Press Conference: UVA basketball coach Tony Bennett
THE MODERATOR: Coach, we have a question lined up in the front row.
Q. Four years in a row you guys have made it out of the first game of the NCAA Tournament. How hard is that to do? I know seeding has something to do with it. Obviously, one seed playing a higher seed. But how hard is it to get out of the first round, first-game jitters, those types of things, that you have to deal with?
TONY BENNETT: I think it’s getting harder because of the parity, just how good teams are. You look at how many close games there were yesterday. Today, I’m not sure if there have been any yet. Even last year, it’s a battle. A lot of it is matchups.
But nowadays, you just see the gap shrinking from high major, mid-major, BCS. I think coaches are so good, there’s more talented players, so I think there’s more to go around. Systems are hard to guard. I’m thankful for that, but, yeah, you never take that for granted, and it’s always a battle. Obviously, you win a round, and it steps up even more.
I’m trying to think when I was at Washington State. We actually — well, we played Florida our first year in the NCAA Tournament, and they smacked us. We were kind of injured going in. But first round, any victory in the NCAA Tournament, advancing is a great thing. You’re obviously trying to continue on. But to do it four years in a row is good for our program.
Q. Tony, two questions: One, the difference between first and second rounds. You have the one-day turnaround. You’ve got to change things up. You played five guards last night. You probably aren’t against their size.
TONY BENNETT: You don’t think we should?
Q. Go ahead.
TONY BENNETT: They were not very tall or anything like that. I understand.
Q. There’s a lot of things there. Secondly, what do you remember about that game five years ago out in Omaha? How much has your program changed since then?
TONY BENNETT: We had some good players back then. We were banged up, I remember. But Coach Donovan, Billy, I got to coach with Billy in the Under-19 World Championships when we won the gold medal. That was a treat. Preston Greene, their strength coach, and Duke Werner, their trainer, I love those guys. They’re great guys.
But that program, what Billy had established, they were very gifted and very good. Similar to this team, veteran team, high-quality players, well coached. It was, yeah, it was something in that game. I think it was close for a little while and then separation occurred, and we could not hang with them.
This turnaround that you ask about, I consider every experience you have is going to teach you good or bad. Coaching in the Pac-10, that’s what it was when I was there, were almost predominantly Thursday/Saturday games when I was there. You always had to deal with the one-day turnaround. Now in the ACC with Big Monday, there’s a lot of Saturday/Monday games.
Everyone has different philosophies on how they prepare, where the team’s at, but I think it’s important. We even used the NC State, North Carolina games this year to tell the guys, “You just beat a talented team in NC State and now you’re playing a heavyweight in North Carolina. We have one day to prepare.” If you’re so fortunate to get in the NCAA Tournament, and we talked about that, and you win the first round game, you’re going to play a heavyweight, and you have one day to prepare. So let’s use this. We kind of have mirrored that of how we prepared, in getting ready for Florida.
So your system’s in place. You try to do as good of a job as you can scouting, but I think it’s important, and you want to be ready. Again, we’ve advanced four times, and different years we’ve done different things. I think we have the right formula, but obviously we’ll find out as far as what kind of quality we can bring to the table tomorrow night.
Q. Tony, it’s difficult enough to get kids in to Virginia with the academics. When you throw in the fact that you’re a defensive-minded program and that’s what your identity is and kids in AAU ball tend to shy away from defense, how tough does that make the recruiting to Virginia, and how proud does that make you that you’ve been able to recruit kids to fit into that system?
TONY BENNETT: I think it’s always about fit. You always look for the right — I remember when I got the job, talking to Debbie Ryan. We have a great baseball coach, Brian O’Connor, Brian Boland tennis coach. I asked them, Dom Starsia, there’s legendary coaches that have been there. And they talk about getting the right fit for Virginia. Kids that’ll value and appreciate what they’re going to get academically.
And I think the opportunity to play in the ACC. That’s one of the reasons why I chose to come from Washington State to Virginia, a chance to test myself and our program against the Carolinas and Dukes. I didn’t know at the time it was going to be Syracuse, Louisville, Notre Dame — it kind of changed, but the league is terrific.
What’s helped us is we’ve had some success. We’ve gotten to the NCAA Tournament. We, I think, have done a solid job, our staff has, of developing guys. Guys are playing in the NBA now that maybe weren’t even four- or five-star guys. But they’ve developed. They’ve had success. They’ve won conference championships, Elite Eights, Sweet 16s, and then they’ve gotten drafted and are doing some good things, either overseas or in the NBA. So I think that helps all of that with the recruiting.
We are who we are. I think it’s okay to make guys defend. That’s going to carry over for their professional career. I try to teach them to play the game the right way and whatever gives us a chance to win. But if someone doesn’t think it’s for them, I make no apologies for how we play. It’s our way, and guys can develop and advance.
I’m really thankful for the players we have had, and hopefully we’ll continue to find the whole package.
Q. Coach, just a question about Marial: He had a career-high 23 points last night. Does it surprise you that he had a career high on a stage like that was last night?
TONY BENNETT: He, against Butler last year, really had a terrific game, and he was such a key in that comeback yesterday because we went to the five guards, and they were matching up Devontae Cacok, No. 15, against him. We needed to first handle the ball screen defense, and then they switched, and he was working hard. Then we got the mismatch on the offensive end. Marial is really good off the bounce in creating his shot, whether it’s midrange or slashing or getting to the rim, and he added a couple threes. He got us to at least where we could get connected, and he just went to work.
We’ve seen him do that in practice, and I was so thankful because — I said it in the post-game after. He said to me — because he was starting for a while, then he didn’t start, he wasn’t playing — that’s hard on a young man. We’d sit down and talk, and he read this book called Chop Wood, Carry Water. He said to me right after the game as we were walking off, “Coach, chop wood, carry water,” which basically means stay faithful to the process. Stay faithful to the little things. Don’t get so consumed with what you’re seeing as the end result. That’s a mature statement for a third year in college.
That brought joy to my heart because he worked so hard on his game, and he’s had some valleys of playing time and opportunities, but to see him on that stage do that and shine, and when we needed it. I wouldn’t be sitting here right now if he hadn’t played like that, and a number of other guys, but I loved it. Just to see the look in his eye and you know how that made him feel. He’s great family, great young man.
Q. Tony, growing up in the game like you did, you know this time of year is not just the Tournament. There’s jobs that are changing and switching around. As a coach at Washington State and seeing it from all the angles you’ve seen it, what have you learned about how to handle that swirl? What have you advised assistants that have been through it? How stressful can that be when you’re trying to focus on what your job is when people are talking about other stuff out there?
TONY BENNETT: Yeah, I’ve seen — my dad was obviously a coach, small college, mid-major, Green Bay, then at Wisconsin. My sister was head coach at Indiana, Evansville, Northern Illinois. I’ve seen the great side of the business. I’ve seen the hard side of the business.
I just try — I would say just hold things with open hands. I really look at this, this is all a gift. It doesn’t mean it’s always going to go great, but just to look at it that way and have that kind of perspective because this is just a short time we’re doing this. Can I make a difference? Can I try to pursue excellence with what I do? Sometimes you’re the flavor of the month, I always like to say when I was at Washington State. Things are going well, and stuff gets spinning, who knows what’s accurate and what’s not?
It’s so not about that. It’s about where you’re at and loving what you do and treating it as a gift and just having a peace about where you’re at. That’s kind of how I look at the opportunity for your team to play in this, to hopefully advance. I always tell our guys, can you handle the best that can happen and can you handle the worst? If you can, then you’re going to be okay. There’s no guarantees we’re going to be successful. It might end, but it could advance.
I think, if you have that kind of perspective, it helps you enjoy it and have joy doing it, and you’re not strangling to death. But there’s times that you feel that tension.
Q. Coach, your defensive system is pretty well renowned throughout the country. What type of discipline does it take to kind of keep everyone on the same page?
TONY BENNETT: Yeah, I think, first of all, Florida is terrific defensively, and the numbers bear that out. They spread out and slide, and they’re good defensively with their length. Our defense wasn’t great yesterday, and there’s times it hasn’t been good. When our defense is right, we can play with a lot of people and be successful. When it’s not, it’s hard.
But it just takes — you know, young guys that come in struggle with it, some older guys — our defense is really a team-oriented system, and it’s about being more continuous than perhaps is natural for a lot of guys. You can’t make one effort, okay, then stop. You’ve got to be good off the ball. You have to have stance and vision all the time. You have to learn, instead of being reactionary, you’ve got to be able to anticipate. The good teams can anticipate. And it’s just this continuous battle.
And it’s a mindset, too, that we’re going to try to outlast and impose our will on the offense, which is challenging, and we couldn’t do it yesterday for most of the stretches. Then we got it right in a different way against Wilmington. But that’s kind of the mentality.
And you work at it. I mean, we worked hard on our offense. We work hard on skill development. But you don’t just — my father said — I don’t know who told him, it’s not what you teach, it’s what you emphasize. Defense, you always start at zero every game, and like every practice that’s what we assume. You’ve got to work at it.
Q. Tony, I’m working on something on your relationship with London and the assistance we’re talking about, how much you trust him during a time-out. What could we do here? What do you see? I want to know how long did that take to get to that point and how special and unique is it, or is it something that always comes about?
TONY BENNETT: Yeah, when your point guard and lone senior is that guy, his feel — I’ve said it multiple times. I’ve coached some really good guys with great feel. He’s one of the best I’ve seen. His feel for the game, what he sees, I love that. I remember as a player — you know, my father and other coaches, they’re telling me something, and I’m like, no, I know what’s going on. I’m out here. I see this.
I think you’ve got to be open to it. Sometimes a player, if it you trust and respect what he’s seeing, it can be a good idea. He made a suggestion at halftime. We got a bucket right out of it to start the second half. He’s not right all the time, though, but his feel is so good. And he’s played in so many games against so many systems. He understands what I want, so that’s significant.
Yeah, I’m fortunate to have that. I’m hoping a guy like Ty, he has some feel, and continuing with just different guys. But you want that in your point guard, and you want to be able to trust him. Some guys just have a natural, innate ability to sense what’s going to happen and have good suggestions. I told him he could be a good coach someday if he so chooses. He might have to cut his hair a little bit, but otherwise, he’s got a great mind for the game.
Q. Did it take a year or two —
TONY BENNETT: Oh, yeah, you asked that. Pretty quick. He had that feel right away. You could see that in high school when you watched him. Once he was in our starting lineup, you’re like — when he was on the floor, just things started happening. He was pretty quiet at first, but you know it when you see it. It was pretty much his first year. Once he started doing it in games at a competitive level — some guys do it in practice, and then you see them do it in a game, and you realize it’s the real deal.
Q. You mentioned earlier that the mid-majors, it’s really hard to tell mid-majors from Power Five conferences now. A team that you have some familiarity with in terms of playing, VCU in Richmond, they made seven straight tournaments. Not a lot of teams have done that, especially mid-major. What do you see with teams, especially like VCU because you watched them, but like St. Mary’s or Gonzaga, they continue to win?
TONY BENNETT: I’m not sure they’re mid-majors. With the talent they have and the level they play at, they’re playing high-major basketball, but it’s very good players, very good coaching, a culture’s been established, and that consistency, it’s impressive. I was at Washington State, and Gonzaga was good long before I was there, but I watched how good they were.
We established some good stuff, my father did at Green Bay. That was perhaps a little bit of a lower tier. I don’t know, lower-mid. But I think you just need a real solid system, and I think you need really good coaching to establish that kind of consistency. VCU, the job they’ve done, is terrific.
Q. Coach, what’s the one element that you see on tape as you watch Florida that concerns you, gives you a tingle? The speed of the backcourt, the athleticism, the length of the frontcourt? It what’s that one thing UVA must neutralize tomorrow in order to get a “W”?
TONY BENNETT: I think you pretty much mentioned a lot of them because they’re so quick. Their ability — we always talk about the bookends of the game for us on our defensive possession. Being able to make them go against a set defense because they’re terrific in transition. Jason Williford, my assistant coach who’s doing the scout, likened them to UNC in terms of how quick they get down the floor. He said they are that caliber, and sometimes they even do some things that might even be faster at times. That’s impressive.
But that and the way they can get on the offensive glass with their length. They’re versatile. I think they’re really good defensively, too, as I mentioned. We’ll have to do what we always do. We’re going to have to get it to our kind of game in terms of making them play against a set defense, make them shoot the majority of the shots contested shots. Take care of the ball. We’re going to have to move them. We’re going to have to screen them, move them, knock down some outside shots. Hopefully, there’s some opportunistic baskets for us in transition, but it’s just going to kind of be a war of attrition. I know they’re going to try to get their style, and can we outlast them? Not many secrets about this one.
Mike’s done a terrific job, good staff, the whole deal. And there will be probably a few more Florida fans than Virginia fans is my guess. They’ll be there in spirit.
Q. Update on Isaiah Wilkins? Is he feeling any better? What can you get more than five minutes out of him? Do you need to get more?
TONY BENNETT: Yeah, he’s has been the heart and soul of our defense. He’s doubtful. Didn’t do anything today. He’s been such a key. He played when he had strep throat or was kind of going through that, helped us get a win at NC State. Helped us, turned around and played a huge role in the win against North Carolina and battled.
Yeah, he just — I mentioned last time he was up here, this virus is hanging on. He’s lost some weight and just can’t — he pushed for about four or five minutes, and that was it. He pretty much didn’t have anything left and was having some trouble. He’s doubtful for the game. I’m not expecting him to play. But you never know.
Q. You recruited Devin as a point guard, and he’s become much more than that. How much flexibility does that give you as a coach to be able to kind of mix and match with him?
TONY BENNETT: And I didn’t recruit Marial as a five man, but he played that yesterday now, too, didn’t he? Just the way the game’s going with the spread offenses and the four guards mostly. I say we’re going to play traditional. That really should mean — traditional is probably four guards. It’s not two bigs.
But he’s played some four for us just because of injuries, the situation with Isaiah. And then his ability — I think his completeness and how he’s developed. He’s strong physically, and he’s really improved this year, and he can handle the ball, and he’s stepping out and shooting it some.
So I just like his completeness and that versatility. That’s the way the game has gone, complete versatile perimeter players that can play multiple positions.
THE MODERATOR: Thank you very much, Coach. Good luck.