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Gillen skippers Cavalier rise from depths

(This is part one in a three-part daily series on the Virginia men's basketball program under Coach Pete Gillen.)

This time two years ago, the Virginia men's basketball team was putting the finishing touches on an uninspired 3-13 ACC record and was about to lose its only two reliable scorers: Curtis Staples, the all-time NCAA leader in three-pointers, and Norman Nolan, the team's leading scorer and rebounder. About the only category in which the Cavaliers led the ACC was criminal court appearances.

"When we first got here a year and a half ago, the perception was bad with losing and problems off the court," Coach Pete Gillen said. "Guys beating people up, getting thrown out of school."

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  • Melvin Whitaker, a Virginia recruit who was academically ineligible his rookie year, was convicted of malicious wounding in June 1996 and allegedly accepted improper benefits totaling $14,000 from a booster. Forward Courtney Alexander, now leading the nation in scoring at Fresno State, was kicked off the team in July 1997 after assaulting his girlfriend.

    Alexander and Whitaker were just two of five Cavalier basketball players arrested from 1996 to mid-1997. Scott Johnson and Darryl Presley were convicted of shoplifting in Feb. 1996, and star guard Harold Deane was charged with trespassing and resisting arrest following an April incident at a nightclub.

    With these problems hanging over the program, Coach Jeff Jones resigned after the 1997-98 season. To say the future of the program looked bleak is an understatement.

    Rebuilding the program Ralph Sampson had once led to the top of the national polls would not be an easy task. Terry Holland, Virginia athletic director and former men's basketball coach, plucked Pete Gillen from Providence, hoping the Brooklyn native could turn around the floundering Cavalier program as he had done in his head coaching stints at Providence and Xavier.

    But the state of the Virginia program, coupled with the unforgiving nature of the ACC, presented Gillen with perhaps the biggest challenge of his career. One friend told him he was inheriting "a program that was below rock bottom."

    "It was pretty beat up," Gillen said. "I knew it had great potential, [but] we were in a great league and we might never survive. I didn't put a time frame on it because I didn't know how long it would be."

    Gillen was an assistant coach at Virginia Military Institute from 1976-78, so he knew the advantages of taking over the helm at Virginia, but leaving the Friars was not an easy decision.

    "I felt badly about leaving Providence," Gillen said. "Virginia gave me a call, and I said, hey, this is a special place. It's the number one public university in the country. It's a special place founded by Thomas Jefferson with gorgeous grounds."

    Once in Charlottesville, Gillen's first duty was convincing high school seniors Chris Williams and Adam Hall - both recruited by Jones - that they should not change their minds because of the coaching change.

    Gillen visited both Hall and Williams, but the latter had second thoughts and inquired if it was possible for him to be released from his binding commitment as he considered attending Alabama, his hometown school. The Cavs denied Williams' request to look around, having already lost the oral commitment of high school All-American Ronald Curry.

    "It wasn't that I was unsure," Williams said. "There was a coaching change here, there was a coaching change at Alabama. I just wanted to step back and look at my options ... and this was my best option."

    Both Williams and Hall have exceeded the expectations recruiters had for them, but finding diamonds in the recruiting rough always has been the strength of Gillen and his staff.

    Assistants Tom Herrion and Bobby Gonzalez - now finishing up his first season as head coach at Manhattan - began blazing a path on the recruiting trail, but the staff did not have many selling points. University Hall was condemned because of cracks in 32 of the tension wires that held up the arena's dome. The overall perception of the program was suffering and there was a lack of talent in the program.

    Despite these hindrances, Gillen and his staff reeled in Majestic Mapp, a highly rated point guard from the Bronx.

    "I want to be known as the person that helped [the program] go from okay to great," Mapp said. "I just want to have that impact where people remember me and the team that I played for as winners."

    Mapp became another recruiter after making the leap of faith and signing with Virginia. He got to know Travis Watson and Roger Mason Jr., two of the nation's Top 50 recruits, telling them they should join him in building the Cavalier program.

    Watson, Mason and 6-foot-10 center Jason Rogers joined Mapp to form one of the top three recruiting classes in the nation.

    While wooing high school recruits, the Cav coaches managed to get the most out of the players already in the program. With seven walk-ons on the squad, Virginia opened the 1998-99 season pegged for a last place finish in the ACC. Some observers predicted the Cavaliers would not win a Conference game.

    The undersized Cavs suffered a crushing blow in early November when starting center Colin Ducharme suffered an ankle injury that shelved him for the remainder of the season. Reduced to six scholarship players, Virginia still fought to a 14-16 record (4-12 ACC).

    This season, with the addition of six newcomers and Ducharme's return, the Cavaliers tied for third place in the ACC after spending two consecutive years as the doormat. They swept North Carolina, upset No. 17 Maryland and took No. 3 Duke to overtime.

    Gillen "has mixed young players with established veterans, and everyone has a fair chance," Holland said. "Performing in these two extreme cases, [last year and this year], places him in a class by himself"

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