Dave Leitao was far from home, and farther from comfortable.
His UVA men’s basketball team came to Puerto Rico as a winner of six of its first seven games. Fall-semester exams were over, and a three-game tropical tournament—which the Cavaliers were favored to win—seemed like the perfect Christmas gift.
Then came a shockingly sluggish 80-69 loss to Appalachian State in the opener. The Cavaliers played worse the next day and fell by 24 to lowly Utah. Afterward, a shaken Leitao—who admits “I didn’t have the answers”—calculatedly isolated himself from the team and his assistants overnight, not even formulating a game plan for Puerto Rico-Mayagüez; he preferred they figure things out themselves, he says. Virginia struggled to a victory over the Tarzans and scattered for the holidays.
The tournament proved to be shock therapy. When the team reconvened, assistant coach Steve Seymour suggested that an offseason focus on improving its offense had detracted from Leitao’s bedrock commitment to defense and rebounding. “That’s what makes me, or makes us, tick,” Leitao says. “From that day on, most, if not all, of our practices were about defense.”
The renewed focus paid off. In Atlantic Coast Conference games, UVA led the league in field-goal percentage defense and was fourth in rebounding margin. The Cavaliers reeled off seven straight wins en route to a share of the regular-season ACC title and an NCAA Tournament berth.
Looking back, “I could never fathom at that moment in time that we would be sitting here talking about [a successful season],” says Leitao, who was voted ACC Coach of the Year. His only regret? “I wish they had an opportunity during this process to really celebrate what they did as basketball players.”
Home Sweet Home:
The Cavaliers were nearly unbeatable in their first season of competition in the new John Paul Jones Arena. A one-point loss to Stanford was the only blemish on 16-1 home record, the most home victories in the history of UVA men’s basketball.