Increased offense at Virginia: Change in Tony Bennett basketball philosophy?

tony bennettTony Bennett grew up, literally, seeped in Pack-Line, at the feet of his father, legendary coach Dick Bennett.

The elder Bennett made his name with the Pack-Line, and his son has used the stifling defense that dad handed down to win back-to-back ACC regular-season titles.

But there’s more to the Bennett Way than Pack-Line, as Dick Bennett made clear in an interview with David Teel this past spring that is worth revisiting.

“I think he’s got some jumps to make in his basketball philosophy,” Dick Bennett said, pointing specifically to offense.

The interview was at the height of the national conversation about how “boring” UVA basketball was risking the ruin of the college game.

Even Dick Bennett was among the critics, apparently, surprisingly.

“You look at some teams that have an abundance of offensive talent and can play with a lot more possessions, and I think he would like to be able to do more of that, and I think perhaps that day is coming,” Bennett said.

Looking at the 2015-2016 Cavs, might it already be here?

Virginia is averaging 9.7 more points per game this season (75.1, vs. 65.4 in 2014-2015), shooting 4.7 percent better from the field (50.4 percent vs. 45.7 percent) and 6.3 percent better from three-point range (41.5 percent vs. 35.2 percent).

Not so fast, though, literally: UVA is putting up bigger numbers while averaging 61.8 possessions per game, dead last among the 351 teams in Division I.

The move to a 30-second shot clock, from 35, has added a few possessions per game for everybody. Virginia averaged 58.4 possessions per game in 2014-2015, 349th in D1.

The improvement has come with increased efficiency. Last year’s unit was solid on offense, ranked 24th in the nation in offensive efficiency, according to KenPom.com, averaging 1.119 points per possession. This year’s group is fourth nationally, averaging 1.195 points per possession.

That’s the good news: that the ‘Hoos are scoring 0.076 more points per possession.

There is bad news: they’re giving up 0.087 more points per possession defensively. Last year’s group gave up 0.862 points per possession, best in D1, according to KenPom.com. This year, the D is ranked 32nd nationally, giving up 0.949 points per possession.

The focus of fans and the media in the preseason was on how Tony Bennett would work around the departures of Justin Anderson and Darion Atkins, the thinking being that the offense would suffer without Anderson, a first-round NBA draft pick, and that the defense would suffer without Atkins, the 2015 National Defensive Player of the Year.

As the numbers show, the offense has been more than fine, the defense not so much.

It’s not for Bennett and his staff not trying to figure out how to fix the Pack-Line. Isaiah Wilkins is now entrenched as a starter in the post despite his limited production offensively (4.6 points per game), the 6’8” junior’s increasing minutes the past few weeks being there because of his ability to contribute defensively.

If Bennett was pushing the button to push offense, he’d give more minutes to 7-foot senior Mike Tobey, a 60 percent shooter who gets 15.1 minutes per game because of his suspect defense.

To get back to what dad said, then, it’s not that we’re seeing a change in Tony Bennett’s basketball philosophy, not a sea change, anyway.

There was a second part to the quote from Dick Bennett to Teel that seems applicable here.

“Right now he’s made some intelligent choices about how his teams have to play, and that takes considerable research, to know your players, to know what works, to know how you have to play to compete where you are, and I think he’s done a remarkable job of understanding that.”

That’s what we’re seeing. Tweaks, not a sea change.

– Column by Chris Graham

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