Home Bennett to his struggling Virginia team: ‘Stay together, don’t hang your head’

Bennett to his struggling Virginia team: ‘Stay together, don’t hang your head’

Chris Graham
uva basketball
Photo: Mike Ingalls/AFP

Virginia Basketball fans are, by nature, self-loathing, like the fans in the Dr. Pepper “Fanville” commercial burning their jerseys after the first play of the game.

I thought the 2019 national title would get that out of our system, but, no.

The ugly 76-54 loss to a not good Notre Dame team on Saturday lit up my inbox and texts with variations on the “Fanville” theme.

A vocal subgroup of fans might be throwing in the towel on the 2023-2024 season already, but coach Tony Bennett is pushing forward.

“We play again on Wednesday. And again, we’re 1-1 in the league, and hopefully we can regroup and fight and get back to it,” Bennett told reporters postgame on Saturday.

I had to look it up, but Bennett is right – Virginia is 1-1 in the ACC, and actually, diving deeper, 10-3 overall, which, not bad on the surface there, right?

The ‘3’ in that 10-3, though, they’re all bad losses – all by 20+, to two teams that will be higher-digit NCAA Tournament seeds, Wisconsin and Memphis, and then to Notre Dame, which is just not good.

The frustrating thing for fans is that it appears Virginia has regressed from where it was a month ago.

Going into the final-exams break, Virginia had rebounded from the ugly loss to Wisconsin with a nice double-digit win over a ranked Texas A&M team and a 22-point blowout of Syracuse in the ACC opener.

Since returning from exams, Virginia has lost two of three, both by 20+, and even the win was a slog, a two-point W over a meh Northeastern team that was able to ge out to a 16-4 lead in the opening minutes and obviously hang around thereafter.

Big early holes have been a feature since the return from final exams – Memphis led 13-1 out of the gate, and Notre Dame got up 13-0 in the first four-plus minutes on Saturday.

“You don’t necessarily win a game in the first four or five minutes, and you don’t necessarily lose a game, but you make it incredibly difficult when you get down like that,” Bennett said on Saturday.

“You know, Memphis, you know, we were down 13-1, and we did fight back, and then in this one, whatever, it happened,” Bennett said. “I thought the shots were there early, so, we missed some shots, but defensively, we really had a hard time, just felt like we were behind the play and didn’t have a lot of tenacity and soundness where it was needed. And then you know, whether it’s an offensive rebound, or a silly foul that puts them quicker in the penalty, all those things, they add up, and it just compounded.”

Where this team is right now is reminiscent of where the 2013-2014 team was at the turn of the new year that year.

We all remember the 87-52 loss at Tennessee on Dec. 30 of that season that dropped that UVA team to a 9-4 mark, and set Joe Harris on a mission to visit Bennett on New Year’s Eve to talk strategy.

The talk led to a reckoning with the players and the staff that led to some tweaks to the offense and rotation, and increased buy-in from all involved.

The 2013-2014 ‘Hoos went on from there to win 21 of their next 23 before being upset by Michigan State in the Sweet Sixteen.

Yes, there was a lot of young talent on that team – Harris, a senior, was surrounded by sophomores Malcolm Brogdon, Anthony Gill and Justin Anderson, all of whom went on to careers in the NBA, as well as guys like London Perrantes and Mike Tobey who played in the G League and overseas.

There’s also plenty of talent on the 10-years-later group.

Reece Beekman and Ryan Dunn are projected first-round 2024 NBA Draft picks, and the rotation includes four-stars like Isaac McKneely, Elijah Gertrude, Leon Bond III and Blake Buchanan who could play their way into paying jobs in due time.

The message from Bennett to his guys after the latest rough loss: “stay together, don’t hang your head.”

“We’ve gotten taken, beat pretty handily, for sure, three times, and haven’t been able to hang in there. And whether it’s a hot team, or you’re playing a team that’s mature and good and experienced, you just got to find ways,” Bennett said. “So, we all got to come together and find ways, but it’s gonna take a real connected, unified effort. First defensively, because when the defense goes, it’s not good. And today the defense was gone there. They took it from us, and then we were weren’t able to even stay in that game. So, we’ll get back to work.”

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].