Now comes the part of the job of college basketball coach where guys like Tony Bennett really earn their money.
“Yeah, welcome to the new age of college basketball, right?” Bennett said after Tuesday’s 52-51 loss to St. Bonaventure in the NIT quarterfinals, which started the clock toward the 2022-2023 season for Bennett and his program.
This is the time when Bennett begins to sit down with his players for what amounts to exit interviews, thanking his seniors for four or five years of hard work and dedication, and going over with players who can return what went right this season, what went wrong, what they need to work on.
And then, yeah, this is the era of the transfer portal.
The big questions there for Virginia: freshmen Taine Murray and Igor Milicic Jr. and sophomore Carson McCorkle, all prized recruits who didn’t get much in the way of rotation minutes, and have to see four, maybe five, guys coming in with the nation’s ninth-ranked recruiting class set to arrive on Grounds this summer.
“I just think some guys maybe have decisions made in their mind what they’re going to do, what they want to do,” Bennett said, without going into specifics as to who the “some guys” might be. “You just sit down and you’re honest, you know, and you just talk and share things, this is what I see, and they’ll tell you, and those decisions, I mean, guys that maybe aren’t planning on coming back, if there are some, you know, I think the sooner they do that, for their sake, and everyone’s sake, the better, and then you just you go from there, but we’ll do that fairly soon.”
It’s also decision time for senior point guard Kihei Clark, who could come back for a COVID redshirt year in 2022-2023.
“Not sure. We’ll talk. I mean, he’s, we’ll get a feel for all that stuff,” Bennett said of Clark, a four-year starter, who could see reduced time with the flow of things seeming to be moving in the direction of Bennett handing over the point guard duties to Reece Beekman, and the pending arrival of four-star shooting guard Isaac McKneely and possibly four-star point guard London Johnson, another four-star about to make his college decision, with Virginia a slight favorite among his finalists.
“It’s a little you know, I think, let the dust settle, the smoke clear, or the body cool, however you want to say it here,” Bennett said. “We just had a tough loss, but certainly sooner than later. And, again, I always want the best for these young men. They’ll always be part of this year, and this team will never be the same. Now, you know, that’s, I tried to teach them to appreciate that, and honor each other.”
That’s Bennett the teacher, the father figure, warm, cuddly.
Father figures also have to be able to dole out some tough love, and Bennett offered his share of tough love in his postseason wrap.
“I think this offseason is important. A lot of these young men are going to have to decide how committed, how hard they’ll work, how much they’ll improve their skills, how much tougher they can become and how much they love it, and they’ve got to take a step, they have to. They’ve got some decisions to make, about how badly they want to improve their game, and then collectively, but they certainly improved throughout the year,” Bennett said.
Later, in response to another reporter question, Bennett doubled down on that general point.
“We must improve, every player that returns in this program,” Bennett said. “They better take a step, in terms of commitment and in their strength and their ability, and commit and work. If they don’t want to, they shouldn’t be here, don’t want them. But I believe they will. That’s the entry level for this level, this high level, so they’ve got to decide. And nothing’s guaranteed, playing time is not guaranteed. You work, you come together.
“We were shorthanded this year with a tight rotation, and so guys got invaluable experience. I hope there’ll be more competition next year for playing time, which is healthy. And again, I want to be real with the new guys coming in. Everybody’s all excited about this new class. They’ll have their work to do. It’s hard coming in as a first-year, and you’ve got to have patience, and you know, if they’re good enough, they’ll play, if they’re not ready, they’ll improve, and they’ll get ready at some point, just like the guys in this program.
“But certainly those guys that come back that played a lot, they should be better, the guys that didn’t play that much this year, eye-opening experience, and I expect hopefully some good continuity. But to (the earlier) question, you don’t know in college basketball now, you really don’t, and it’s kind of sad, but it’s reality.”
Story by Chris Graham