The Art of Benching: When Is the Line Crossed?

Ben GibsonSenior Analyst IFebruary 28, 2009

To bench or not the bench, that is the question.

At least that was the situation Virginia coach Dave Leitao had on Thursday against the Miami Hurricanes.

Virginia has certainly had their fair share of struggles this season, 11th in the 12-team ACC. In many ways, this team is playing for next year and so the coaching staff have a responsibility to make sure the game is being played the right way.

For most of this season, Leitao's team has been lacking the defensive intensity he has preached ever since he stepped foot on to the Grounds four years ago from DePaul University.

Yet, in Virginia's latest resurgence including wins at home against Clemson and Virginia Tech, the Cavaliers were playing excellent defense. The Miami game was no exception.

Virginia guard Calvin Baker was smothering ACC superstar Jack McClinton throughout the game and the result was an ugly, grinding contest (something the Cavaliers desperately needed).

With freshman sensation Sylven Landesberg uncharacteristically struggling to attack the basket, Jeff Jones was carrying the load.  His old-fashioned three-point play gave the Cavaliers a 43-40 lead with 11:13 to play.

Then Jones, who finished with a team-high 16 points, took a seat on the bench and stayed there.

Jones, Virginia's offensive catalyst could only sit and watch as for the next eight minutes Virginia scored only seven points.  As a result, Virginia's three-point lead turned into a three-point deficit.

Jones's replacement, the seldom used Mustapha Farrakhan, made one nice jumper but also airmailed a three-point shot en route to 1-of-5 shooting from the field and turned the ball over.

When Jones finally returned he made a quick three-pointer to tie the game at 55-55 all, but Virginia would not score another point in a 62-55 loss which involved turnovers and bad decisions on the offensive end late.

Their rhythm was clearly out of sync and their stellar defense was undermined by an anemic offense.

Why on earth would Leitao sit Virginia's best offensive threat for eight minutes in the second half when a struggling McClinton left a window of opportunity to pull away and notch a third straight victory at home?

"What I told him [Jones] when he came out was that there were three or four specific assignments that he got lost on," Leitao said, "I rode it for a little longer than I intended to."

Hard to imagine that coach Leitao simply forgot about Jones, particularly with the offense struggling so mightily in his absence.

With Landesberg and Mike Scott both off their game, the onus was clearly on the sophomore to step up as he had done sporadically throughout his career.

"I definitely was feeling 'it.' I've been feeling it all week," Jones told the Roanoke Times, "even when I was on the bench, I felt I was in a rhythm to go back in there and hit shots."

So now the dilemma that every coach has to face from time to time. Do you punish a defensive lapse at the expense of offensive firepower?

Leitao admitted that not all of those missed assignments resulted in Miami scoring, but he has always been consistent when it comes to having a short leash. 

Jamil Tucker, a solid shooter, spent most of his freshman and sophomore years on the bench because of his inconsistency on the defensive end.

In one game against Maryland in 2007, Tucker came in for the inbounds play, turned it over and proceeded to be put right back on the bench.

Total time in that substitution: Three seconds.

Last year, Tucker was in a similar situation on the road against Virginia Tech. After seven points to open up the second half, Leitao pulled in the sophomore after a bad defensive possession and did not find the floor for the rest of the half.

When the media asked about Tucker's contributing in the second half, Leitao kept his answer simple.

"I didn't think so," Leitao said.

Virginia has improved these past few weeks, and a major factor has to be that Leitao has eased off his happy trigger-finger.  He has allowed players to work through their mistakes.  It means he is not accepting it but that players without confidence cannot possibly thrive.

After all, it was after the Virginia Tech loss last year in which Scott had these infamous words.

"[Virginia Tech] had a lot of confidence," Scott said. "Playing with Seth Greenberg, he gives them a chance, a little more leeway when they make a mistake. They make a mistake, they just get through it, and they still stay on the court, whereas we don't have enough time to make a mistake. If we make a mistake, we're coming out. They have a lot of confidence.”

I commend Leitao for trying to make a statement, especially if he wants to be a defensive team first and foremost.  Sometimes players need to see that their actions (or inactions) have consequences.

Players don't always listen and benching will always make a statement loud and clear.

However, make your statement in shorter stints than eight minutes!

Better yet, don't replace your hot hand with a hand that hasn't played significant minutes in over six weeks.

Leitao could have gone to senior Mamadi Diane, who had emerged from his hibernation last weekend against N.C. State to score 11 points on 5-of-6 shooting.

The decision to bench Jones is not unique to Virginia, every coach has to deal with players who may have some strengths but also some glaring weaknesses.

What is the right thing to do? 

Do you bench them and make them see the importance of fundamentals or do you let them work it out on the court and repent for their basketball sins?


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