By Nick Prevenas
Like most basketball players whose height hovers around 6-foot mark, Sean Singletary plays the game with a chip on his shoulder.
With little to no attention from national scouting sites and major college recruiters despite a stellar high-school career in Philadelphia, Singletary accepted a scholarship offer from the University of Virginia — a school that hadn’t had an All-American since Ralph Sampson in 1983 or an ACC championship since 1995.
Listed at a generous 6-feet tall in the Virginia media guide (in reality, he’s much closer to 5-feet, 11-inches), Singletary set out on a path to prove all of his doubters wrong in 2004.
After an All-ACC Freshman Team nomination, an All-ACC First Team selection as a sophomore and a third-team All-American campaign as a junior, one would figure people would finally stop questioning Singletary.
But on Nov. 17, 2007, those same skeptics crept out of the woodwork prior to Singletary’s trip to Tucson, Ariz.
Could the diminutive senior keep up with Arizona’s freshman dynamo, Jerryd Bayless?
If this point guard matchup was a boxing match, the tale of the tape would definitely favor Bayless, who owned a four-inch height advantage and (at least) a 20-pound weight advantage.
However, three very important numbers shifted the battle in Singletary’s favor: 22 to 19 (age), 24 to 21 (points) and 75 to 72 (the final score in Virginia’s upset win over No. 17 Arizona at McKale Center).
“This was a big win for us,” Singletary said afterward. “Definitely one of the biggest wins for our program. It’s huge to go on the road and get a win against a program with as much history as Arizona.”
Singletary struggled through a brutal shooting night (6-19, 1-6 from 3-point range) and a touch of the flu, but hit all 11 of his free throws and led all scorers.
What separated this game from your run-of-the-mill early-season out-of-conference game was the energy and emotion with which Singletary approached the contest.
Ten seconds after the tipoff, Singletary ripped the ball from Bayless and buried a 3-pointer. On Arizona’s next possession, he almost stripped Bayless again.
Immediately afterward, Singletary blew past Bayless, broke down Arizona’s defense and found Jeff Jones for an open 3-pointer.
Going back to the boxing analogy, a judge would’ve scored the first round 10-8 for Singletary.
Not to be outdone, Bayless fired back with an upfake on Singletary and a jumper right in his mug.
Two minutes later, Bayless would show why NBA scouts can’t get enough of Arizona’s two-time Mr. Basketball award winner.
With Arizona clawing back into the game, Bayless would cap the run by splitting two Virginia players, absorbing a karate chop to the arm and powering through to convert the layup and the old-fashioned 3-point play.
Now this battle was starting to get good.
“Jerryd is a phenomenal player,” Singletary said. “Lots of talent; lots of heart. The sky is truly the limit for him.”
Just before halftime, Singletary would kick-start a crucial Virginia run with three free throws and a forced Bayless turnover. He would cap this run with a magnificent runner to give Virginia a 42-31 advantage.
Even though the half was over, these two were just getting started.
After intermission, Bayless would strike first, nailing a contested 3-pointer.
Singletary answered with a devastating crossover, nearly shaking Bayless out of his shoes as he buried an 18-footer.
Singletary backpedaled toward the defensive end with a grin on his face.
“Virginia is a top 25 team, in my opinion,” Bayless said. “They have a great point guard.”
Like most fiery point guards, Singletary also talks a big game.
He doesn’t get hostile, mind you, but Singletary likes to bring a playground edge to the proceedings.
After last year’s 93-90 win over Arizona to kick-start what would be a remarkable Virginia season, many published reports had Singletary calling the Wildcats “soft.”
He wants to state for the record that he has nothing but the utmost respect and admiration for the Arizona program—especially their equally fiery point guard.
“These kinds of battles are why I play basketball,” Singletary said.
During what turned out to be a back-and-forth stretch in the second half, Singletary hit a key layup to put the Cavaliers up 66-59.
After a 6-0 Wildcat run, it was up to Bayless to answer.
After a steal, Bayless broke free of the pack and barreled into a Virginia defender to draw the foul.
The only problem? Jordan Hill was trailing on the play and would’ve had an uncontested slam, had Bayless been able to find him.
It would’ve been a moot point had Bayless hit his free throws. Instead, he missed both.
He would later redeem himself with two clutch freebies to tie the game at 69.
Singletary answered on the next possession with two of his own. Could Bayless match?
He would attempted a contested jumper, but would miss the mark. Singletary, with ice water surging through his veins, would slow the tempo and drill an 17-footer for a 73-69 lead with under a minute to play.
Singletary charged back to the other end of the floor with his arms outstretched, relishing the moment and defiantly posing for all of his doubters.
Bayless, however, wasn’t fazed in the least. The freshman nailed an open 3-pointer to pull Arizona to within one.
It was at this moment when the McKale Center faithful fully accepted Bayless’ application to Point Guard U. Win or lose, Bayless now belonged to the Tucson faithful.
Unfortunately, the rest of the game unraveled for the Wildcats. Two final possessions, two ugly turnovers.
“The last play comes down on me tonight,” Bayless said. “I messed up and that determined the game. I just have to put this behind me and do the things that’ll make us a better team.”
Singletary would snag the final inbounds pass, slam the ball to the floor and celebrate yet another moment where he would successfully silence his doubters.
A moment like this would not have been possible had he followed through on his plans to enter the 2007 NBA draft.
He went through the lengthy, arduous draft process, ultimately opting to return for his senior season.
“I found out that I had a lot to work on — especially defensively,” Singletary said. “But the whole process has made me a much better player.”
This decision has resulted in Singletary’s induction into what has developed into an increasingly rare college basketball fraternity — the star senior and three-year team captain.
He says he couldn’t possibly be happier to complete his sociology degree requirements and have an opportunity to lead the Cavaliers — his Cavaliers — toward another ACC championship.
“I’m very proud with what I’ve been able to accomplish with this program,” Singletary said. “I feel like I’ve really been a part of something here.”
Singletary has many more young point guard phenoms on his plate this season, including North Carolina’s Tywon Lawson, Syracuse’s Jonny Flynn, Duke’s Nolan Smith, Boston College’s Tyrese Rice, Maryland’s Greivis Vasquez and Wake Forest’s Ishmael Smith, to name a few. Look for Singletary to come out on top more often than not.
In a little more than four months, Singletary will finally bid farewell to the University of Virginia and embark on another dream few believed he could ever accomplish — playing point guard in the NBA.
Only 47 players under 6-feet tall have ever made an NBA roster. Singletary — who currently stands at No. 47 on NBADraft.net’s mock draft — plans on making it 48.
“I’m going to bring energy and heart to any team,” Singletary said. “All I’m looking for is a shot.”
(Check NBADraft.net throughout the season for more features on the nation’s elite players.)