Tony Bennett isn’t just the coach of the year this year. The job that Bennett is doing to get his Virginia team on the verge of another top-tier finish in the ACC might be historically noteworthy.
Because it’s hard to imagine any coach in any year, past, certainly present, into the future, getting as much out of a roster as Bennett has been able to get out of his 2019-2020 team.
It’s one thing to win a national title with three NBA players.
But this team … 21-7?
I’m not going to go Roy Williams on you here and talk about this team being the “least gifted” team that Tony Bennett has had at Virginia, because that first team, the one that got Dave Leitao fired, that one had its challenges.
Let’s charitably say that this isn’t the team that Bennett thought he would have when he was succession planning the past couple of offseasons.
You basically knew that De’Andre Hunter was almost certainly gone after his redshirt sophomore season, but you had to expect that you’d have Kyle Guy and Ty Jerome back for their senior seasons.
You slide Braxton Key into Hunter’s role as the stretch four, with Mamadi Diakite at five, Kihei Clark does what he did last year.
Guy and Jerome give you mid-30s each night, maybe Kody Stattmann or Casey Morsell step up to give you minutes off the bench in the backcourt, Jay Huff gives you 15-20 in the post, and you’re good to go.
When all three of the Big Three left, everything went up in the air in terms of … everything.
Now you need Huff to give you serious minutes alongside Diakite in the post.
Key is back to three because you’re out of options. Clark is at one, and he’s not there just to bring the ball up the court to hand to Jerome; he has to initiate, touch the paint, hit threes.
And now instead of maybe Stattmann or Morsell stepping up to give you 10-15 minutes, you need them to give you 20-25, and you also need a kid from JUCO, Tomas Woldetensae, coming off a wrist injury, to give you a deep threat.
What has been this program’s greatest strength – continuity – suddenly became its most obvious weakness.
Five guys in the eight-man rotation are guys who got minutes last year, but all of them were asked to slide over at least a chair from what they did to help make the music a year ago.
Clark actually played the most minutes of that group last season – averaging 26.8 minutes per game for the year, and 33.2 minutes per game in the NCAA Tournament, and Bennett, speaking at the national-title celebration at JPJ in September, said Clark’s three in the first half of the Gardner-Webb game that got Virginia back to down six just before the half was the biggest shot in the tourney run, which, that’s saying something, considering the other big shot that he was a part of in the Elite Eight.
His partner-in-crime in that one was Diakite, who famously hit the game-tying shot at the buzzer to send the game with Purdue to OT.
Diakite was huge for the ‘Hoos throughout March and into April, averaging 10.5 points and 8.2 points per game in the NCAA Tournament, but he was a clear fourth wheel to the Big Three.
It’s not always easy to move over to the big chair, and Diakite seemed to struggle with that at times, particularly during this team’s mid-January losing skid, which saw UVA lose three straight and four of five, to fall out of the Top 10, then the Top 25, all the way to the wrong side of the NCAA Tournament bubble.
More than once, you saw Diakite, normally smiling, effusive, flowing with positive energy, throwing his hands in disgust after a missed assignment on defense would lead to an opponent basket, or another miscue on the offensive end would lead to a turnover.
But you can understand why, and he wasn’t alone in struggling. Clark, too, had his struggles with his new role, going from being used primarily to ball-hawk opposing point guards so that Jerome could stay fresh, and keep the ball moving for the three soon-to-be NBA players, to being Mr. Everything, playing an absurd 37.4 minutes per game, still ball-hawking the point, while seeing his usage rate nearly double, from 12.9 percent to 23.7 percent.
Even the unflappable Key, as his minutes have increased from 19.8 per game to 33.3 per game this season, doing everything from leading the team in rebounding to running the team as the backup point guard, has had his share of adversity to deal with, most notably because of the broken left wrist he suffered back in November, which is still the source of issue health-wise, with JPJ holding its collective breath when he went to the sideline early in the win over Duke over the weekend when he took a hard foul on a drive to the hoop.
And the star of that Duke win, Huff, Mr. 10 Blocks, you realize he averaged 9.3 minutes a game last year, right? Huff is getting 24.3 minutes per game this season, but those aren’t consistent minutes. He got just 13, for instance, in Virginia’s other win last week, at Virginia Tech, with two points, two rebounds and two blocks, and it wasn’t foul trouble, but just general ineffectiveness, that had him on the bench, and that’s been an issue for Huff really all season long.
The other returning guy, Stattmann, is a returner in name only, having gotten a total of 73 entirely garbage-time minutes as a freshman in 2018-2019, so he has been learning on the court as much as the newcomers.
The new guys
What those guys have been able to do is nothing short of amazing, even as I concede that their numbers are nowhere near amazing.
OK, Woldetensae can do the eye-popping: scoring 21 on seven made threes in the OT win at Wake Forest, lighting up Louisville for 27 on 10-of-13 shooting in the narrow loss in the Yum! Center.
He can also shrink like a violet: going scoreless in the Duke win, shooting 1-of-8 in the win at Virginia Tech.
But he’s getting minutes: averaging 26.6 minutes per game this season.
You don’t get those kinds of minutes on a Tony Bennett-coached team if you can’t play defense, and playing defense for Tony Bennett isn’t what you hear other coaches say it is.
Which is to say, you don’t just go out and play hard and play tough and give it your all and the other nonsense platitudes you get from everybody else.
The Pack-Line is as dizzying theatrically as anything you see on Broadway, with all the ball pressure, the hard hedges, the post-to-post doubles, the helping on dribble penetration, the closing out on three-point shooters.
You’re not just playing your man in man, or guarding a spot on the floor in zone: you’re doing, effectively, both, and everything you’re doing is different from what you’d been taught growing up in basketball, doubling the post with two bigs, funneling ball-handlers to the middle, not to the baseline.
There’s a reason guys don’t get a lot of minutes in their first years under Bennett.
Guy got 18.6 per game as a freshman; Jerome 13.9.
Malcolm Brogdon: 22.4.
Justin Anderson: 24.0.
Woldetensae is getting more, because Bennett has needed him.
And Bennett has needed Morsell, a freshman who is shooting 27.6 percent from the field, 17.9 percent from three, but is averaging 22.5 minutes per game.
Stattmann is also struggling with his shot – 33.3 percent from the field, 25.5 percent from three – but he’s getting 22.1 minutes per game.
You actually expect guys in their first year in the Bennett system to struggle offensively.
Hunter, the fourth pick in the 2019 NBA Draft, averaged 9.2 points per game as a freshman a year earlier.
Guy (7.5 points per game) and Jerome (4.3 points per game) showed glimpses in 2016-2017, but that was the extent of it, glimpses.
Anderson, a 2015 first-round pick, averaged 7.6 points per game back in 2012-2013.
Brogdon, the 2017 NBA rookie of the year, averaged 6.7 points, shot 39.6 percent from the floor and 32.4 percent from three, as a frosh in 2011-2012.
The common thread is that it’s hard to pick up what Bennett asks you to do on defense, and that makes it hard for you to do what you need to do on the offensive end, until you figure it out.
And Bennett is OK with that, because he wins games with what you do on the defensive end.
Adjustments on offense
Even Virginia needs to score points, theoretically.
This group is 350th nationally in scoring (57.4 points per game).
There are 353 D1 teams.
Three hundred forty-nine score more. Three score less.
Bennett has tried a little bit of everything to squeeze more points out of the group. When his Mover-Blocker motion offense was stalling out because of the dearth of three-point shooting, he injected more high-ball-screen action, to try to get Clark into the lane with dribble penetration, and that worked for a while.
As opponents adjusted by going zone to limit the paint touches for Clark, it helped that Woldetensae started going off from deep, averaging 13.3 points per game over an eight-game stretch that had him shooting 44.8 percent from three.
That got Bennett going back to more Mover-Blocker, with the ball screens to get Clark into the lane adding nice diversity, which was helpful last week when Woldetensae went cold (1-for-13 from the floor combined in the wins at Tech and Duke).
It says a lot about the tinkering that Bennett has had to do to conjure up points from the thin air that the best three-point shooter has been the 6’9” Diakite (37.7 percent), and that the 5’9” Clark basically has as many shots at the rim (103) as Diakite (104).
How is this team 21-7?
Three-fifty in scoring. Three-thirteen in three-point shooting.
Three wins with less than 50 on the board for the good guys.
A 7-1 record in games decided by three points or less.
Five of those wins have come since Feb. 11.
Think about that, and then think about North Carolina, which is 12-17 overall, 5-13 in the ACC, last place in the conference.
Carolina is 1-6 this season in games decided by three points or less.
All six of the losses have come since Roy Williams called his team the “least gifted” he’d ever coached on his radio show on Jan. 6.
Think about that.
When he said those words, I remember thinking that it sounded like he had given up on his team.
His team was 8-6 overall, 1-2 in the conference at the time.
They’ve gone 4-11 since.
The next day, Jan. 7, Virginia lost at Boston College, starting a three-game losing streak that turned into four losses in five games, the last of those Ls, a 53-51 home loss to N.C. State on Jan. 20, dropping Virginia to 12-6 overall, 4-4 in the ACC.
Bennett and his kids didn’t give up on each other. They went out and beat Wake Forest in OT their next time out, rallying from a double-digit second-half deficit to get there.
Carolina is 0-6 in games decided by three or less since its coach moaned about its lack of talent.
Virginia is 6-0 in games decided by three or less since Carolina’s coach moaned about its lack of talent.
You can complain about lacking talent, or you can go hard.
This Virginia team goes harder, and gets more out of what it has, than any team you’ve ever seen, or ever will see.
Tony Bennett is coach of the year, and the job he’s doing this year is among the best all-time.
Story by Chris Graham