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17 Virginia
Team Page | 2002-2003 Schedule | Roster

Shored up by a trio of talented imports, the Cavaliers should have ample staying power this season

By Chris Ballard

Sports Illustrated

Stung by last year's collapse, Watson will do whatever it takes to lead the Cavs to new heights. Nick Wass/AP
An opposing coach's view
"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 leave Cal?"
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 forward."

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.

Issue date: November 25, 2002