Bennett would tell you that he really had no choice.
“As a coach, you don’t want to do hard things, unless you think it’s the right thing for your team and for a young man involved,” Bennett said after his seventh-ranked Cavs had topped Yale on Sunday.
To Bennett, the dismissal of Nichols, a highly-touted transfer from Memphis, where he was a first-team all-conference pick, after being a Top 25 recruit coming out of high school, was “just one of those situations.”
“We always talk about there’s a standard we have,” Bennett said. “Certainly showing compassion and grace, but there’s also accountability and truth that comes with every situation, and with this case, that’s how we dealt with it with Austin. I love Austin. My hope is that this will be a turning point for him and he’ll take the right steps.”
Here’s the thing that Bennett recognized with the situation. Whatever it was that Nichols did to earn the dismissal, and we’re all reading between the lines here, because whatever it was, we haven’t been told, and it’s to the point where we have to presume that we won’t be, we also have to presume that those inside the program are in the know as to the details.
Presuming that everyone on the inside knows, Bennett, like any coach, like any administrator, any small-business owner or corporate executive, had a choice to make regarding how to react.
One approach would be to pretend that whatever it was that Nichols did wasn’t enough to outweigh his expected contributions on the court this year.
Many coaches and others faced with the question of what to do when something like this happens try to go this route. Best case, it works out, and in the case of a basketball coach, you win a bunch of games.
There are a lot of other cases other than best case, of course, and many of these involve not winning a bunch of games, maybe as a result of the very decision to try to sweep the problem under the rug.
The issue in those other instances could be that other players say, well, this guy got away with whatever he got away with, so guess what, I’m going to cut this corner, or that corner.
You lose one game, then another, and then at some point, you come to the realization that not only have you sacrificed a season for one guy, but now you’ve poisoned the well with the guys on this team who are coming back next year, maybe two or three more years.
This can be a program-changing move, in that context.
The hard part is that those realizations aren’t always immediately obvious. In the here and now, the temptation is to say, come on, this kid is an all-conference player, he messed up, we can help him better by keeping him in the program, and if we win games in the meantime, it’s a win-win, right?
That’s how it ends up getting rationalized, anyway.
Virginia is going to miss Austin Nichols. Let’s get that part of this out of the way. Nichols was the only reliable post scorer on the roster, and his rebounding and defense were perfect fits for Bennett’s rugged system.
UVA is currently ranked seventh in the national polls, and entered the 2016-2017 season as a trendy Final Four pick. And the season may end with the ‘Hoos in Phoenix, but the road trip to the desert just got a tad bit more perilous.
That’s why Bennett is getting the attaboys. A few months removed from an excruciating Elite Eight loss, the coach looked down a chance to climb another rung up the ladder and said, sure, I want to get there, but I want to do it the right way.
“That’s the stuff you don’t like about coaching, but that’s the necessary stuff that’s far more impactful and lasting to the guys in the program, those decisions you make,” Bennett said Sunday. “Hopefully it’ll make a difference in the big picture. I don’t have it all figured out and I’ve made so many mistakes in my own life, but I’m hoping that we’re doing the right things, the wise things for Austin’s case, for the young men in our program and that we’ll keep taking the right steps forward. I just want to hopefully lead them well and our staff and go forward.
“But yeah, not easy, not at all. Been hard, for sure.”
Column by Chris Graham