Two of Virginia's nine scholarship men's basketball players are out because of injuries. The top two scorers and four leading rebounders from last season are gone. Two freshman forwards, who weigh an average of about 215 pounds, will be starting in the front court.
So begins the Dave Leitao era at Virginia, which tips off tonight against Liberty at University Hall. The Cavaliers, coming off a 14-15 season that led to the forced resignation of former coach Pete Gillen, were picked to finish last in the 12-team ACC in preseason voting by media.
"When you're starting out, especially with the low expectations of everybody around us, our goal is to get better every day," said Leitao, the former DePaul coach who signed a five-year contract at Virginia that will pay him $925,000 annually. "We have a smaller margin for error than most teams because we don't have a lot of depth. But that shouldn't deter us from getting better."
The Cavaliers, who were 4-12 in the ACC last season, will begin the season with only two scholarship players on their bench. Junior guard T.J. Bannister is sidelined after undergoing surgery to correct a sports hernia and will be out a few more weeks, Leitao said. Junior forward Donte Minter also won't play tonight after undergoing offseason knee surgery.
If Virginia's only exhibition game, a 98-62 victory over Concordia University of Canada on Nov. 11, is any indication, guards J.R. Reynolds and Sean Singletary figure to carry the load offensively. Singletary and Reynolds combined to take 27 of the Cavaliers' 61 shots and scored 47 points between them.
Reynolds, from Roanoke, hopes to build on his performance in last season's ACC tournament, when he scored 43 points in a victory over Miami and loss to Duke at MCI Center. The junior averaged 10.7 points in 2004-05 and is the team's top returning scorer.
"That's something Coach has been talking about all preseason -- we're really going to have to rely on guard play all season," Reynolds said. "We're just going to have to play hard and carry the load on our shoulders."
Singletary, a sophomore from Philadelphia, is more capable of carrying the load after undergoing offseason shoulder surgery. He was plagued by a dislocated shoulder last season, but still averaged 10.5 points and 3.9 assists as a freshman. Leitao hopes his young front-court players aren't intimidated, either. He will go with a younger lineup, with freshmen Laurynas Mikalauskas and Mamadi Diane starting at forward, and sophomore Tunji Soroye starting at center. Soroye, 6 feet 11 inches, struggled to gain weight last season and then lost about 20 pounds during the offseason after contracting malaria during a trip to his native Nigeria. Diane, an all-Met selection from DeMatha, was the Cavaliers' most high-profile recruit and scored 16 points on 7-for-10 shooting in the exhibition game. More than anything, Leitao said he is looking for the defensive toughness and rebounding that was absent at Virginia last season.
"If all the guys stay healthy, I think we can surprise a lot of people," Reynolds said. "I think we can compete with any team in the ACC."