Every day over the summer Virginia forward Travis Watson would
head to the gym and shoot 200 free throws, hoping with each one
to exorcise the demons of last winter. On New Year's Eve the
Cavaliers were ranked fourth in the nation, 9-0 giant-killers
with reason to think their season would last deep into March.
That was before they lost 10 of their last 13 games, slid out of
the Top 25 and plopped into the NIT, where they lost to South
Carolina in the first round. It was a NASDAQian crash, one
precipitated by bad team chemistry and even worse
defense--Virginia's final seven opponents shot 50% or better from
the field. The whole team took it hard, but none so much as
Watson, the team's bruising pillar in the middle and the ACC
leader in rebounding and double doubles (17). "He hated the
losing," says coach Pete Gillen. "I told him he could either be
disappointed or he could become a leader and take this team
Watson accepted the challenge. In the off-season he spent so much
time in the weight room that he practically had his mail
delivered there. He also worked on his jumper, launching shot
after shot into the Gun, a funnel-like ball-retrieval machine.
Once practices began, the 6'8", 255-pound senior made an effort
to become more vocal, counseling underclassmen and even defusing
one near fight. "It doesn't come naturally," he says of his new
role as a leader, "but it's something I have to do."
The reason: Virginia lost three starters from season's end,
including leading scorer Roger Mason Jr. to the Chicago Bulls.
Gillen has done a fine job filling the holes, bringing in three
transfers who should play right away: combo guard Todd Billet
from Rutgers, center Nick Vander Laan from Cal and sweet-shooting
swingman Devin Smith from Coffeyville (Kans.) Community College.
Combine this influx with the talent exodus from the ACC--only
Watson returns from the All-Conference first or second teams--and
there is good reason for high expectations. With newcomers who
don't remember last season, and a forward who does all too well,
the Cavaliers envision a much happier ending. --C.B.
COLOR PHOTO: ANDREW SHURLEFF LOOKING UP Watson hopes his more forceful presence will help the Cavs rebound from last season's collapse.
POS. PLAYER HT. CL. KEY STAT
SF Devin Smith 6'5" So. 45.8 3FG%*
PF Travis Watson 6'8" Sr. 9.7 rpg
C Nick Vander Laan 6'10" Jr. 5.3 rpg [cross]
SG Todd Billet 6'0" Jr. 16.6 ppg [cross 2]
PG Keith Jenifer 6'3" So. 2.8 apg
*In junior college
[cross] 2000--01 at Cal
[cross 2] 2000--01 at Rutgers
2001-02 RECORD: 17-12 (7-9, 5th in ACC)
TOURNAMENT: Lost to S. Carolina in NIT 1st round
Straight seasons without a victory in the ACC tournament, the
longest active streak in the nine-school conference.
An opposing coach's view
Big bangers will complement a squadron of sweet shooters
"Travis Watson is definitely their biggest strength. You have to
try to keep him away from the basket. The farther you push him
out, the better chance he has of missing a shot.... Todd Billet
will be the best shooting point guard in the league. That's why
he can play with Keith Jenifer, who's also a point guard but who
can't shoot.... Devin Smith is another big-time shooter, and
because of his size he can rebound.... They didn't play much
defense last year, but that should change because Pete Gillen
hired [former Boise State coach] Rod Jensen as an assistant.
Jensen is known for teaching great defense.... Having Nick Vander
Laan will free Watson up. Vander Laan is a tough, banging dude.
He likes to mix it up. Then again, if he's so good, why did he