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Cavs look to continue strong play

Story by Chris Graham

Listen to “The SportsDominion Show” to hear UVa. basketball coach Dave Leitao talk about his team’s preparations for the 2008 ACC Tournament. Show Length: 12:12.

uvaduke2.gifIt’s a hard reality to have to accept – that a player who averages just 7.3 points per game and 17.4 minutes per game might be the reason that the 2007-2008 Virginia basketball season went into the tank.

But that is the party line in Charlottesville right now.

“He is an important part, for a number of reasons. But I’d like to think that over a three-year stretch, if he didn’t have to worry about his health, obviously he’d be a better and more consistent piece to the puzzle than he’s been able to be – specifically last year, because he had to play through those injuries. But you’ve got to go with the cards that you’re dealt,” UVa. coach Dave Leitao said in his weekly teleconference with reporters, talking about junior power forward-center Lars Mikalauskas, whose return three weeks ago after missing 13 games due to injury seems to have sparked the Cavs down the stretch.

Virginia (15-14, 5-11 ACC) is 4-3 since Mikalauskas’ return – with two of the losses coming to NCAA Tournament locks (UNC and Miami) by a combined three points.

“All coaches have to manage themselves through injuries and not having guys with any regularity. That’s just become part of the game, and that’s why you have to rely on your depth,” Leitao said.

“Dealing with that is unfortunate, but with Lars, it’s just something that we’ve had to manage our way through. We just hope now and in the future, next year, going into next year, that we have as healthy a version of him as we possibly can. Because if you add the experience factor, he becomes that much more valuable to you,” Leitao said.

The way that Leitao dealt with the Mikalauskas injury in terms of his playing rotation was to give more minutes to small forwards Mamadi Diane and Adrian Joseph, with AJ getting a lot of minutes at the four spot. The return of the Lithuanian Sensation has ended that experiment, though Leitao isn’t willing to concede that it was entirely a failed experiment.

“Those guys, both Adrian and Mo, have a lot of similarities. So you can duplicate their strengths, but a lot of times you can duplicate a weakness, too. And going through that at the earlier parts of the season a lot of times was extremely helpful, some times was not,” Leitao said. “Since we shifted our lineup and started playing a little more traditionally with Jamil (Tucker) and Mike (Scott) as our four, and a little bit more traditionally in our backyard, it seems that we’ve hit a stride that everybody was more comfortable with.

“It was out of necessity – because if you didn’t, you were going to have to have Mike at the four, followed by Jamil. And really, Mike was going to have to shift over to the five. If he didn’t start, he would have to shift over there a lot without Lars being in there. So it was really more a necessity than anything else,” Leitao said.

“I’d like to think of it in hindsight, but reality is reality, and that’s kind of what that situation at that moment presented,” Leitao said.

The season started with an NCAA bid a seeming near-certainty. Now the ‘Hoos are reduced to having to win four games in Charlotte to get back to the Big Dance, beginning with a Georgia Tech team that the Cavs have already seen in person three times this year.

“It’s funny – because as you said, we’ve had three walk-throughs, we’ve had three chalk talks, we’ve prepared and had pregame talks three different times. So there is a high level of familiarity with their personnel, a high level of familiarity with their style, with plays that they run. I think it means that when the ball is thrown up that those other intangibles that help teams win or not win become that much more important,” said Leitao, addressing the unusual situation that arose when a leaky roof forced the Cavs to return to Atlanta a second time to play the Yellow Jackets in a game that Virginia won by a 76-74 count after falling 92-82 in overtime in Charlottesville in January.

“I think they’ve changed. Even after they played us the second time, they played Boston College and then Clemson, and they went after them defensively, the whole court, almost for 40 minutes. And so that’s something that we have to look at as being different than when we faced them in the first two matchups. Whether they do that to us or not has yet to be seen. And it’s difficult to press Sean (Singletary like that, so maybe they will, maybe they won’t. But that’s something that we’ll have to prepare for,” Leitao said.

One thing we can expect Thursday night – the game should be a hard-fought one.

“As coaches getting ready to play a team that you’ve prepared for twice already, two very, very close basketball games, one overtime and one a two-point game, and so our margin of success or margin of error is very slim,” Leitao said.

“As much as we can say that we’re playing with more intensity and more energy and those types of things, Georgia Tech can say the same thing. They’re having their season come to an end off some quality wins, and really changing a little bit of the way they play, a little more up-tempo, which is scary, because they have fast-broke all year, but more forcing a lot of things with their defensive pressure. And so obviously that will concern us,” Leitao said.

“From here on out, the whole must-win situation comes into play, because you’re not guaranteed anything after one game. And so we’ve got to be ready mentally for that as well,” Leitao said.

The Cavs and Jackets tip off at 7 p.m. Thursday. The winner gets second-seeded Duke on Friday.


Chris Graham is the executive editor of The SportsDominion.

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