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Men's hoops leads in race for Mathis

Twenty-four hours before his son makes a final official visit to Georgia Tech, Johnny Mathis confirmed for the first time what had been speculated for months: Virginia is the heavy favorite in the heated race to land J.C. Mathis.

"Virginia's definitely in the lead," the elder Mathis said in an interview with The Cavalier Daily. "They've been the favorite and they still are."

J.C. Mathis, a coveted 6-foot-8, 220-pound power forward from Brooklyn's Kennedy High School, will travel to Atlanta this weekend to meet with the new Yellow Jacket staff. Paul Hewitt replaced Bobby Cremins three weeks ago as Tech's head man.

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    Hewitt arrived from Siena, a MAAC school in Loudonville, N.Y., a geographical connection some sensed he would employ to his advantage in recruiting Mathis. Johnny Mathis, however, vehemently rejects that notion.

    "Georgia Tech has been recruiting J.C. all along," the elder Mathis said. The coaching change "doesn't have anything to do with it."

    Mathis' trek to Tech will mark his third official visit, the first two being fall tours that took him to Florida and Virginia. The brief stint in Charlottesville made quite an impression.

    "I thought the campus was nice," J.C. Mathis said. "I spent a lot of time with the players and also got to meet with Pete Gillen. I get the feeling he's a player's coach. That's something every player wants."

    Mathis since has dropped the Gators from his list, a catalogue of possibilities that swelled to as many as 15 over the winter. Also eliminated this spring were Syracuse, West Virginia, Seton Hall and UCLA, but Boston College and UMass remain contenders alongside Virginia and Georgia Tech.

    "Virginia has hung in there a long, long time," said Brick Oettinger of Prep Stars Recruiting Handbook. "But it's always interesting to see how johnny-come-latelys like Georgia Tech jump in the mix."

    The Cavs should have two scholarships to offer but instead possess just one at their disposal. The NCAA will swallow up the other opening as part of the sanctions it levied against the Athletic Department in October.

    Previously, Gillen and company pursued Hargrave Military Academy's Terry Sanders, Rice High School's Kyle Cuffe and Oak Hill Academy's Abdou Diame, a trio of post men who would help to fill the Cavs' glaring hole along the frontline. All three inked elsewhere, though, placing an even greater premium on nabbing Mathis.

    "He's a Virginia-type kid," said Van Johnson, director of scouting for Gameplan Sports. "He's a four who can play some five, but in Coach Gillen's system they don't have a true pivot man. He shouldn't have a problem fitting in."

    During his senior season at Kennedy, Mathis sparked his club to the New York City public school championship, averaging 17 points and 8.5 rebounds along the way. Despite a sparkling senior campaign, however, Mathis is anxious to augment his already balanced array of skills.

    "I'm a pretty good shooter for my size, but there's always room for improvement there," Mathis said. "I can score in a lot of different ways - both inside and outside - but I need to work on my quickness and ball handling."

    Virginia is not seriously courting any other unsigned player from this year's class, leaving Mathis as the focal point.

    While the Cavaliers maintain an edge in the Mathis sweepstakes, both father and son are in no hurry to reach a decision. Waiting until the final week of the signing period is a legitimate possibility.

    "There is no timetable," Johnny Mathis said. "We're going to look at all our options before we do anything."

    As the spring signing period comes to a close, Gillen and his staff have begun to explore the talent pool in the current high school junior class. With five scholarships available next year, Virginia will be an active player in the recruiting game, much like last year, when the Cavaliers inked a consensus top-five national class with their five openings.

    Several names have been bandied about, but one prospect continually resurfaces: Oak Hill Academy's 7-foot, 285-pound behemoth Sagana Diop. A product of Senegal, Diop has wowed coaches and talent evaluators alike with his shot-blocking prowess and overpowering muscle on the backboards.

    "In one year he may have improved more than anyone I've ever had in 15 years here," Oak Hill Academy coach Steve Smith said. "He's gone from having trouble making left-handed lay-ups to making left-handed jump hooks. And defensively he's just so dominant."

    Other junior targets include rugged power forward Elton Brown of Warwick High School in Newport News, and Tyree Spinner, a combination forward from Paul VI High School in Fairfax whose brother is Cavalier backup quarterback Bryson Spinner. In the backcourt, Ben Gordon of New York's Mount Vernon High School and Rashaad Carruth, Diop's sharpshooting Oak Hill teammate, have been mentioned.

    Virginia received one commitment in the fall, that of wing guard Maurice Young of Bishop McNamara High School in Forestville, Md.

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