Virginia Basketball: Tony Bennett feeling the pressure, but it’s a good thing
The answer: a clear yes.
The why: more on that in a minute.
First, to the case: most recently, Monday night, at Virginia Tech. Bennett walked off the court having just lit into freshman guard Kihei Clark, no doubt for good reason, because Clark had just basically handed the ball to Virginia Tech guard Isaiah Wilkins for a walk-off layup that cut Virginia’s lead at the break to three.
Clark played all 20 minutes of the first half; he’d play just two in the second half, after the gaffe.
But Clark wasn’t the only ‘Hoo with butter fingers. UVA had eight turnovers in the first half, on its way to 13 for the game.
Over their last six games, the Cavaliers have been averaging 12.5 turnovers per game; prior to this recent stretch, Virginia had averaged 8.4 turnovers per game.
Still, despite the sloppy play, UVA was up three, on the road, at #20.
You wouldn’t know it from what his demeanor in the halftime locker room, to hear Ty Jerome tell it.
“What he said to us at halftime, it was kind of hard to remember we were up. He really gave it to us,” said Jerome, whose list of responsibilities, in addition to running the team, and pulling late-shot-clock threes out of his arse, includes, lately, calming his teammates down after a Bennett tirade.
He did that this Big Monday, and last, again on the road, last week at #8 North Carolina.
Virginia led that one at the half by seven, but a UNC run pushed the bad guys up six at the 11:32 media timeout.
Turnovers were again the issue; to that point in that game, Virginia had 10 of them.
Which had Bennett: none too pleased.
“[Assistant coach Brad] Soderberg said, I’m glad you channeled your inner Dick Bennett,” Bennett said, referencing his father, the former Wisconsin and Washington State coach. “Obviously, we had struggled with that the previous three games, and I just said, Enough’s enough. I really challenged them. I barked at ‘em.”
And again, it was Jerome, playing the peacemaker.
“They went up six and made a run, and he started losing it,” Jerome said. “I think he started screaming, and I tried to keep everybody calm and take care of the ball down the stretch.”
“Ty said, We’re okay, calm down,” Bennett said. “I wasn’t calm.”
Virginia won both games, on the road, against a Top 10 and a Top 20.
It wasn’t necessarily because Bennett, not normally prone to such outbursts, has learned to flip his lid just so in order to motivate his team.
The Carolina game turned at that same 11:32 media timeout that had Bennett going ballistic, which also had him subbing out Clark, who had been getting torched by UNC guard Coby White, and put De’Ande Hunter on White, shutting him down the rest of the way.
The Tech game went smoother in the second half as Bennett pared the rotation down to his death lineup of Ty Jerome-Kyle Guy-De’Andre Hunter-Braxton Key-Mamadi Diakite for the bulk of the minutes.
It was, basically, strategy, but the yelling was probably therapeutic.
No doubt Bennett is more on edge this year than ever before. He has every reason to be. This is his best team, and he’s had some pretty good ones, winning three ACC regular-seasons and two ACC Tournaments in the past five years.
This team, with four third-years, one fourth year, one fifth year and a third-year transfer among its rotation guys, is old, wise in the Bennett system, and talented.
The ceiling for this Virginia team is higher than the 2014 Sweet Sixteen team, the 2015 team that started 19-0 and 28-1, the 2016 team that was a whisker away from a Final Four, the 2018 team that was the overall #1 NCAA Tournament seed and 20-1 in the ACC.
For all the talk from the outside about the pressure on Bennett to achieve in March after last year’s UMBC flameout, it’s more for Bennett about just seeing this team’s potential to reality.
The two losses to Duke notwithstanding, this team is as well-positioned to win a national title this year as anybody.
That yelling, then, that we’re seeing from Bennett is as much him pushing himself as getting on his team.
Column by Chris Graham
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