Press Conference: UVA Basketball coach Tony Bennett at the 2019 Final Four
Q. Coach, this is — even in a very international field of your roster, a lot of countries represented. This is the first time that Italy’s had a player in the Final Four, Argentina, I’m thinking Guinea — I need to do the research. What is it like to have that type of diversity in the locker room, and what does it bring to your squad?
TONY BENNETT: I think Virginia has so many different countries represented in the school body, but it’s great. I think guys learn so much, how to interact with each other from different cultures, you learn to appreciate and respect one another, and I think that’s really great for our team and these young men when they’re done with it.
I didn’t realize it about Italy and Argentina. Are you sure about that? That’s amazing. Our guy told you that? You’d better fact check that one.
Q. Coach, Brad Soderberg coached in a Frozen Four alongside your dad. What kind of impact does he bring to a team? And somewhat related, was he your best wrestling coach in elementary school?
TONY BENNETT: To have a person who’s been a head coach on your coaching staff, I think, is invaluable because they’ve been in that spot. A lot of times they’ll say, hey, either here’s what worked for me or learned from my mistakes in those spots.
Brad is so humble, and he’s so good. He did a great job when he took over from my father at Wisconsin. He did a great job wherever he coached. Salt of the earth. Great guy.
What you’re referring to as my wrestling coach — I can’t remember, seventh or eighth grade, he was playing for my father in Stevens Point, Wisconsin, and his student teaching was to come and teach our seventh grade phy ed class, and his part was teaching us wrestling. His first thing is he said you have to come up with a name, like an all-star wrestling name for the class. I think I was Tony Superfly Snuka. So if anybody remembers Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka. And then our SID was also in that class. There’s a story there.
But, Brad, I thought he was clever to say, all right — that’s how he got us interested. But he was my wrestling teacher for seventh grade.
Q. Tony, how many times on video have you watched the final sequence of regulation? Was it at all planned, and do you still marvel at how many things had to happen?
TONY BENNETT: Yeah, I marvel at it. Probably three times I’ve watched it, and two years ago — I don’t know if you were covering our game against Louisville, that was so improbable, maybe even more improbable how it ended, but given the circumstances and what was on the line, it was unreal for the presence of mind of Mamadi and Kihei, Mamadi to tap it, Kihei to chase it down to make that pass.
The situation was there was 5.9 seconds when Ty went to the free-throw line, and obviously I didn’t instruct him to miss it, but I said, all right, if he misses it, try to tap it, just tap it out of there. I put someone in at the scorer’s table so if Ty makes that second free-throw, we’re going to try to trap, get a steal, make a play, or follow right away, and then they’ll be at the line. You can have 4 1/2, 5 seconds to still run a play. I was trying to stay in the moment.
Ty looked at the bench, and I didn’t say miss it because I thought there was enough time if he made it. I wish I could say that’s how we practiced it. If he misses, that’s what was there. But Kihei, his instincts, and Mamadi to not drop it, I’m still in awe of that.
It was such a high-level game, and Purdue played so well. I feel for Matt and those guys, but you had to make that play the way Carsen Edwards was playing and obviously the way that setting was.
Q. Tony, there’s no one-and-done players here, Duke and Kentucky are gone, but there’s still very good college players and future pros and guys like De’Andre and Jarrett Culver, I guess what does it say about them and their ability to kind of come back as sophomores and get better, and also just the general state of the one-and-done situation that none of those players are here?
TONY BENNETT: I think — that’s what the beauty of college basketball is, there’s so many different ways to build the program and there’s so many different styles and systems of play, and I love that about the game. It’s pure. You don’t have to say, well, this is a cookie-cutter way to do it.
So our formula has always been, what I observe and when my father coached at Wisconsin, when we went to Washington State, how can you build a program that can compete against the best in your conference? And it was get guys experienced, get them to where they have two or three years where they learn and maybe learn the hard way, and then when they’re upperclassmen, they’re ready to play against the best. And that’s kind of what we stuck to at Virginia. I think that fits Virginia. It’s getting harder and harder to do that in today’s atmosphere or today’s — you know, the college basketball, but it has been effective for us.
Again, but if guys are talented enough and can go after a year, if that’s how coaches do it, I think that’s the beauty of college athletics.
Q. Just with De’Andre, how much have you seen him progress and develop?
TONY BENNETT: De’Andre’s improved so much. He’s just scratching the surface. He redshirted his first year. Malcolm Brogdon redshirted with us. He started out his first year playing and then really took off and has gotten better and better. I think that’s why we’re in this spot, because our guys, they have improved collectively and individually, and obviously they responded to what happened last year.
Q. With London Perrantes and now Kihei, you’ve got two point guards from Southern California. Do you have a pipeline to Southern California point guards? And two things about Kihei. What makes you think a 5’9″ guy could excel in the ACC, and what did you see from him the minute he got there? Your program is tough to adjust to, but he started from the beginning and has been a substantial contributor from the beginning.
TONY BENNETT: What I love about London and Kihei, they weren’t really highly touted. A lot of our guys weren’t, but they were good. Good basketball nose. It doesn’t matter if they’re stars or not, Joe Harris, I could go through the list.
The second part about Kihei was — you wanted to know — oh, 5’9″, yeah. Okay, that one I could answer. I played with Muggsy Bogues. I was Muggsy Bogues’ backup in the NBA. When you see someone who has it and has that kind of heart and determination, that sold me. It’s not like I’m a giant myself. I say 6 feet. My wife and I argue. She says you’re 5’11” 1/2, but if you can play, you can play.
So many people get caught up in dimensions, and there’s value and importance in that, but toughness, quickness, feel, savvy, those things are there. We were fortunate, when he decommitted from UC Davis, I called Jimmy Les, Coach Les, and said, hey, am I seeing this right? I think we can play. And he said yes. Jim played in the NBA too, and it was — a lot of people probably doubted a lot of the guys that we’ve taken, but those guys have shined very brightly. I think those experiences helped.
Q. You had mentioned, I think back in Columbia or Charlotte, seeing Ty and Kyle together at the NBA 100 Camp, they were on the same team. I’m curious, their relationship on and off the court, how strong is it, and how has their chemistry on the court developed in the time you’ve been coaching them?
TONY BENNETT: They’re very close, and their feel for the game, they’re smart, and they’re resilient. I think that really is a marker of this team, how resilient and tough minded they are, but those are skilled, smart players, and they know how to play the game. Again, they’ve improved. Their athleticism has improved. So I think that those two are such a catalyst for our program.
You know, probably it was two years ago, we were playing Florida in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, and they were just beating the brakes off of us. I mean, it was three minutes left, and I put Ty and Kyle in. The game was over, they’re dominant. They’re at the scorers’ table, and I’m going to remind them of this — I went and knelt down next to them and said take this and remember this. We’ve got to take the next steps.
Then last year when we got beat by UMBC, I said, you two are coming up to the podium. I said two reasons why. We’re going to honor our two seniors in Devon Hall and Isaiah Wilkins. I don’t want them to be up there. We’re going to go up there, and it’s going to be one of the hardest things you ever have to do, how you’re feeling and what you’re going to have to respond to, but it’s going to mark your life, and I said, and this is going to be something we’re going to try to overcome.
So really from that moment until now, it’s been trying to be as intentional as a program, as a team to respond to what transpired there.
It’s really nice that we’re here, and it’s still about the game and trying to be as good as we can and advance, but those things are important. So they’re bonded together as we are for life that way.
Q. Ty also said that after that UMBC game, three or four days later, you went to lunch with him and talked about spreading the offense and doing some things differently. Why did you have that meeting, and what was that conversation about?
TONY BENNETT: That was such a — from a basketball standpoint, that was such a pivotal moment and devastating in so many ways and humbling that I knew we had to be there for each other in ways we never would have had that not happened. So it was about sitting together, talking, and just working through stuff and battling through it, and trusting each other.
As I said, that situation made me take a look at a lot of things. I said, there’s no way I would have gotten this close to my team in a way. It drew me closer to my family, to my faith. Those situations put you in that, but also what can we do to be better in certain situations as a team? You think differently. Through any adversity, there’s such wisdom in it.
So, yeah, we talked about those things, but those first few months with those guys, it was just we’re going to keep going through it. But everything was intentional in trying to respond in that pretty much every moment from that game, through the summer, through the fall, through what we do and approaching it.
Q. With the many, many ways Dre can affect the game, are you inclined to overlook it if he’s not scoring as much as you would like? And do you kind of anticipate an uptick in points this weekend from him?
TONY BENNETT: He certainly impacts the game with his defense and everything he does. What he did in the end of the game against Purdue, he made two big free throws, and then he made a real nice drive, and it went off of his knee or went out of bounds. But then right after that he made — I don’t want to say the game winner, but at least where he put us ahead. So he made some difficult plays at difficult times, and he’s guarded hard, and his shot wasn’t going in like it was in the way he was playing.
So part of this is him growing and learning, but we’re going to need everybody at their best to continue on in this tournament. But as I say, all good players, they have to be defined by more than is the ball going into the basket? They have to impact the game on the glass defensively, making plays. That’s what I always encourage him to do.
Q. Tony, do you remember, take me back, Ty — when you first saw Ty in Kansas City. He didn’t really have a lot of big offers. What was it about him that made you think we want this guy? It was a pretty quick recruitment?
TONY BENNETT: It was actually before that. I saw him when he was younger. It was in Pennsylvania. And I was watching someone else, and he was playing in that game, and he wasn’t near as big and all that, and I just — I kept saying, man, he’s really good, but in my mind, I’m like, no, no, he’s not moving that well. I don’t know. But, man, he’s really good.
Then I think his team must have advanced in that tournament. This was in the spring, I guess, sophomore year going into his junior year, somewhere in there. And I saw him play one more time, and I’m like he’s really good. So I went back to my staff. The spring recruiting period was done, and I said, we need to at least check on this guy. Ty Jerome, I don’t think anybody is probably recruiting him, but I loved him. I don’t know, but that was it.
Then that summer I go to watch another player we were very high on. I kind of forgot about Ty. My staff should have kept tabs. Just kidding. But I forget about him. That summer I go to watch another player. It just so happens Ty was playing that team. I didn’t go to watch Ty, and he played like Ty played, and I told my staff, I’m locking in on that young man. There’s something there. I think he’s got a chance. And I bull-dogged him and followed him, and he kept making a believer out of me more and more. And I followed him to Kansas City. I think I was one of the only head coaches there. I knew it. When you see it, you know it, and I knew it. He overcame — he’s gotten quicker and all that. Not many were taking the chance on him.
But then after he committed to us, then a lot of people would have liked him because he kept improving. Same with Kyle and all of those guys.
Q. You guys have kind of gone away from running just your block remover stuff, and you’re running more ball screen continuity. I’m just curious, what’s the genesis of that, and where did you get the ball screen offense you run from?
TONY BENNETT: Again, you look at what are the strengths of your team, what you can do. He’s like a little brother to me, a guy named Kirk Penney, played for my dad at Wisconsin, played at Tel Aviv, Maccabi, all over Europe. I think all of those European coaches, they’re so good. They learn how to create things. Kirk and I had talked a lot, and I said, in all your experiences, do you run any stuff that opens the court more and maybe can do some things, and he said, yeah, I really liked this kind of offense, and he took some of it back to New Zealand, and other teams run this. It’s not like it’s just there.
But we started talking about it, and I studied some other offenses, and I said, this could really be a good complement to some of the things we’re doing at times and fit the personnel. We went to work on that. Again, some other things, and we added some things we had done in the past. Again, it’s all personnel based, but that’s kind of the genesis of it.
Q. Tony, much is made of you being a coach’s son, but you are also a coach’s brother. Understand that Kathi used to put you through some pretty rigorous workouts in the Stevens Point practice gym.
TONY BENNETT: Yes.
Q. What was that like growing up with her and that basketball part of your relationship?
TONY BENNETT: She is the most intense competitor and the most driven, and I would not have become the player I was if it weren’t for her. I used to — I could not beat her in one-on-one, and I was pretty good, until I was 16 years old. She was that good. Before she tore her ACL, she was USA. She was kind of being primed to play on the Olympic team and all that. And then once I beat her, we never played again. That was it.
She would drag me with her at 5:00 in the morning in the summer, before she had a job. We’d ride our bikes to the gym. We’d open the gym, and I’d rebound for her. If I didn’t throw her good pass, she’d chew me out, and I saw this work ethic in her, and I was just tagging along, and I got good playing against her and her friends all the way until I was 14 or 15 years old. But watching her and seeing her drive and her love for the game had a huge impact on me as a player and certainly watching her coach. So major.
Q. Tony, I would say a lot of stars on your team, but what’s the value of some of your walk-ons, both in practice and how you’re all able to compete?
TONY BENNETT: Yeah, huge because your practice group, they have to bring it. They’re so important in their preparation and their character and how they lift you up. I’ve been blessed that way to have all those years, but they’re significant in our program, and we challenge them. If you want to get our staff mad or get me mad, disrespect one of our walk-ons. I tell everybody that because those guys are such a part of it. They’re the true servants on our team. They do all the stuff and don’t get much of the credit.
That’s why I love this team. Our managers, our walk-ons, we’re all part of it. There’s not any differentiation, and I love that about them. I can’t say enough for those guys. Usually, it’s your walk-ons and your managers who end up going on to be coaches or they’re going to be the CEOs because they learn how to serve without the attention. I love their heart, and they’re a part of something, and they represent our program in the best way possible.
Q. After you guys had lost to Syracuse a few years ago, you said on the podium, you quoted from Psalm’s, “Joy will come in the morning,” I believe, which really stuck with me. I’m curious what is this spiritual lesson that you learned from this UMBC game and that you imparted on your players over the past year, and how did it change you spiritually?
TONY BENNETT: Yeah, I mean, there’s a scripture verse that says, “Always be prepared to give a reason for the hope that you have, but do it with gentleness and respect.” Everybody is at a different place with what they believe and where they’re at, but when you’re put in a spot like that, and there’s a lot worse things, it makes you rely upon what matters. I said what’s unconditional in your life.
That’s, for me, my relationship with my wife, my parents, my kids is everything, but the greatest joy that I know is my relationship with the Lord.
Again, everyone’s different that way, but, again, sometimes when you get knocked down, in a way, you find out how real that is. There’s a perspective in it and a peace that is not really of the manmade stuff we’re talking about.
So I’m just so thankful for that. Again, I respect everyone. That’s the hope I have. But you have to do that with gentleness and respect, and everybody processes things differently. I so want our young men in our program to honor the right things. I want these young guys to learn about the joy of family, the joy of what will matter in their life. And sports is one of the greatest classrooms I can think of, and adversity is maybe the greatest teacher, even though it’s not enjoyable.
Q. Tony, I need to finish up on Kihei. Your system is difficult for freshmen to grasp, defense as well as offense. So what did he show you quickly that he could handle it and that he could start and that he could be a significant contributor?
TONY BENNETT: I think every system is tough for a freshman or first years to come in and play at this level. It’s faster. It’s more intense.
But like London and Kihei, their feel for the game comes from an excellent high school system, an AAU system. His father knows the game. So he understood it at a young age how to play. Your eyes tell you that when you watch players, and they just impact the game in different ways, whether it’s scoring or not. His ability to put pressure on the ball and defend. The quickness of Auburn is maybe the best we’ve seen, so our ability, and you always need a guy who can hopefully keep these guys in front and work the ball. That was something we hadn’t had, so he brought that, and then obviously the things I just mentioned.
Q. Question about Mamadi. Since his big shot, I mean, how famous has this guy become, and how many more people know about him? Does the platinum hair dye help? And then just a comment on how you feel he’s played generally in this tournament.
TONY BENNETT: Yeah, tremendous. I don’t watch a lot of TV, but I’m sure he’s the toast of the town in so many ways. His shot was amazing. That shot will go down, the pass and the shot, in Virginia basketball history. From the start of the year, I said he’s an X-factor for us, and the way he’s played all tournament has been significant.
As far as the hair, if it’s like Samson and he’s got to do it, so be it. But it looks better in person, I said, than on TV. I see it when I watch video.
He’s a guy, if you’re around him, he’s got incredible joy. He’s got an infectious personality. He’s great that way. So I couldn’t be happier for him. And I talk about all those guys. Be grateful for this, but keep your edge to compete because it’s about being ready and prepared. Yeah, be thankful, be humble, but you’d better have an edge to play well against Auburn on Saturday.
THE MODERATOR: We want to thank Coach Bennett for joining us for these 20 minutes. We’ll see you tomorrow.