A segment of Virginia Basketball fans will express, from time to time, frustration over the lack of five-star recruits.
But then, it’s never been about five-star recruits with Tony Bennett, who prefers to build through chemistry, as opposed to simply accumulating talent.
“We’ve tried very hard to recruit to the pillars in our program and guys that are excited about, you know, what Virginia stands for – basketball-wise, academically, the opportunities here. And gratefulness, I think, breeds chemistry, and breeds that unity,” Bennett told reporters this week at the program’s annual media day, held this year, as last, via Zoom.
Bennett, 295-103 in 12 seasons at Virginia, and 364-136 in 15 seasons overall as a head coach, has a national championship, five ACC regular-season titles and two ACC Tournament titles on his resume, so, what he does works.
But it is different.
You’re not going to see five-star phenoms looking to go to the NBA after a cameo in college matriculating on Grounds to learn the Pack-Line.
Bennett and his staff do well on the trail – UVA has had four first-round NBA draft picks in his tenure, and a second-rounder, Malcolm Brogdon, was the 2017 NBA Rookie of the Year.
Kids choose UVA because they have things to work on, and know that the Bennett system can help them get to where they want to go – in basketball, in life.
“I think that’s always been one of the strengths of most good programs in any sport, but our program, when I think of the guy going through it, even guys, we’ve had guys that have transferred, we’ve been fortunate to have the right kind of guys, and they’re grateful and thankful for this opportunity. And that’s challenged more the way today’s it’s shifting, but doesn’t mean you can’t find those who are excited about this,” Bennett said.
Bennett, for his part, seems more excited with opportunities like the one he has in front of him. Virginia isn’t the favorite in the ACC, was picked 25th in the AP and coaches polls, because of what it lost (Trey Murphy III, Sam Hauser, Jay Huff), and because there wasn’t much waiting in the wings to step up and fill the void.
Bennett had to hit the transfer portal hard, coming out with two of the best available players in the country for his efforts, landing East Carolina power forward Jayden Gardner and Indiana shooting guard Armaan Franklin.
Those two, plus holdovers Kihei Clark and Reece Beekman, should form a solid nucleus, but it will take a few weeks of learning on the job before you’ll get a good feel for this team’s ceiling.
The learning is what Bennett is all about, when you get down to it.
“The best compliments that we’ve ever received here are when people walk into our practices and say, you know, you guys work really hard, but there’s a spirit of joy in the gym, guys, you’re professional, or you go at it, it’s intense, you hold them accountable, but and there’s a lightness and a fun spirit or joyful spirit amongst the staff, the players and how they play. I love that. And I think those kinds of environments, in success and in in adversity, are a difference-maker. And I always want to try to protect that to the best of my ability,” Bennett said.
“Sometimes I’m the reason there’s not joy, because I’m a I’m a stubborn, grumpy old guy, you know, and, but then you’ve got to think about that. But I think all those things breed the right kind of environment. And you always talk about good soil, what’s going to promote the most growth, and the good soil is when it’s joyful, when it’s hard working, when you have the right kind of young man, and I think we’ve strived to do that.”
So, if you’re upset that Virginia isn’t in the mix for next year’s top recruit, understand, it’s part of the design.
When Bennett talks about “good soil,” you can almost imagine him talking to his plants as he waters them in the morning.
“You know, college-age guys, they, I hope, they love to play, and I hope they never, I think that sometimes when when guys start thinking about other things, if they can always remember, I love this game, this is a great opportunity, then there is that spirit of joy, and it’s about the right stuff,” Bennett said. “But I think when young men start thinking about, well, I have to live up to my expectations, I can’t fail, or this is about the pros, this or that. That’s all part of it. But I think if they can always remember why they play, and who they’re representing, what they’re about, that’s the key for excitement when there’s even uncertainty out there.
“I see our society, and I see college sports, twisting that, and that’s where I see guys struggling go into themselves. And that’s our job as coaches to promote. This is about the right stuff. And we’re going to be as good as we can. And so, I think that’s an important thing for young guys to keep in mind, because I’ve seen over the years, the ones that have had success, I don’t know why, but Joe Harris just comes to my mind. Obviously, he’s had great success, but you talk about who loved to play, and played with joy, and never let the expectations or any of that other stuff get in his way. He just loved it and wanted to win, he was about that. And then some guys have struggled with the expectations, and you see all that stuff competing. That’s why it’s a great privilege to coach and help navigate that with the young men you’re with.”
Story by Chris Graham