Press Conference: UVA Basketball coach Tony Bennett, plus Kyle Guy, Ty Jerome, at Final Four
Q. I was wondering if you could kind of describe what your first Final Four has been like so far and also what a championship would mean to you and Virginia.
TONY BENNETT: It’s been very enjoyable. You try to have that balance of being very purposeful for the preparation for the game and also enjoying it. It’s the balance. It can’t be all one or all the other. I noticed there’s a few more media obligations here than some other ones, so they’ve got us moving pretty quick and bouncing around. But if this program could find a way to the championship, of course it would be significant because I think it’s a remarkable story, for anybody who wins one, but our story is — in a way it is unique.
To see the resiliency and resolve and all that’s gone into this program from coaches before me, players before me, and since I’ve been there, the foundation that’s been laid. It’s what you always hope for. You see it from a distance in other programs, and then you aspire to it and you try to build it in the way you think is best fit for where you’re at, and that’s what we’ve tried to do with all of our might.
THE MODERATOR: Your favorite media obligation is in the main interview room, right?
TONY BENNETT: This is my favorite, for sure.
Q. What is maybe the biggest challenge, aside from the fact that there’s a basketball court in the middle of a gigantic football stadium, sight lines, depth perception, all of that? Is that something that could be easily worked through, or is that a concern at all?
TONY BENNETT: The one thing, and I don’t know how long they’ve been doing this, but they let us practice in here yesterday. I’m not sure that’s always the case. I know it wasn’t when I came as a volunteer manager 19 years ago, but I’m not sure. So the ability at least to be in here and have a practice, full practice, whatever, an hour and a half, and you have the open practice in here. It’s hard to say.
You play in the Carrier Dome, we did this year, and you play in some big places, but this is certainly unique. I’m sure all of that’s there, but I think at least having these opportunities is good. So I don’t know if that’s the biggest adjustment. Again, this is my first time with the team, so we’ll find out.
Q. When there’s been so much talk about the Sweet 16 and getting to the Final Four, is it a challenge to make sure that no one looks past this game to the final game?
TONY BENNETT: I think everybody who’s made it to the Final Four is playing at a very high level. It’s how it is. Same with the Sweet 16. To advance, you have to play extremely well. So each team, Auburn’s won 12 in a row, and each team here has had to win tough games. It’s high level. It’s possession basketball. I think the guys understand that. Yes, it’s an honor a great achievement to get to the Final Four, to get to a Sweet 16, honestly, but that’s what it’s about, your preparation and understanding what’s in front of you. Obviously, you’re not looking past anything. You can’t do that in this tournament, not that we did last year, but everyone’s capable. It’s college basketball now.
Q. When you get guys into your system and you’re teaching them your defensive approach, what is maybe the most important thing you’re trying to get them to learn right off the bat, and maybe what is the toughest thing they have to adjust to in playing the way you want to play?
TONY BENNETT: I think good defenders, it’s such an adjustment coming from high school to college, we always talk about are continuous. It might have been a Bobby Knight quote that the game belongs to the continuous thinker. I think to be a really good defender, some of the best defenders I’ve coached, they can anticipate well. You talk about almost being in two places at once, and they stay continuous. They don’t make one effort and stop or get hit on a screen.
The quickness and the physicality of the game as you go up another level from high school, those are the challenges that are there. Some guys come from high school systems where they played a different way, whether it’s a zone system defensively or man to man, so you can kind of tell if they’ve been in that. I think those two things are things that you work to get, and they just — they come over time, over time, over time that it gets better and better. Those are the challenges, I think, for your first years entering your program.
Q. What do you see as the role of sports in communities which have dealt with tragedy?
TONY BENNETT: Yeah, I think — that’s a good question. I think everyone wants to be a part of something, a story that’s bigger than themselves, and I think that’s what captivates the country, maybe parts of the world this Final Four. You see the fans, of course the teams. For us as a team, this is part of something bigger than yourself. That’s what you hope for. When you can try to touch greatness in concert with others, that’s our pillar of unity, what that means.
But I think when this happens and you see runs like this, it does captivate a university, a town, a community because it’s part of a story bigger than yourself, and that’s, I think, a beautiful thing, and I think it’s powerful, and it helps heal some wounds if there have been hard things. This world is not always a great place.
So if sports can bring joy, if a run like this can bring joy to a community, then that’s using it in the right way. Certainly, we see sometimes where it gets out of whack, but I think that story and being part of it, I think, is what’s special about this. I’m hopeful that’s taking place for all of the teams that are here for all of their communities, but certainly the Charlottesville and the UVA community because we’ve been through stuff.
I think these young men are trying to represent our program in the right way.
Q. You have five redshirts on your team, which is a little more than you typically see. Can you walk through what the process is on how you decide to redshirt a guy or not and why you think it’s so beneficial for both them and for your team?
TONY BENNETT: I think programs over the years, you know, when I was at Wisconsin as an assistant for my father and even Coach Ryan, that’s a good formula for how we’ve tried to build programs to get them mature. My philosophy with redshirts is when they come in — there’s some guys in the recruiting process where you say this could be beneficial on the front end, but it’s always up to the player. If that’s something they don’t want to do, then we don’t.
But I’ll always give my advice and say this would be the benefits of redshirting. Here’s what’s going to happen. It will be hard, but here’s how you’re going to grow in your game and physically. Here are your opportunities right now that I see playing early on.
So I think it’s a real candid conversation between your player and the coaching staff and the family and say, it’s always in your court what you want to do. Here’s my advice, and I’ll go whichever way you want. I think that’s important, at least for us.
And we’ve had, again, whether it’s through injuries or transfers or what we think is best, the redshirts, that year of maturity, you’re just a better player. Every year you put into your game, into your mind, that just makes you better and more mature. I think Coach Brey at Notre Dame, his goal is get old, stay old, and when he said that, I kind of smile because that’s always been, I watched the formula, can you get to those upperclassmen so they can play against some of the teams in our league with the super talent that are first years.
Q. Coach, how are you? Congratulations.
TONY BENNETT: Thank you.
Q. You’ve spoken a lot about your faith in Christ and how it helps you prepare day in and day out as a coach of this organization, of this team. How significant has that been for you, just keeping it in mind and then trying to translate that down to your players?
TONY BENNETT: There’s a verse that says always be prepared to give a reason for the hope that you have but do it with gentleness and respect. I think that’s what you have to do. I know what my hope is for me. I know what my life is grounded on. There’s nothing that touches it. It’s a joy that’s unspeakable.
When you have players — our program is built on pillars, five — they’re actually biblical pillars, and whether our guys — I’m always respectful, whether they believe that or not, their wisdom for our program, humility, do you know who you are as a team and as a player? Passion, do you play with passion? Unity, being part of something bigger than yourself. Servanthood, the way to greatness is through being a servant. And thankfulness. We use those for our team specifically.
And you always hope that through sports they become better players and young men, and they’ll always return what you just model to them. So, again, I know what matters in my life and my family’s, and I try to be faithful to that and respect everyone else. I guess that’s how I look at that. Thank you.
Q. Tony, what are your primary memories of 2000 at the Final Four with Wisconsin and your dad? And how cool is it to join the Thompsons as the only father-son combination coaching to reach this stage?
TONY BENNETT: There’s some great memories I have with my dad, and I knew his dream was to one day coach in a Final Four and perhaps win it, and to be a part of seeing him reach that dream, beating Purdue ironically in the Elite Eight, I stand in awe of that because, when you see others experience a great desire accomplish it, in a way it’s sweeter.
So that memory was incredible. Unfortunately, they played Michigan State the year they won it for the fourth time. That was a beast playing that team and Coach Izzo’s squad.
But phenomenal memory. Again, I just remember standing back and watching him take it in, and those guys, they were — that Wisconsin team was special. They were more of a surprise. They were an 8 seed in how they went through and what they did, and it was so unexpected and how they embraced it. Is there anything else you asked?
Q. Just about joining the Thompsons as the only father-son team.
TONY BENNETT: Yeah, the Thompsons. I knew there was something. I remember when we were playing Syracuse in the Elite Eight a few years ago, and someone told me, you know, if you guys get through, you will be the second father-son combination to coach different teams to the Final Four, and I thought that would be sweet.
I thought that would be — I mean, it’s not the biggest thing in the world, but I thought that would be really cool. Just to be able to share that with my dad, whether we were the tenth group to do it — being only the second makes me realize it’s hard to get there. There’s so many great coaches, fathers and sons who have coached at this level who are great coaches and just haven’t had the fortune to do it.
Yeah, to be in that company because obviously those are great coaches and to say we can do it together. Now he can’t look at me and say, I’m one up on you, son. At least he can’t do that. There’s no bragging rights on his part now.
Q. The other day — and I’m not in any way looking past your game with Auburn, but the other day Tom Izzo was gleeful about you making it and how much respect he has for you and your family and how close he is. To be at the Final Four and share it with someone who’s so close to your family, how special is it to have him here?
TONY BENNETT: We’ve had some wars. I played for Jud Heathcote in the Olympic Festival in 1989 when I was at Green Bay as a player. Steve Smith hit a last-second three to knock us out of the NCAA Tournament, and I followed Coach Izzo, and I learned a lot from him. Last year when we got beat by UMBC, and I think they got beat in the second round by Syracuse, if I’m not mistaken, he called me, and we talked on the phone for a while, and he was just unbelievable. I think he’s maybe the best, one of the best minds the game has seen, and I’ve learned so much.
You know, my father, I think when he was a coach, Tom was playing in the UP. So it goes way back, and I have, again — just he’s been great to me. When people are kind to you in hard moments, you remember that, and again, of course, how can you not respect what he’s done with his program? So I’m very thankful for that.
The coaching fraternity, it’s unique. We know the battles we go through, and then when you can rejoice when someone rejoices, that’s really cool. I’m happy to hear that and thankful for him.
Q. Tony, Jack played ten minutes in the first three games of this tournament combined, then he played 34 against Purdue, and you’ve had a lot of guys who have seen their roles fluctuate. How impressed have you been with their ability to take the role that they’re given and excel in it, especially a guy like Jack who you really needed in that Purdue game.
TONY BENNETT: For sure, his physicality and the way he played has been significant. That’s been the case with Braxton and Jay Huff throughout the year, and I know how hard it is. I understand that, fellas. Of course, it’s the idea of staying ready. But here’s — it’s funny, before the Purdue game, I mentioned to the team in our hotel when we did our walk-through, I said, here’s a guy who’s a fifth-year senior who started and played a lot, and all of a sudden, now his role has been reduced. We don’t know how much he’ll play. I said, I watch him. He’s encouraging you guys on the bench. He’s telling you to stay in it.
And I remember talking to him, and he said, Coach, I just want to advance. Whatever you think is best. Yeah, it’s hard to not play, but whatever is best for the team.
That’s why this program has been good. We have guys — that embodies our pillar of servanthood. Make others better. Know your role, make others better. He embodies that. He has been the glue. Isaiah Wilkins the years before, and I can go down the road.
So when you’re fortunate enough to coach young men who have that kind of resolve and character, they make the team go. You have to have a bunch of those, and we’ve been fortunate, and Jack, I think, is a great one for that.
Q. The players were talking about maybe a lot of the guys on this roster being underrecruited or getting into them early. Do you feel like this team carries a little bit of maybe a chip on the shoulder, is the term they use, because some of them had to prove themselves at this level?
TONY BENNETT: I think that’s so important. We’re fortunate to find guys that are better than people think, and, yeah, I think that — you know, I go back through it with the Joe Harris, even Malcolm, these two guys early on, and that matters. Whether they have four stars, five stars, or whatever the rankings are, that stuff’s insignificant, especially in basketball. It’s more what do they do when they get there and how do they develop?
I think we always try to find guys that are sneaky good — that’s the word we try to use — and go after them. Sometimes they’re coming in, like you said, exactly, with that hunger and the right mindset, and I think that’s important.
THE MODERATOR: We’re joined by student-athletes from Virginia, Ty Jerome and Kyle Guy.
Q. Tony, if I can just follow real quick, as you’ve won more and more and gotten to the point that the program’s at, have you been in on higher ranked recruits? Do you see the talent level rising year to year?
TONY BENNETT: I think, as your team has success, you’re able to — there’s some non-negotiables, you don’t compromise, but then you do definitely get involved with guys that have that, but you have to be careful because you can get seduced into maybe compromising certain areas, but for sure that’s the ideal, guys that care about their education but that they want to be good, they want to be part of something great. That’s what we’re trying to do and find.
Recruiting, my staff has been unbelievable. In the season, I’m so locked into these guys, I go out some and I’m involved, but my staff over the years get the huge assist on that. Without them, and then the guys believing in something special, we wouldn’t be in this spot.
Q. I think you’ve alluded to it before, but the support of your former players or former Virginia players from before your time. Rick Carlisle, for instance, I understand he picked up the tab last night. How much has it —
TONY BENNETT: Not for me. I don’t — no. (Laughter.)
Q. How much do you hear from those former players?
TONY BENNETT: We have great — they’ll come back, they’ll work out with the guys, work out with Coach Curtis. You just see it. It’s nonstop, from Malcolm to Joe Harris. The list goes on and on. I think it’s significant. I really do.
I remember Coach Carlisle called me after last year, and he just talked about be very intentional about everything you do in the fall, the summer, the fall about putting these guys — make pressure your friend. Address it, do things. That was so helpful. He’s one of the best coaches.
He addressed our team. I don’t know if these guys were here. He spoke at a commencement thing. So, yeah, Ralph Sampson being around. We’re very fortunate. Coach Holland, those who have gone before us, and then the guys that played in our program, they were the building blocks. They’re the guys that laid the great foundation, and so are these guys, and they’re building on it with the right stuff.
How about some questions for the student-athletes?
Q. This can be for both. The simple premise in this game is Virginia likes to play deliberate, sort of methodical. Auburn likes to play sort of fast and frenetic. Do you have to win the pace to win the game? And the players can chime in too.
THE MODERATOR: Ty, Kyle, you want to give us thoughts on that, give Coach a break, and then if Coach wants to conclude with a couple of thoughts on that. We’ll go that way.
TY JEROME: I think we definitely have opposite playing styles. Keeping that transition will be a huge key. Keeping that will be a huge key. Taking care of the ball will be a huge key. It’s the same thing we try to do every game, making them take a tough shot and win the majority of the possessions.
KYLE GUY: We’re not going to compromise on how we play, but at the same time, our style of play is just to win. So we can score with the best in the country, and we can defend with the best in the country. So whatever it takes to win is what’s most important.
THE MODERATOR: Coach, you good with those two?
TONY BENNETT: I think that’s great.
Q. This is for Tony. It took a long time to find out if Braxton was going to be eligible this season. Can you talk about his role, how important it’s been, and how much have you picked his brain about Auburn?
TONY BENNETT: Very important. Yeah, we had to wait. The question was asked before about Jack Salt, and I said Jack and Jay and Braxton, it’s kind of been sometimes they’re out there for a while, sometimes they’re not. You need that depth. He stepped up at major times to give us a difference in games.
Yeah, he understands the SEC and the athleticism of it and the pace of play, and we have talked about it. I know he’s probably talked to the guys, but really thankful that he got the waiver and could give us — be able to play this year.
So his understanding of his role, and as challenging as that is sometimes when it’s limited and then there’s more, that’s hard as a player, but he’s been a great addition, and I’m glad he’s not redshirting this year and we have him.
Q. Kyle, I asked Tony about this earlier, but I’m interested in your perspective too. What do you see as the role of sports in communities which have had tragedies?
KYLE GUY: I assume you’re alluding to the KKK rally that happened last year. Yeah, I think sports have a profound impact on communities and townships and whatnot because you can really rally around something and all believe in something, the same thing, and if you have different points of views and whatnot. So I think basketball, football, Lacrosse — all of our sports did a great job of trying to take a stand against that and stand up for what’s right.
Q. You guys had a game against NC State where it was close at the end. You guys went to overtime, and it was a game where NC State tried to press you all 94 feet, really get up into you defensively. Do you see any similarities between them and Auburn, and then what did you learn from that game that maybe you can apply here?
THE MODERATOR: Let’s let Ty take that and then Kyle.
TY JEROME: We played NC State more recently too, and it was a completely different outing, but, yeah, Auburn is definitely similar to them in a way. They’ll pressure you. They’re probably a little more talented offensively, a few more shooters. So they’ll present a more difficult challenge in that way. But it will be a dogfight.
KYLE GUY: Yeah, again, I think it’s a testament that we’re going to have to take care of the ball. I think we had like 15 or 16 turnovers the first time we played NC State and then significantly less the second time we played them. Unfortunately, we won’t have two chances at Auburn, so we’re just going to have to be disciplined in what we know how to do.
Q. For Kyle and Ty and maybe Tony too, as shooters, how do you prepare to play in this environment? The background and everything is so different from everything you’re used to. Guys usually seem to shoot pretty well here. How do you get used to it?
TY JEROME: I’m going to give this one to Kyle first because he can shoot.
KYLE GUY: As a shooter, obviously, you have to be confident in yourself, and your teammates have to be confident in you, and with that confidence, it doesn’t matter where you’re shooting. You could be shooting at Rucker Park in Harlem, or you could be shooting in a football stadium. You just have to have confidence. Obviously, it’s very nice that we get to practice here twice, so we can kind of get a feel for it. But when the ball is tipped, it doesn’t matter what the backdrop is. It’s just we prepared for this, and we’re going to be ready.
TY JEROME: Yeah, like Kyle said, it’s just you’ve got to be confident no matter where you’re playing at, and it’s just about focusing on the things in the game you can control, and just when you shoot, you just stay confident about it, but you can’t think about it.
TONY BENNETT: The key is just to get good shots.
THE MODERATOR: Coach Bennett has an answer for that also.
TONY BENNETT: They cut me off, huh? It’s all those things, but get good shots. Can your offense take care of the ball, get good shots, and then you take the good shots. That’s always the goal for any team. Of course, you want to make them, but can we first get the good shots. Kyle talked about being in here a couple of times and shooting. It is what it is.
Q. In relation to the shots, not so much about the background, but Tony, I wonder there have been more three-pointers made in this tournament than ever before, and it was actually set early in the Sweet 16. It shot way past it. You’ve got three games left. I wonder if you have a thought on the proliferation why that is. Just kind of what that means to the game, how it’s changed.
TONY BENNETT: I missed part of the question. You said just the —
Q. There have been more three-pointers made in this tournament than in any previous tournament.
TONY BENNETT: I think it’s following the trend, even with the NBA. Guys now can shoot at such deep range. A lot of times it’s four guys on the floor or five guys. The three ball, just from what Golden State has done and other teams, and then in the college game, it’s creeping down, and you’re seeing it. Again, guys can shoot it off the bounce. Guys shoot — the range amazes me. Obviously what these guys can do, what Carsen Edwards did. You’re watching Auburn’s players. It’s just become a huge part of the game. What Villanova did last year, all those things. So it’s a trend for sure.