Home Under the bus? UVA’s Tony Bennett, all the sudden, can’t coach

Under the bus? UVA’s Tony Bennett, all the sudden, can’t coach


bennettAfter spending the bulk of 2015 ranked #2 or #3, UVA saw its season end the same way its breakthrough 2014 ended, with an upset loss to Michigan State.

Too many in the fan base are now looking at the coach who has guided Virginia to its first back-to-back 30-win seasons in program history as having done what he can do.

Which is, of course, patently ridiculous.

Tony Bennett is no less an elite basketball coach now than he was at noon Sunday. And yes, he was an elite coach then, and is now, and will be next year, when Virginia tips off the season as a top two or three team, with the core of Malcolm Brogdon, Justin Anderson, Anthony Gill and London Perrantes back, and talented transfer Darius Thompson added to the rotation with everybody else but ACC co-defensive player of the year Darion Atkins back.

Note that not one of those players was a Top 40 recruit. Not a single McDonald’s All-American among them. Bennett is in the running for some top recruits on the heels of the success of the past two seasons, which have seen Virginia go a combined 60-11, win back-to-back ACC regular-season titles, post a 36-5 record in ACC play, and yes, unfortunately, go 0-2 against Michigan State.

Last year the bad feeling left in everyone’s mouths was the second-half injury that put Gill on the sidelines in a two-point loss. This year the bad feeling that will linger for years to come will be the 29.8 percent shooting from the field and 2-for-17 output from three-point range.

That’s the source of the angst on the message boards and on Twitter. As good as Virginia has been on defense the past two years, the offense seems to be a limitation at key moments. Which is particularly vexing because before Anderson went down with a broken finger in the Feb. 7 win over Louisville, the UVA offense was actually ranked among the top 10 nationally in terms of the key points-per-possession metric.

Brogdon, Anderson and Gill were individually among the top players in the country offensively according to KenPom.com, so punch was not an issue on a night-in, night-out basis, until the Anderson injury changed the dynamic of the season.

No excuses on Sunday. Anderson was back in the starting lineup on the heels of a 15-point effort in UVA’s NCAA Tournament second-round win over Belmont, so the Cavs were as close to full strength for Michigan State as they were going to be.

As hard as it can be for fans to accept this, there are 351 teams in D1, and all but one will end its season with an L.

UVA’s season ended prematurely, no doubt about that. So did each of the four seasons that Ralph Sampson anchored in Charlottesville in the 1980s. As did each of future five-time NBA champ Tim Duncan’s four seasons at Wake Forest.

As did 34 of legendary UNC coach Dean Smith’s 36 seasons, including his first 21. As have 30 of Mike Krzyzewski’s 34 completed seasons to date at Duke. It took Coach K 11 seasons before he ended with a W.

Bennett just completed season six at Virginia, taking over for Dave Leitao, who was 63-60 in four seasons trying to pick up the pieces from the failed run of Pete Gillen, who was 118-93 in seven seasons, but just 65-56 in his last four.

Do the math. UVA was basically a .500 program for eight years, made just two NCAA Tournament appearances combined under Gillen and Leitao, hadn’t even won an ACC Tournament quarterfinal game since 1995.

Patiently, very patiently, Bennett has built a winner, inheriting a roster that had gone 10-18 in the 2008-2009 season that got Leitao fired and by year three was winning 22 games and earning an NCAA Tournament bid, then winning 23 the next year and just missing on March Madness, in advance of the back-to-back 30-win seasons the past two years.

It’s an insult to the kids who have been the foundation of this turnaround to remind them that they’re not Top 40 recruits and McDonald’s All-Americans. Joe Harris developed into an NBA player under Bennett and his staff, and Brogdon, Anderson and Gill from this year’s group look like future pros. All were solid recruits who have gotten markedly better under Bennett and his staff, and you can bet that their improvement is part of the sales pitch to the young men who will be tasked with building on the success of this first wave.

But for some fans, it can’t come soon enough. The question was asked immediately after the loss to Michigan State: has Bennett already hit his ceiling?

Well, if he has, it’s a pretty good ceiling. If 30 wins, Top 5 rankings and losses that hurt at the end of the season are what we have to look forward to, there are worse things, like losing to Liberty at home at the end of the Leitao era, playing in the CBI and NIT, not getting past the opening game of the ACC Tournament for 20 years.

Oh, and having Tony Bennett doing all of this, and then wishing him away because, God forbid, he can’t get past 30, and watching him leave one day for Wisconsin, the NBA, wherever else the people have the common sense to appreciate what it takes to build something great from absolute nothing.

That’s what Bennett has done. He’s built something great from absolute nothing. And it’s only going to get better from here.

Think Dean Smith, think Coach K. Bennett will be remembered in 25 years when he retires alongside those names in the annals of college basketball history.

We can only hope that he retires as the all-time winningest coach in college basketball history as a coach emeritus of the University of Virginia.

Actually, we could only hope to be so lucky.

– Column by Chris Graham



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