Monday, May 2, 2011

Reflection: Virginia

Top scorer Ariana Moorer
2010-11 season: 19-16 overall, 5-9 ACC; Lost in the first round of the ACC Tournament (Wake Forest , 74-68), Lost in the quarterfinals of the WNIT to Charlotte, 79-74

Who's leaving: Paulisha Kellum (6.8 ppg, 2.4 rpg); Jayna Hartig (0.7 ppg, 1.1 rpg) Debbie Ryan (retired after 34 seasons); assistant Wendy Palmer (now head coach at UNC Greensboro)

Who's coming: Sarah Imovbioh, 6-2 forward, St. Anne's-Belfield (Va.): Ranked 56th nationally by ESPN. Absolutely towered over the private school competition as she averaged 29 points and 22.6 rebounds per game. Led the Saints to a 21-2 record and the VISAA Division II state title game where they fell to Cape Henry 70-58 despite Imovbioh's 31-point, 25-rebound effort. Named the VISAA Division II Player of the Year.

High point: On Feb. 12, Ariana Moorer's layup at the buzzer made the Cavaliers winners in the longest game in program history, a 94-92 thriller at N.C. State in four overtimes. Three days later, Virginia traveled to College Park and upended then-No. 11 Maryland. Problems? What problems?

Low point: With a 13-point lead and less than four minutes remaining, the Cavaliers appeared set to exact some revenge for a 2010 loss to JMU. Then the Dukes' Dawn Evans got hot - white hot - pouring in 13 of her program-record 42 points in the final 3:59 to shoot down Virginia 82-80. Ouch.

Stock of program: In flux
We said goodbye to Debbie Ryan, whose exit doesn't leave us as puzzled as its timing. Admittedly, we love Ryan, her infectious enthusiasm for the program she built and her manner of priorities, which are ideal for what college athletics is supposed to represent. We've read the message board rumblings the last few years from a restless fan base that has seen Miami, Florida State and Maryland upgrade their programs, surpassing Virginia's at the moment. We saw Monica Wright come and go without making a serious statement in the NCAA Tournament. Yet we would have liked to have seen Ryan leave on her own terms, and given how the events unfolded, we don't believe that was the case. Her departure at a time when Virginia played a brutal nonconference schedule and had marquee recruit (Bria Smith) coming in is curious at best.

So the Joanne Boyle era will begin for Virginia. A thoughtful coaching search by athletic director Craig Littlepage gives Cavaliers fans a recruiting ace with a decorated resume. She led Cal to the postseason in each of the six seasons she was there, including four NCAA Tournament appearances. When Boyle took over at Cal, the school had been unable to produce a winning record for 12 straight seasons.

Prior to Cal, Boyle successfully coached Richmond to three straight winning seasons, including an NCAA Tournament appearance her final year.

She inherits a Virginia team of role players. Since Monica Wright's graduation a year ago, Virginia has been without a go-to who can deliver in the clutch. While coaches love to talk about getting it done by committee, the ACC is full of dominant performers -- Shenise Johnson at Miami, Jessica Breland at North Carolina, Jasmine Thomas at Duke. The state's -- and nation's -- prize recruit Elizabeth Williams would have likely been that, but the Virginia Beach native chose Duke instead.

Losing Smith was a blow. The third-team Parade All-American put her name back into a plethora of schools wanting her when Ryan departed.

So that leaves Boyle with some pieces -- although they're just that. She must find the glue to hold together a program that often doesn't produce the offense to deliver the knockout punch.

Guards Ataira Franklin and China Crosby have huge upsides. Franklin wrapped up a sensational rookie campaign, which included 27 starts,  averaging 9.4 points and 4.3 rebounds per game. She was named to the five-player ACC All-Freshmen team and led the league in 3-point field goal percentage (43-for-90, 48 percent). The question about Crosby is can she stay healthy? Crosby suffered a season-ending knee injury in January of her freshman year and re-injured the knee in Virginia's season opener. If Crosby can avoid the injury bug, we might just see why she is was the No. 2 point guard nationally when she signed.

We'd also like to see Simone Egwu develop into a consistent presence for the Cavaliers. The 6-3 center started every game, is the Cavs' top rebounder (5.2 rpg) and touts the highest shooting percentage on the team (.484). But she averaged just 6 points and shot a disappointing 67 percent from the free-throw line. It's time for Egwu to make a move forward and elevate her game to the level of the ACC bigs.

While the future looks bright for Virginia given Boyle's capabilities, the future is likely not the 2011-12 season. It will take some time before Virginia finds itself back in the ACC mix given the depth of talent in that league. But there is no reason the Cavaliers can't join Miami, Florida State, North Carolina, Maryland and Duke in the hunt for the conference title. Virginia has super academics and an inviting campus that includes one of the top facilities in the nation. Now they have Boyle, who has been able to get the job done wherever she has gone. We don't expect it to be any different in Charlottesville.

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