailspin that resulted in an 11-16 record the following season and the firing of coach Kevin Bannon. Hurley was let go along with Bannon, as was Geoff Billet, Todd's older brother, who had returned to Rutgers as an assistant after a standout four-year career for the Scarlet Knights.
"Everybody was leaving," Hurley said. "Todd was left alone."
Billet, who grew up in Middletown, 25 miles from the Rutgers campus, and had watched nearly every one of Geoff's home games, saw his chances of playing in the NCAA tournament slipping away and decided to transfer to Virginia.
"Our family was a big part of the Rutgers program," said Geoff Billet, now an assistant at Monmouth. "Our parents were at every game, home and away. They were close with everyone."
Tonight, the family will be sitting behind the Virginia bench as Todd, a junior guard who is struggling along with the Cavaliers (5-2) in the early season, returns to the Scarlet Knights' notorious Louis Brown Athletic Center.
"When Todd came, I thought about not playing [the game]," Virginia Coach Pete Gillen said. "It's not a great situation, but he's a gutty kid."
Billet's adjustment to Charlottesville was fine. During his transfer year he roomed with a high school friend on the Cavaliers' soccer team, Sean Feeney, and his family remains convinced it was the right move.
But his on-court transition has not been as smooth. After averaging 16.6 points and 4.2 assists as a sophomore, he is averaging 13.4 points and 2.4 assists this season. Since scoring 28 points in a loss to Michigan State on Dec. 4, he has scored 11 against East Tennessee State and five against Gardner-Webb in unconvincing wins.
"During my sophomore year at Rutgers I was very consistent," Billet said. "I don't feel quite comfortable yet."
Part of the reason is that the Cavaliers do not seem to have found a role for Billet. At 6 feet and 192 pounds, he is point guard-sized, but his best asset is his outside shooting, making 40 percent of his three-pointers at Rutgers. His high school, Jersey shore power Christian Brothers Academy, traditionally relies more on Princeton-style ball movement than dribble penetration, and Billet is a capable passer but average ballhandler.
"We looked at him as a guard that could play both spots," Hurley said. "To really flourish, he's got to play with an assist type of guy, a drive-and-kick player. If you put him at a position where he just has to score, he can really do good things.
"Or, you can pair him with a slashing wing guard, but the guy really has to be creative, really has to know the game, like a Duke kind of guy. Dahntay wasn't that player yet, the one year they had together. He was going to be. That combination, of Todd as a sophomore and Dahntay as a junior, both Jersey guys, that's what we had been building toward."
Virginia had the latter player in Roger Mason Jr., who departed for the NBA a year early, and the former in Majestic Mapp, who has missed the past two and a half years with a knee injury. Currently, Billet plays with sophomore point guard Keith Jenifer, who has the penetrating ability, and a pair of newcomers on the wing, freshman Derrick Byars and sophomore junior college transfer Devin Smith.
The answer is where Billet always finds it. A true gym rat, Billet is one of the all-time favorites of Five-Star camp creator Howard Garfinkel, who added a new series of station drills after Billet's personal workout, dubbing it the Billet Mignon.
"You can call him a combo guard, but you know what he is?" Garfinkel said. "He's a lead guard. And he's got to start leading. It's up to the rest of those guys if they want to follow."