Home Bennett has the blueprint for how to fix his offense: He just doesn’t want to use it

Bennett has the blueprint for how to fix his offense: He just doesn’t want to use it

Chris Graham
uva bennett staff
Photo: Mike Ingalls/AFP

I just went back and rewatched the Virginia-Florida State game, the one in which Virginia scored 80 points.

Seems like a lifetime ago.

Tony Bennett, who has coached against Leonard Hamilton for years now, altered the offensive approach that night, knowing that Leonard’s preference for his defense to switch on screens would bog down Bennett’s favored mover-blocker/sides offense, which relies on getting his guards open off screens set by his bigs.

Watching that game, in which Virginia scored, again, 80 points, after having had to sit through the last three games, in which the Cavaliers scored a total of 134 points in 120 minutes, was like watching any one of those last three games on the fastest fast-forward setting on the DVR.

What stood out the most: so much movement, and not just movement for the sake of movement, like we’ve seen of late.

The sets that Bennett installed for that game featured a run of ball screens and slip screens, with the middle of the floor either entirely open, or with just one big on one of the blocks, posting up – posting up!

The data speak for themselves: Virginia shot 50 percent from the field, was 10-of-18 from three, shot just 12 midrange jumpers.

UVA had 18 assists on its 26 made baskets, was 12-of-23 at the rim – leaving at least a couple of buckets off the scoreboard just because they needed to finish with more strength – and got to the free-throw line 24 times (and made 18!).

Contrast that to:

  • UNC (a 54-44 loss): Virginia shot 27.6 percent, was 2-of-14 from three, was 7-of-25 on midrange jumpers, 7-of-19 on shots at the rim, 10-of-15 at the line, five assists on the 16 made baskets.
  • Virginia Tech (a 75-41 loss): Virginia shot 32.6 percent, was 2-of-12 from three, was 3-of-20 on midrange jumpers, 12-of-20 on shots at the rim, 5-of-7 at the line, seven assists on the 17 made baskets.
  • Wake Forest (a 49-47 win): Virginia shot 40.7 percent, was 4-of-13 from three, was 10-of-24 on midrange jumpers, 8-of-17 on shots at the rim, 1-of-11 at the line, 11 assists on the 22 made baskets.

It’s easy to say, coaches have the blueprint for how to beat Virginia’s offense; Bennett alluded to that as the gospel after the loss at Virginia Tech on Monday, talking about how teams are zoning off screens being set for Isaac McKneely and cheating off the other three guys on the floor to help suppress Reece Beekman’s forays into the paint.

OK, so, well, if coaches have the blueprint for how to stop Virginia’s base offense, doesn’t Bennett have a blueprint for how Virginia counters that?

“They were really keying in on a few guys and really playing off of some others,” Bennett told reporters after the loss to UNC on Saturday. “We tried to get some more movement, and again, some of those shots, we need to finish and knock them down. But you just keep trying to get quality looks and work hard, but again, and they defended it well, too. You know, they had a week to prepare, and they were they were right defensively, made it hard, and you can see why they’re a good team.”

This is where it’s totally legit for fans who want to see this team succeed – and think, rightfully so, that there’s too much talent there for Virginia to go three straight games scoring in the 40s – to be frustrated.

It’s almost like Bennett wants to prove people who question his commitment to his mover-blocker offense wrong by doubling, tripling, infinity-ing down on just running it harder, in spite of the results.

On top of that, there were a couple of things that seemed to work within the mover-blocker in the UNC loss, but, and I’m going to go with the word frustratingly here, there was no obvious effort to try to repeat them.

The first involved Beekman scoring on two explorations into the paint in the first two minutes of the game, in which he backed the smaller RJ Davis in from the right side of the lane for short jumpers.

And then: we didn’t see Beekman do this again all day.

It was to a point that you expected to see Beekman make the too-small gesture that some of the kids like to do, it was so easy.

You’d think one of the several guys on the sidelines, if not Bennett himself, would have noticed and maybe made it a point of emphasis.


The other play that worked, once, was out of a timeout late in the game, with Beekman driving baseline, getting to the rim, then finding McKneely in the right corner for the open three – iMac’s only make from three on the day.

Because that action takes advantage of the natural movement of the defense in response to dribble penetration, you use it once, and don’t go back to it again?

Whatever happened to the idea, with either the penetration-kickout three, or the Beekman punishing Davis for being too small, of, go with what’s working until the other side stops it?

“We’re trying to do a few different things,” Bennett said – cue the chorus: no, you’re not! “You know, they’re figuring some things out that are tough for us, and you’ve got to just take the shots when they’re there, the right guys. We thought we opened some things up a little bit better the second half, got some stuff into the lane downhill, ball screens, and then tried to get movement, but you know, I think that certainly gets into it, but you just, again, when you got an open one, you got to take it. You got to get a good shot and be as good in the other areas, and that’s the challenge right now.”

That’s quite the word salad for, what we’re really doing is, we’re trying the same thing over and over and hoping for a different result.

I, maybe more than anybody who doesn’t get paid to shill for Bennett and the program, understand full well that Bennett views his mover-blocker offense as being the natural complement to his Pack Line defense, and his overarching desire to win games by controlling tempo and limiting opponents in transition.

All well and good.

It’s won him six ACC regular-season titles, two ACC Tournament titles and a national championship.

Which is to say, Bennett’s system works.

Issue with this year’s roster is, maybe Bennett could recognize that he doesn’t have the players to run his preferred offense.

With apologies to Andrew Rohde, he isn’t a prototypical mover-blocker third guard who can come off screens and hit midrange jumpers or flatten out and be a threat from three, or create by penetrating into the lane and scoring on floaters or at the rim, or kick back out to perimeter shooters.

And then, Ryan Dunn, defensive savant, can only score when he gets a pass when he’s already in motion toward the rim, or off offensive rebounds.

And, finally, Jordan Minor can score on post-ups, but he’s attempted all of nine shots (!) out of post-ups this season.

Bennett could get more out of this year’s roster by using the Florida State game plan, which freed up space for Beekman (21 points, five assists) and, secondarily, Rohde (eight points, four assists) to create, and for McKneely (29 points, 8-of-12 FG, 5-of-7 3FG) and Groves (10 points, 4-of-8 FG, 2-of-4 3FG) to spot up and splash.

Imagine also getting contributions off the bench for athletic freshman guard Elijah Gertrude in an offense that puts more emphasis on spacing the floor, as opposed to trying to get guys slivers of daylight by clogging things up with screens.

We can dream.

The blueprint is there, and it’s been used, and has worked.

And just to be clear here, FSU is decent on the defensive end – ranking 51st this season in KenPom, basically, top 15 percent nationally.

Bennett isn’t thinking in that direction, though.

His focus, he made clear to reporters after the loss to UNC, another game in which his team scored in the 40s, is on fixing the base offense.

“I always will look, were there enough quality looks? Did we get enough quality looks? Did we get there? That’s how I try to judge it,” Bennett said. “And if you’re not getting quality looks, and there’s some adjustments you can make, OK. But if you’re getting quality looks and they’re not going in, you just got to keep really repping those out and taking them and finding ways to, you know, have a bit more confidence and a bit more sureness in those settings.”

Bennett is going to make it work with this team that isn’t suited to running his preferred offense, and has shown that it can score points – and win games – another way, or he’s going to have the season end prematurely trying.

Either way, his point will be made.

Chris Graham

Chris Graham

Chris Graham is the founder and editor of Augusta Free Press. A 1994 alum of the University of Virginia, Chris is the author and co-author of seven books, including Poverty of Imagination, a memoir published in 2019, and Team of Destiny: Inside Virginia Basketball’s Run to the 2019 National Championship, and The Worst Wrestling Pay-Per-View Ever, published in 2018. For his commentaries on news, sports and politics, go to his YouTube page, or subscribe to his Street Knowledge podcast. Email Chris at [email protected].