-- Back for a seventh season as Virginia's basketball coach, Pete Gillen has talented players at every position. A glance at the roster or the 73-point average margin in the Cavaliers' recent exhibition wins seems to bear out his assertion that "we're certainly an improved team."

The problem, though, is that Virginia is not alone. To reach the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2001, the Cavaliers will have to negotiate an ACC that is expected to be stacked with top teams, most of whom can also legitimately claim to have improved since last season.

Some outside observers think an NCAA berth could be too much to expect from Virginia, which opens its 100th season Friday night against Robert Morris (1-1) before hosting No. 10 Arizona on Sunday.

Senior power forward Jason Clark, one of the team's three captains, said the players have tired of the doom and gloom of the past two years.

"There's no reason that we shouldn't make the elite eight. That's how confident I am in this team," Clark said. "We have so many good players. . . . From what we hear, we're supposed to finish, you know, eighth in the conference, and if anything, barely make the NCAAs. We laugh at stuff like that, because we feel that we're much better than eighth in the conference. We just have to prove it to the whole world."

Virginia appears well stocked at shooting guard and small forward with senior Devin Smith -- finally healthy after offseason back surgery -- sophomores J.R. Reynolds and Gary Forbes and freshman Adrian Joseph. Clark, senior Elton Brown and sophomore Donte Minter should provide a decent front line.

Point guard could be the biggest change. Savvy three-point specialist Todd Billet is gone, leaving the position to sophomore T.J. Bannister and freshman Sean Singletary, both significant upgrades in quickness and athletic ability. They had a tight preseason battle for the starting job, with Gillen declining to publicly name the winner in advance of the opener.

Forbes said he is most excited about the team camaraderie he saw on the court and on the bench when Virginia played three exhibitions in Montreal six weeks ago.

"We were playing as a team," Forbes said. "Last year, guys had a lot of attitudes, as well as myself, you know, sulking on the bench or whatever. [In Montreal] guys were just clapping for each other. It was really fun, just winning. When you win, you have fun."

What about when you lose? The Cavaliers will no doubt have to deal with adversity at some point this season, but they hope they have the maturity and the leadership to pull through.

"We're a whole lot better than last year," Bannister said. "As far as winning games, you'll see a big difference."

Cavaliers Notes: Virginia received signed letters of intent from three members of next year's recruiting class: power forward Laurynas Mikalauskas (Montrose Christian), guard-forward Mamadi Diane (DeMatha) and center Sam Warren (Englewood, Colo.). The Cavaliers are still waiting on shooting guard Brian Moten (Saginaw, Mich.), who must clear up academic issues. . . . Minter played four minutes in last week's exhibition game after missing time in preseason because of a dislocated right kneecap. However, he is not yet in top shape.

Elton Brown, right, will boost the front court for Virginia, which will host Robert Morris tonight.