Story by Chris Graham
Growing pains come when they come. For me, it was when I hit the age of 12. I’d cry all night, my legs hurt so bad that summer – when I grew from 4-10 to 5-8.
For Dave Leitao, the growing pains have come a bit later in life.
“It’s part of the growing process – I think that’s a way of looking at it,” the UVa. basketball coach said yesterday in his weekly teleconference with reporters, speaking of the program’s troubles in this, his third year in Charlottesville, where his Cavs are in the midst of a historic losing skid.
Virginia has lost nine of its last 10 after coming out of the gate 10-2 and being ranked in the Top 25 early on in the 2007-2008 season.
Leitao backers have made the point that what we could be seeing here is the result of the poor recruiting by the coach’s predecessor, Pete Gillen, who resigned under pressure in 2005 after a largely uneventful seven-year run.
The glaring weakness in the roster comes inside – Gillen-era holdovers Lars Mikalauskas and Tunji Soroye have barely seen the court in ’07-’08, leaving UVa. wafer-thin both in numbers and in the bodies who can be on the floor.
And the fact that Leitao has a pair of seven-footers in John Brandenburg and Assane Sene coming in next fall isn’t helping right here and now.
Which gets us back to the growing pains – which are perhaps more pronounced because Virginia is coming off its first NCAA Tournament appearance in six years and a regular-season co-championship in the rugged ACC.
Could it be, though, that Leitao is a victim of his own success – that his team’s overachieving 2006-2007 season set the bar too high for the act that was to follow?
“This is an overall point of view – that when I first got here, I was blessed with two of the best players that the ACC had in Sean (Singletary) and J.R. (Reynolds), and kind of riding those two as much as we rode them, that kept us away from the normal aches and pains of starting a program, of which I think this is part of it,” Leitao said. “It’s not so easy to attach that as the specific reason, but it’s not atypical for a first-year coach to have a seven- or eight- or 10-game losing streak or win eight games in a season or those kinds of things. I think a byproduct of building a program is you’re going to go through times like that.”
This all having been said, it seems to me that one has to be worried about where the program is going – if only because Leitao has had to endure these kinds of hard times before. In his first coaching stint, at his alma mater, Northeastern, Leitao’s team went 18-11 in his first year before fading to 4-24 in his second year, which ended with his abrupt resignation.
He’s not going to lose 24 this year, but you have to wonder how he’s going to react to the precipitous decline of his team this time around.
“I coached a four-win team, and that was as big a challenge as you can ever have in your lifetime from a coaching standpoint and a player’s standpoint. So I don’t think that this rivals that,” Leitao said. “But at the same point in time, it’s not an easy thing for anybody to go through, to operate a certain way. Especially when a lot of these guys just a few short months ago were operating at the highest level of confidence because we were winning, and we had a seven-game winning streak in the middle of the season against very good competition.
“And so that’s the perplexing thing about it – and when you’re dealing with young people, it’s different than you and I can assume it to be in that in many of your life experiences, you build kind of some confidence in what you do, and in many of their life experiences, they’re not to a point where they can rely on that aspect of their mind to help them through difficult times. So you see what you have right now, in that some guys are affected more by it, some guys can operate or play through it, and you have to deal with that,” Leitao said.
Chris Graham is the executive editor of The SportsDominion.