As the Virginia men's basketball team prepares to face Minnesota for the fourth time ever in the ACC/Big-10 Challenge tonight, the Cavaliers should be able to see how far they have come in just one year.
What a difference a year should make for the Cavaliers -- where the starting lineup will not be required to tackle its Big Ten foe for the entire game. The days of being undersized and undermanned seem to have faded, but Virginia still seems cautious.
"Selfishly, it would've been better if we waited a year. We're not quite ready for this," Virginia Coach Pete Gillen said. "We're a young team, but we're excited."
The ACC/Big-Ten Challenge may be a tall order for a young Cavalier team, but it promises to be a positive testing ground for an up and coming squad.
"The challenge should be great for our players, great for college basketball fans," Gillen said. "Having the games on TV in a great Conference like the Big Ten against the ACC, two great leagues, I think it's wonderful for everybody."
The outlook should be positive for the Cavaliers after starting the season off with four wins and a single loss. The team is fresh off a growing experience in the Puerto Rico Shootout where it took fifth place after dropping a game to South Carolina, but then rebounded to defeat Providence, 80-64, and Arizona State, 70-64. Also take into account that this year's team has the personnel to really institute the high pressure defense and quick strike offense installed under Gillen last season.
The wealth of options is evident: Gillen has implemented four different starting lineups since the start of the season, including eight different players. The only loss of the season was against South Carolina when a previous starting lineup was used. Gillen's plug and play attitude has paid off with nine Cavalier players charting double figures in the young 1999-2000 season. This fact looms large when you take into account that only seven players claimed a double-digit game all of last season. The step to extend the lineup has led to balanced production.
Minnesota finds itself in a position very similar to that of Virginia last season. The Golden Gophers have a new head coach in Dan Monson after Clem Haskins was forced to leave under allegations of breaking NCAA regulations. Monson comes to the Golden Gophers by way of Gonzaga and realizes he has inherited a team that will feel the pain of transition just like that experienced by Virginia after the departure of Jeff Jones. Add to this the fact that Minnesota has no seniors. Monson will have to deal with the growing pains of a young team, much like those of the Cavaliers who boast only one fourth-year player on this year's squad.
"As Coach Gillen says, when you take over a program it takes time," Monson said. "We're just in the beginning stages of what we're trying to do. We can't kid ourselves and think that we're ready right now for the Big Ten season."
Minnesota will rely on the newly established offensive game of sophomore center Joel Pryzbilla, who last year was a shot blocking and rebounding force in the paint at 7'-1". Getting the ball inside will be a new approach for Monson, who let his outside arsenal at Gonzaga rain down on opposing defenses. It seems that Minnesota will use the Virginia matchup to rate itself and its talent for the upcoming season before entering Conference play.
"To play in something like this, we're not quite ready, and we're trying to put a new system in," Monson said. "It's a great thing for our kids though, because we've had a lot of distractions, and this gives them something of great magnitude to look forward to"