Press Conference: UVA basketball coach Tony Bennett

uva media day2UVA basketball coach Tony Bennett talks with reporters at a media day event in the practice gym at the John Paul Jones Arena in Charlottesville, Va., on Wednesday.

COACH BENNETT: Good to see you. I haven’t seen you guys for a while. Obviously, it’s been exciting to get started with some new guys and with the returners. I think we’ve had 12 or 13 practices, so it’s nice to get to work. We have not unlimited time but ample time to really train hard and get a feel sort of where we’re at.
Obviously, there’s a lot of enthusiasm for the start of the year. The biggest message I’ve given our team, and I think it’s really important is that no one can take away what happened last year. It was obviously a fun year, a terrific year. But I think it would be a big mistake to try to compare us to last year’s team. I think the key really is, and I told them this, that to realize as a group we are a different team.
We’re going to certainly have to find our identity, and we will as the season progresses. But you obviously want to max out — absolutely get as good as we can be. And perhaps that will make us better than last year’s team and take us further, but perhaps we won’t be as good and won’t go as far. It’s really all about what this team can do to max out to and reach their full potential. I think that idea of focusing on that and not worrying about what was behind us or what’s ahead of us or saying well, at this point we were here last year. Maybe you get off to a better start or think well, we’re ahead or vice versa. With all of the attention that some of our guys are receiving in the club, I think it’s an important mindset. And I think they have that in practice to really get after it, and try to push each other to reach our potential.
So that might be the longest opening statement I’ve ever made in my time here, so there you go. You shouldn’t have any more questions. That should have just satisfied everything right there.

Q. Is there anything you learned last year about managing expectations that you kind of apply to this year’s group?
COACH BENNETT: Yeah, I think we have to take the stuff we learned from last year. It’s not like last year didn’t happen. It did. As we were progressing, and I think even early in the year we were projected I think we were ranked in the preseason to start the year. It took us a while to really find our rhythm and hit our stride. Then as the season progressed in the ACC we got ranked, and then we were a No. 1 seed in the NCAAs, all those things that happened.
I think our guys, the ones that are returning, have those experiences to draw from. We’ve used the example and I’ve used it with you guys before, it comes down to the horses. You put the blinders on and you take the step in front of you. Last year I sat here and talked about Coach [Terry] Holland and Coach [Rick] Carlisle about honoring the process and what’s in front of you. That never changes, whether you’re projected to be really good or not projected to be as good, which stays the same. But I think those experiences of last year, being in those spots more and more; you certainly draw from and know it all gets played out on the floor. You can talk about it and hype about it, but none of that stuff really matters. It’s what happens when the season gets going.

Q. You guys have been practicing a couple weeks now, and I guess a couple guys have some bumps and bruises. Does London have some kind of a foot issue, and Marial has had a couple issues. Is there anybody else who is having issues?
COACH BENNETT: No, those are nothing major. Those are the two. London hasn’t practiced yet. Obviously, he’s an important piece to the team, but in some ways that’s been good because it’s forced guys to have to take bigger roles and hopefully he’s progressing well. He kind of jarred his foot and hasn’t practiced. He played all the way up until the start of the official practice. It’s funny, last year he hurt his shoulder and was out, too. I don’t know if it was three weeks or whatever the amount of time was. Then Marial, unfortunately for Marial, this summer he pulled his hamstring in the start of summer, and then he had a scope on his knee. So, he didn’t get to do much this fall. But, when we started official practice, he’s been able now to play in all of the practices. I think he’s missed some of the conditioning and the fundamental skill work. But, he has been practicing. London’s the only one who has not practiced yet, so again, we know what London can do and we’re looking forward to him practicing. He had a good off season in terms of developing his physical abilities. I think he’s a little stronger, more explosive. He brings that steadying hand to our team that will certainly be important as we get into competition.

Q. Defense has obviously been a constant of your program thus far. But if memory serves, last year was by far your most efficient offensive team. In your mind, what made it so, and do you see the same ingredients perhaps in this squad?
COACH BENNETT: Yeah, I think we’ll have to be a little different offensively, but you strive for that as a coach. I always tell our players what separates really good players from others is that their game is efficient. Really good players can score on not a huge volume of shots. They don’t have massive turnovers. They’re just efficient players. When your team plays that way, certainly even defensively, but offensively that’s what you look for. You look for points per possession. You look for that stuff. I thought last year what we did so well is that we had a pretty balanced attack. Speaking of Akil [Mitchell] and Joe [Harris], they had a ton of experience under their belt, but Joe was an aggressive guy in terms of looking for catches, getting catches, but he was very unselfish. He always would make up the next pass. Then when it was needed, he’d step up and shoot the shots, and he drew a lot of attention. I think his willingness as one of our top players to have that next pass mentality a lot of times, even though he was heavily covered, just let us get a timing and a pace. I thought that was important. And certainly Akil’s willingness to really get people open, play on the glass, and be opportunistic with how he scored with two heavily experienced guys that really understood that. I think that’s what made us good, because we had three perimeter guys who could put it on the floor and knock down shots. Then we had the inside-outside attack. But, there was a level that they really moved the ball and understood how to break people down.
This year I think we have a little different team. I think inside we’ll be able to look at times more perhaps than last year just with the personnel we have. You’re not going to replace Joe Harris. We’ll do it differently. But, we’ll still have some good guys and some of those new guys will have great opportunities. But, how efficient they play, how unselfish they play while running our offense to score will determine it. And taking care of the ball. We struggled early in the season last year. We were a high turnover team, and then we really got a handle on that in terms of playing with the ball. I don’t know what our average was, but we really handled the ball and got shots, quality shots most of the time on the floor.
So, if we can take care of the ball, we believe we’re going to get some good looks and quality shots.

Q. Malcolm obviously came into his own last year and had a really big season. What can he do to elevate his game again, and is it realistic to think he’s going to do so?
COACH BENNETT: Yeah, I think he had a good off season. The challenge for those guys was to take a step. We’re going to improve collectively if you guys make improvements, and for some guys, it’s just little improvements. They can make these huge jumps in their own game with coach [Mike] Curtis in the weight room, with their conditioning and their athleticism. We use the term of not honing your skills, owning your skill. Whatever that skill is we focus on really developing, improving and adding something to make it even better. And I think when guys become upperclassmen or in Malcolm and Anthony’s [Gill] case, their fourth year, third years, but fourth year juniors, there is not as big of a jump like you see from first to second year or second to third year. So, you just want them to mentally become sharper, lead more, and focus on those intangibles that are really important. So, those are the things that I’m looking for along with the incremental improvements in their physical game and skills. I think that with Malcolm, who had such a solid season, that he is going to be targeted this year and there is going to be a lot of focus on him. How he deals with that will be another step, though he had some of that attention last year, it will be another step this year. Hopefully he’ll adjust to that well.

Q. I know you’ve got three starters back and you’ve only had a couple weeks of practices, like you said. But do you get a sense of which one of the freshmen or how many of the freshmen can really help you this year? Have you even thought about rotations and how to get those guys in there?
COACH BENNETT: Yeah, I think we’re going to need them it just depends on so many things. Foul trouble, injuries, all of those things come into play. They do have some quality depth. Our freshmen, all of them at times I feel like I say this every year, but because they’re freshmen, they’ve shown flashes where boy, I think they can help us. Then there are those times that you see they’re spinning a little bit. I believe we’re going to need them. I think there is going to be an opportunity, assuming we stay healthy, because we do have some experience for a couple of them to step in there, perhaps one on the interior or one or two on the perimeter. It just depends.
We’ve got a guy like Evan Nolte who can go the four or the three, so he can be a perimeter type of player or more of a forward position at the four. Again, I think until we start we’re starting to go up and down a little more in practice, and that’s starting to show some things. Once we have a couple scrimmages, and then I’ll tell you. That’s something I look at every day and I study and say, okay, which one is most ready?
Again, Devon Hall is a first year with a red shirt behind him, so I think that helps him. All of the guys have shown some improvements. You’ll see, he’s changed his body, he’s moving better. All of those things have occurred. I think even with London not practicing now, getting to see guys handle the ball and be in spots that challenge them, so I think there is an opportunity for a couple of them for sure, maybe more, depending upon the situation. But it’s too early to say which ones. It’s a pretty competitive fight. That doesn’t mean the older guys are just going to walk into spots. I remind them all the time, you’ve got to earn everything you get, and that’s what made our team good last year is that guys really competed hard for opportunities and understood their roles. Sometimes it’s understanding what this team needs and fitting in that way.
Q. Do you think, obviously Malcolm is a proven scorer dating back to last year, with Joe gone do you feel you need a guy who is going to be a consistent I don’t know how many points it is, but a guy you can sort of lean on to score points? Who do you think that is? It seems like a lot of your sophomores and juniors have proven capable of doing that, but not necessarily on a consistent basis?
COACH BENNETT: Yeah, I think when you become an upperclassman the best thing you see is consistency. We’ve got some of those guys that have shown it at times. Mike Tobey on the interior, obviously, Anthony Gill showed it last year, Justin at times, Evan. Some of these guys who can do it. London who, though he’s an underclassman, he’s played enough where he has experience. I think you never want someone to stretch themselves outside of being effective, but you want guys to play with consistency. I think a guy like London can do that. We saw that almost as the season started, his progression as a player with his timing, composure and unselfishness, but I think he has some room for more aggressiveness. I think we’re going to have to get it in little ways from all those guys, and perhaps there will be another guy. If I didn’t mention anybody, it’s not for any reason. But I think of those guys, if we could get a consistent one, because we’re obviously trying to replace a few guys. We don’t have a clone of Joe nor do we have a clone of Akil, but you’ve got to replace them in little ways. I remember answering that question when Mike Scott left, and every year you think about that. But I think there is a physicality to this team again. Maybe we get to the line more and get on the glass. As I mentioned, there are opportunities to go inside. Again, Darion Atkins is our lone senior, and he’s had a good off season. Again, I know he’s anxious and looking forward to the opportunity. He showed signs his sophomore year before he got hurt and last year he didn’t play as much. But there are some opportunities for him. You’ll see how they go. But, yeah, that consistency, and the scoring is something we’ve got to look to get.

Q. The ACC is always tough, but four teams in the Top 10, including yourself, with the addition of Louisville. It just seems as though the conference schedule gets harder and harder. And with a new team out there as you mentioned, losing guys like Joe Harris, Akil Mitchell, it’s going to be tough on you. What are you telling the guys as you get ready for the non conference schedule, and then you get into tough games with Top 10 teams?
COACH BENNETT: Yeah, I think all of us know this league. Sometimes I come down here and I just look because they had to replace and add the new signs. But that’s a mighty basketball league. Again, it’s exciting. It really is. It’s challenging. It’s one of those where you better play well, because if you can play well, and it still might not be enough, but everybody’s in that boat. Again, it is about experience — boy is it so important. We have to rely on our experience. That is our formula here in a lot of ways that the guys who have been through it and what you get from young guys is a little bit of icing on the cake. Obviously, London gave us more than that last year, but we were not in a spot like that when Joe and Akil were freshmen. They had to be thrown into it. That’s just where we were at that time. Certainly we benefited from it.
Now I think if a first year is ready, he’ll have opportunities, but we’ve got to use those guys who have the experience. You expect them to rely on their experiences the last couple years, what it takes, how competitive it is to understand that and carry you through it. Because there is the talent in the league will be at another level, especially with the addition of Louisville, who we play twice.
Again, all of that goes down to how good can we be? Understanding who we are because that identity is still evolving. We have our constants, and we know certain things, but how will this team be effective? You’ve got to figure that out as the season progresses.

Q. What is the next step for Mike Tobey?
COACH BENNETT: Yeah, I think the consistency. You’ll see he’s gotten stronger. He had a good off season. All of our guys did. I can’t give enough credit to coach Curtis. I know there have been articles written on him, but he’s that good. He really is. So Mike’s gotten stronger, the past summer he was with me with the USA Basketball team, and this summer. This off season — the spring, summer, and part of the fall — he really worked. Really, the spring, summer and fall is for the individual in the sense that that’s where they really work on their games, their body, those things. So he’s stronger. Now, I think for him it’s being more consistent. Continuing to embrace the physicality that he’s taken, again, little steps. I think there are some guys that hopefully have, as Mark mentioned, maybe more consistency or who can take those steps. Guys like Justin, who have shown flashes, and guys like Mike. Those two, if they can take another step and have a consistent approach. Mike using his physicality, certainly looking inside and play on the glass, I think will be his next step. Because he’s young for his grade. We always talked about that in his first year, his second year, well, now he’s old enough.

Q. Last year you had one of the deepest teams in the country. I know this time of the year last year you were a little hesitant to talk about that because of past injuries and stuff. But what did you learn as a coach having all that depth last year? How did that help you in tough situations? How would you compare this year’s depth to last year?
COACH BENNETT: Yeah, I think it’s good for practice, especially now because you’re going at it. Certainly the obvious things of when there is foul trouble, when there are injuries, it is really important. The challenging thing is you know you can’t play everybody all the time, so those are the battles that players face and coaches face trying to decide who is ready.
Our depth this year to last year, we have the young man who is sitting out who transferred from Tennessee. He’s a talented player. It’s nice to have him in practice. I think there is quality depth. I do. Again, depth wise, again, we know we’re replacing the experience, but there is, when you watch it, you’ll see there is some physicality. I think we’re a little more physical. You look at guys and there is some athleticism, some length when you see that with the new guys that have come in. You look at Jack Salt, who is physical and long. Isaiah is long, Marial, B.J., Devon’s been there, and even Darius. They’re all long. Sometimes, especially when you’re practicing here, it gets crowded on the court. Sometimes you look at the court and you see things are open and that length crowds things up. I like our depth athletically and physically. I think it’s solid for practices.

Q. You guys have established a really firm defensive identity and had a lot of success. How do you view the potential of this team defensively given the experience and some of the things you’ve talked about with depth?
COACH BENNETT: You cannot assume oh, yeah, that’s our identity. That’s who we are. I remember my dad told me this. He said you have to come to practice each day as a coach and you have to outlast the players. It’s a battle between you and them. He said that as a coach. You’ve got to impose your will on your team. Our staff has to impose our will on them, what we expect, and how disciplined we have to be defensively. I’ve always said it’s not natural to play defense to be in the stance, to fight through screens, to really get after it. So if they’ll embrace that and they’ll understand that’s where it starts for us then, think because of the length, because of the size, they can be effective.
Obviously, we had an all-conference guy in Akil who could do some things, but that’s the opportunities out there for guys like certainly Darian who would be most similar in terms of athleticism, as far as playing against ball screens and doing all that, but then the other guys. And that’s where you ask Doug about Mike Tobey. We want to see him take another step defensively there. Anthony Gill, those are both good offensive players on the front court. So, again, those guys are stepping up. But that’s a battle every day, and you want to get guys to embrace it. But you’ve got to push pretty hard on that one, and usually the coaches win. But you try to get the guys to embrace that, and the experience helps. Those guys know it, and they hold each other accountable too.

Q. You mentioned Mike Curtis a couple of times. What’s he meant to the overall program? What is it about him that makes him so effective with what he does?
COACH BENNETT: He’s so detail oriented. He just had his experience in the NBA for six years, and he’s a valued commodity. He’s had other opportunities, but he loves it here. We’ve got his grandparents here, and that’s always important and his parents are close in Richmond, so that’s going well. But he has a unique system. It’s a system approach. It almost starts when they come in and it builds through it. It’s very individualized, and of course we use this in recruiting with guys because every coach says, we’ve got the best strength coach in the country. There are so many good ones. But his philosophy and his system, how he teaches is different. I’ve been around. That’s one of the things when I got this job I thought about that a lot. I said I know how important it is for aspiring players to get the most out of themselves for injury prevention. We’ve got two, three days a week, when we’re doing corrective exercises. Stuff that when I was coming up, we didn’t do. But his approach is good. It’s good for longevity of the players. It’s for health reasons. Some of it is from these top soccer teams and the way they train, he’s got a lot of stuff that’s beyond my knowledge, but I trust him. I love that because I think that today’s athlete, they really get into that. They understand that. They’re in tune with their body and they want to push themselves. Mike’s support has an ability I think to give us an edge. I always say he’s the ace up the sleeve. I like to tell recruits: I wish I could tell you I’m the best coach in the country. I’m not. That’s easy for me to say. But I can say easily we’ve got the best strength coach in the country. No doubt I’ll take that to the bank. That’s how I feel about him, for real.

Q. I know you’re focused on this team. You the present, and you don’t want them to look back. You don’t want them to look forward. But it seems in the off season there are signs of where this program is now compared to a year ago where it’s viewed nationally, have you enjoyed that? I know a lot of people have congratulated you, congratulated the players. Season tickets are sold out. Is it everything you imagined when you took this job and sort of wanted to build it steadily like this?
COACH BENNETT: I really enjoy the free desserts I’ve gotten because of it at the restaurants. That’s been the best thing I think. No, to see the joy that it’s brought to people that have been, I always say, true fans of Virginia athletics and Virginia basketball. To see how much it’s meant to them, that’s rewarding. That’s gratifying. To see people come up and say I was there for this many years or when they did it back in this year, and it was there when you did some things and to see how emotional it makes them when we go to speak at the Virginia Athletic Foundation tours. Not even so much of that success, but with the young men and how it’s been done that’s made a difference to a lot of people. So that part has been gratifying to an extent. There have been a lot of pats on the back for our players. But that is the nature of this thing — knowing that that’s why I started the way I did. You’re defending nothing. You get as good as you can. If that takes you past it, to it, great. If it doesn’t, great. You max out. That is the thing.
If they have that mindset, that’s kind of it. This will sound a little corny, but I was thinking about it. My wife and I were watching Friday Night Lights this summer, and I told some of our guys this. If you remember, they go out for the games and the coach always looks at the players and says clear eyes, full heart, can’t lose. And they repeat back, can’t lose and they run out there. That’s the mentality of our guys.
If they have clear eyes. If they understand who we are, and they really understand it, if they’ll go after it with everything they have with a passion and not worry about if they fail, if they succeed, if they have that kind of heart, that’s all I can ask for. That will take us to whatever we have to. I think that’s so important because expectations, pressure, sometimes that can mess with you. We talked about it. That just means maybe you’re good and close to something great. Look at it that way. Get after it. Don’t worry about the outside stuff. That is the best way for these guys. Again, it’s hard to be unaffected by everybody coming up and the excitement is there. But acknowledge it and get to where we need to get to each day.

Q. You’ve had a lot of success with people red shirting. Some of them obviously had to red shirt. Malcolm when he was hurt, Anthony when he was transferring. You’ve had a guy sitting out this year. You had a guy sitting out last year?
COACH BENNETT: Mike Scott too.

Q. Right. Most programs can’t do that. Do you think you have some kids this year that will buy into that and may sit out for the hope of later gain?
COACH BENNETT: Yeah, I think our program is at a place, before I mentioned, lot of guys got to play. When you have more veterans, is a place you want to get your program to. And I’ve said this to you guys before, I think it was last year, it’s always the player’s decision. I’ll make suggestions. I’ll say this is what I think, but this is your career and you have to decide.
I will always sit down in that situation and we’ll discuss what’s best, and then they have the right to decide what they want. It’s hard for young players, young men today because it’s, as we’ve talked about with the instant gratification, to really wait and to work and to be patient. Maybe you’ve got to work for two, three years or wait until you’re an upperclassmen or whatever it is, it’s challenging. But those that do, there is really good stuff on the end of it.
If you can spend a whole year working with the guy I was just talking about, Coach Curtis, owning your skills and honing them as I said before and studying and understanding, you’re just going to be better. If you wait and wait, it’s there. But that goes against what they’re getting bombarded with at times. But those who have the vision to understand it I think have really benefited from it in our program. They really have. This group, there is a chance there could be for sure a player or two I mean, we have one for sure with Darius. Then, yeah, there could be another one or two. We’ll just have to see where we’re at. When you get close to it, you have to make up your decision at a certain time, and it will always rely on the players and his family or guard guardians or whoever help makeup that decision, because that’s a big decision.

Q. You mentioned Justin earlier, his need to become more consistent. He was sixth man of the year, I guess, last year, and won that ACC award. Is he a guy who maybe has given his style of play, he seems like he’s good in bursts. Is he a guy who is maybe better coming off the bench or have you thought that through at all what his role might be this year?
COACH BENNETT: No, I haven’t. I think I just wanted him to be consistent. Again, you can look at it and say who is going to start for you, and we’ve got experienced guys. Say, okay, this is the natural guy. But I don’t get hung up in that. With guys like Justin, Mike, all the guys that have played maybe more inconsistent minutes, that’s where they need to improve their consistency. We did an article or you did on him, talked to me about him trying to drop some weight so he could have more stamina. It’s not like he’s heavy and he needs to lose weight because he’s overweight. But like LeBron and some of these guys to trim down so he can move a little better. I think he’s starting to do that. You’ll have to ask coach Curtis exactly, but he looks like that. All those little areas to be able to play harder longer. Then when you’re tired, they need to let me know and come out. Because so many of our young guys, once they get fatigued, that’s when a lot of things start to unravel in terms of decision making. Again, efficiency, soundness, sureness. When those things are accompanied with players with the physical abilities of the Justin’s and Mike’s and all the guys we have, that’s when players at their best. I think that’s the next step for him. Justin’s game, he provides that spark that very few can with a big block. But he also brings the hustle plays and physicality. I want him to use it on the glass when there is the opportunity for a drive. He can stretch the defense. But, again, it all comes down to how can I help this team. I think he’s working hard to do that.

Q. Talk about the opening the season on the road at JMU and how that can help the team prepare for later road games certainly through the non conference season, and your trip to New York and how a tournament setting can help prepare for the postseason later on?
COACH BENNETT: There is so much parity in college basketball. You play on the road. You play in a setting that I’m sure there will be a lot of excitement on opening night for us, for them. Certainly Coach [Matt] Brady, a well coached team and all that stuff there, they’ll be ready. To go into that setting with your team, those are good opportunities to see where you’re at. Certainly going to tournaments, and everybody’s playing in these tournaments now. There are quality teams there. You’re playing in a beautiful arena. I’ve never been in the Barclays Center, but all those things are positive. We have very good teams in the non conference schedule and we talked about the conference already. So, it’s really all geared toward finding out about our team. You don’t want to get to the conference and find out I don’t know what we’re made of. You want to put yourself in the spots where you have to play on the road, you have to play different quality opponents, different style of opponents so you really have a good gauge of where you’re at and try to be as ready as you can for conference play.

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