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College Basketball: Questions surround ’08-’09 ‘Hoos

Story by Chris Graham

Dave Leitao has not rolled a basketball onto a practice court in anger as Virginia coach without having Sean Singletary there to pick it up and run the Cavaliers with it. Which is why the three-game series of friendlies that UVa. played back in August in Canada was a good thing – for Leitao and for his young Cavs, who have to replace not only Singletary but two other key contributors from last year’s disappointing CBI semifinalists.

“We have so many questions we’ve got to get answered with this particular team, and it started that process of addressing certain areas or certain styles of play or even evaluating certain people to see if they’d be ready to handle a new and improved role,” said Leitao, talking about the extra practice sessions that the Canadian tour afforded his team, which is likely to debut a brand-new starting backcourt when it tips off the ’08-’09 season against VMI on Nov. 16.

Leitao, talking earlier today on the eve of fall practice set to get under way on Friday, technically has three returning starters to build around, though we can expect some lineup changes with the later-than-expected arrival of point guard Sammy Zeglinski, who played in eight games in ’07-’08 before what would have been his freshman season was shut down due to an ankle injury that required surgery, and the much-anticipated entree of McDonald’s All-American Sylvan Landesberg, a likely two guard who could also see some time at the point. The insertion of Zeglinski and Landesberg into the rotation could push two guard Jeff Jones (4.8 points per game) into the frontcourt along with returning small forward Mamadi Diane (11.8 points per game, 4.8 rebounds per game), a senior who is himself coming off offseason foot surgery and saw his summer and early-fall training training regimen seriously curtailed as a result. Sophomore forward Mike Scott (5.7 ppg, 5.3 rpg) could similarly see his playing time diminished by the addition of freshman twin towers Assane Sene and John Brandenburg.

But that’s all a few weeks from being decided. For now, Leitao is focused on simply finding out what he has in the tank for the vigors of ACC play. For example, with Diane, his leading returning scorer from a year ago. “He’ll be limited,” Leitao said. “He’s been running, and getting back to some level of rhythm. But he’s only had one contact session where he’s gone up against defense or defended somebody since the season ended in the springtime. And that affects so many areas – his rhythm, his timing, his health. And as everybody does after surgery, trusting your body again. And that’s going to take a little bit of time for all those things to come around. So he won’t be himself for a little while,” Leitao said.

Another returnee, a blast from the past for Virginia fans, is seven-footer Tunji Soroye, who missed what was to have been his senior season in ’07-’08 with knee and back injuries that always seemed thisclose to being healed. “He hasn’t had any health issues with either his knee or his back thus far, knock on wood,” Leitao said. “He’s been able to get in better shape and get his mind back around to knowing, Hey, I’m going to be here, this is what’s going to happen, I’m going to have a good last year. And as a result, he’s played better than he had in August or he had at any point last year as a result of his physical condition,” Leitao said.

Another player in the mix at the point, in addition to Zeglinski and Landesberg, is junior Calvin Baker, a former walk-on who averaged 8.5 points per game and started eight times for Leitao in ’07-’08. At the outset, Leitao said he would think Zeglinski, the only natural point guard in the group, “would be better-positioned to command more of that opportunity right away, especially if he wasn’t injured and he would have played a more subordinate role last year and he would have had many more experiences under his belt,” Leitao said. “I’ve looked at him more from an expectation standpoint, and, shucks, he’s probably no more experienced than any of the three first-years that we have this year, because he didn’t get any of the reps or game experience or what-have-you that one needs to call himself experienced,” Leitao said.

With Baker, “What we’ve got to get him to do is play that role more consistently, because he isn’t a natural point guard,” Leitao said. “So those two will battle it out, if that’s a term I can use. But they’ll probably share that role the majority of the season. And then you add Sylvan to the mix, who I want to try to not put that on him as much right away because I’m going to ask him to do many more things, and that will probably burden him if he’s now got to worry about making the other four guys better all the time,” Leitao said.