"We have a little different philosophy this year. We want to really look good in the lay up line. (laughter) If we do that, we figure that's one of the keys. If we look good with our gear, that's a big part of our game. But, we are into image, character, something you read about in a book. No, we want to have character. We have new gear, And1. New shoes, new gear. We had propositions from another company but I can't tell you because it would get public. But, they wanted to give us one pair of shoes. That was nice, each guy? Each month? No, for the whole team. One size fits all. They wanted that and we declined. (laughter)
"We are excited about our team this year. I think we have a chance to be better than last year. Chance, no guarantee. We have four guys back and I think they've all gotten a little improved.
"Roger Mason got a lot of confidence going over the China playing for the World University games team. You might know he was the third leading scorer. He played small forward there. Juan Dixon played the two and I think Andre Barrett player the one. So, poor kid, played the two for us. Played the three, swingman, small forward, for the University games team. And then now he's going to have to play point for us with Majestic (Mapp) being hurt. He's going to play point at least to start the season. We are hoping that Keith Jenifer, a freshman who's a good young player. Very thin, if there is any wind on campus, we keep him in his room. He's not allowed to leave and get blown into the Atlantic Ocean. That's a long way from Charlottesville. He's very thin, but he's a good player. We are hoping that he'll play well and earn a starting spot somewhere through the season which I think is possible. Whether it happens or not, I don't know that answer.
"The four guys have gotten better as I have mentioned. Roger. Travis Watson has gotten little stronger and he's improved his perimeter game a little bit. Chris Williams put on about eight or ten pounds of muscle and he's worked hard on his game. I think he has a chance, if he stays healthy, to have a good year. Adam Hall put in a lot of time working at the Houston Rockets complex playing pick up games with the Rockets down there. I think he as improved his ballhandling and shooting a little bit.
"So, I think they are all a little better. I think we are a little bigger. Elton Brown has been a very good player for us in the early stages of practice. 6-8 ½ about 265. Very tough to guard in the low post. I think our low post scoring will be a little better. He's still got work on some things, conditioning and defense, like a lot of young players. But, he'll be good.
"JC Mathis has really improved a lot. He's competing for a starting job on the front line. He's really played well and gotten stronger. He's played very well.
"Right now, the four starters, if they are healthy, will earn their position I am sure. The way it's going right now in practice. Then, that fifth spot could be Keith Jenifer, as I mentioned, at the point guard in time, not right away. Could be JC Mathis who's playing very well or could be Elton Brown. Jermaine Harper is going to play a lot. Jason Clark, who's been hurt.
"We are going to play a lot of freshmen. We have four first year guys that are going to play a lot. That's another question.
"We miss Donald Hand. I know he was much criticized in the media and all around and at times, I got on him honestly too. But, we'll miss him because he's almost a four-year starter. Quick as a cat. In the open court, he was as quick and anyone in the country and he had some great games. Tennessee last year, 22. Against Purdue in the Big Ten Shootout, he had 21. So, he has some great games. He had some not great games but we'll miss him because he was a pure point guard. How well Roger can make the transition to the point, which I think he will, but, will we be a better team because he's so comfortable at the two. He's wrecking machine at the two. Now, can he play the point. He might get 18 points, but will it take him 22 shots to get there.
"We are excited about the team but it's a different team. We are more powerful. We are bigger, thicker. With Elton Brown, with Travis getting a little stronger, with JC Mathis, Jason Clark…so we are a little better. Now, are we going to be as quick? Well, we have two freshmen that are lightening quick but how are we going to put them in together. So, there are a lot of questions about our team.
"We miss Keith Friel who was a pathological shooter who was very good (laughter). Only shot when he had it. Tough to shoot it when you don't have it but he tried. He tried to steal it from his teammates. He didn't steal it from the other team, he stole from his teammates, which is sad (laughter). But, he was a good player and we'll miss Keith seriously. We'll miss Donald Hand. Some good guys."
A lot of folks are saying you are one of the most experienced teams that you should come in third (in the ACC) at least.
"At least? You don't like me do you? (laughter) We have a chance and we'll see. Certainly Duke and Maryland are a cut above, a breed apart of anybody. I think we can beat them on a given day if we play. I think we can lose to anybody in the league on a given day, honestly. But, I think we have a chance. Last year, we were fortunate to beat Duke, Carolina and Maryland. Whether that happens again, I have no idea. But, I think we have a chance. But, once again, the point guard position is a key position. I think we have a chance to be good. It determined by two things. One, team chemistry, guys getting along. We can't have guys worrying about being pros or pro contracts, which can hurt any team at any time. I think we get along very well together. I think, honestly, it's the best chemistry we've had so far, but we haven't played a game yet. When the games start, chemistry can tilt a little.
The second thing, of course, is injuries. Staying healthy, you have got to be lucky. I think we have a chance but as I said, we are a different team. We are going to have to adjust as coaches. What was good last year might not be good this year. What was bad last year, maybe we can be better. We are a work in progress."
You were concerned that your team wore out toward the end last year…
"Yes. Hopefully we'll have a little more stamina. Our style takes a lot of injury to play. We scored 85 a game. We were the fourth leading scoring team in the country. We scored. We were pretty good at home, on the road, we lost the road map. We got lost a lot…0 for the road. Hopefully we'll get better on the road. I am going to have to adjust as the coach. Play a little differently. Still run and press but maybe pick our spots a little bit and slow it down a little bit at time. Maybe zone a little bit, maybe more zone pressure. We have to tweak it a little bit to get better on the road. We got pounded on the road and we beat teams at home. Reality has to be somewhere in between."
Could some of that just be experience?
"Hopefully experience will help. We have some guys were not consistent on the road without mentioning names. But, some guys weren't consistent. I've got to take most of the blame because hey, I am the head coach, we have got to make adjustments. There's not reason we should lose by 35 and beat someone at home. Home is an inferno now. When we play there, we are not bad. When we have things going, we are not bad at home. Now, this year could be different. It could be nothing (at home). But, our crowd is pretty good. Jason Williams for Duke said the toughest place he had to play on the road was at Virginia. That's just one man, but he said that. So, we have got a pretty good home crowd but we have to translate that (to road success) and that's my job as a coach. I have to do a better job on the road where we are more consistent. We should not get waxed by twenty and then beat someone at home. The reality has got to be somewhere in the middle.
I think those two (Maryland and Duke) are the teams. I think we have a chance against them if we play our game. But, they are certainly on paper. Why? Because they've done it. They've done it in prime time games, they've won in the NCAA Tournament, got to the Final Four. We haven't do that yet. We are getting better, but we haven't done that yet. We had a short stay, we had an hors-d'oeuvre at the NCAA Tournament. We couldn't stick around for the salad or the pasta or the meal. A quick hors d'oeuvre, we are out the door and back on the bus (laughter). How'd it go? Was it fun?"
Talk about that NCAA game. Do your players think about that a lot?
"We had a tough opponent. Gonzaga, they were a 12th seed but they were a lot better than that. But, they had more poise than us. We were like Don Knotts, nervous, itching and twitching. (laughter). We looked a little like Sponge Bob a little bit (laughter). Cartoon guy. A little nervous. We were a little bit out of synch, like Sponge Bob. He's had a tough year. I feel like Sponge Bob…he's the cartoon guy. Get beat up a little bit (laughter). But, we were just kind of out of synch. Gonzaga had a lot of poise. They were poised and we were Sponge Bob. If you have young kids, you know Sponge Bob.
"But yea, it bothers them. We've done something, but we haven't really done a lot. We have to win the ACC Tournament, we haven't done that yet. Getting in the NCAA Tournament is a big challenge, you've got to get in. But, we haven't advanced yet. We still have miles to go before we sleep. We have a lot more to go.
"I think we are capable. Leadership is the key. I think Roger Mason is a great leader. I think that is going to help us. I think we have chances. We just have to put it together. I think we have a chance to be good."
Will you address how much Travis (Watson) has done for you having to carry so much of the load down low?
"Yes. He's been great. The biggest thing with him, he plays with such a big heart. He plays hurt a lot. Listing his injuries last year without boring you, he had a strained hamstring, he had a cracked rib, he had cartilage in his knee, and he had a badly sprained ankle. What else? He had a groin injury. He kept playing. This year, we might lose him for games. But, he's only 6-7 and he had more double doubles than anyone in the conference. He's tough. He's a killer. But, he's going to get a little help this year I think and that's what he needs. Elton Brown. JC Mathis got stronger.