Tony Bennett As Virginia's Basketball Coach: Will It Work?

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Tony Bennett As Virginia's Basketball Coach: Will It Work?
(Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)

Well, the dust has settled and the initial shock has worn off for Virginia fans.

For two weeks, Virginia's athletic director Craig Littlepage orchestrated a coaching search that featured as much misinformation and vague clues as the U.S.S.R.

The leaks were kept airtight and, as a result, the media had a field day.

Tubby Smith to Virginia? Sure, he started his career at VCU and it's cold in Minnesota.

Jeff Capel to Virginia? Sure, he wants to return home and show Coach K along with the rest of the ACC he is one of the best coaches in the country.

In retrospect we can see that these were rather large reaches. Both men have great programs and it would have taken a great deal for them to leave.

Still, there were realistic names on the list like Anthony Grant and Fran McCaffery.  Were these men even interviewed or contacted? We may never know.

However, what's done is done. Virginia has a new coach and a new style with the hire of Tony Bennett. 

As you may expect from the name, that style is certainly old school.

Bennett is a protege of his father Dick Bennett whose tenacious defense and timely half-court offense helped turn around a Wisconsin program that was stuck in anonymity in the Big Ten.

The Bennetts then went to Wazzou and turned around a dormant program. When Dick retired, naming his son as head coach, Tony Bennett led his Cougars to the NCAA Tournament before falling to Vanderbilt in the second round.

His 26-8 season earned him the 2007 AP National Coach of the Year.

The following year Bennett led the Cougars to their first Sweet 16 in school history before this year's young and inexperienced club fell back a step to the NIT.

Bennett did not budge last year even when programs like Indiana and LSU came knocking at his door.

So it's understandable to see that the Wazzou faithful are surprised. Bennett endured a tough season this year but right when the younger players began to show signs of life (winning four out of their last five regular season games) he unexpectedly bolts for greener pastures.

It's also understandable to see that the Wahoo faithful are surprised. 

I mentioned before that the definition of insanity is trying the same thing over and over again, expecting a different result.

Dave Leitao was a young and relatively inexperienced coach with two NCAA tournament appearances and a history as a successful recruiting assistant behind a great head coach.

Sound familiar?

Well the Leitao era ended swiftly, but there are reasons to believe this time will be different. Of course, there are reasons to believe it won't too.

So I thought I would play a little good cop/bad cop, since most Virginia fans are doing exactly that this morning.

 

GOOD COP

Tony Bennett is an emerging coaching talent.

Bennett may have only three years of experience as a head coach, but there is certainly a great deal to like about the hire.

Bennett took a Wazzou program that had won zero NCAA tournament games in the past 30 years and gave them two back-to-back 26-win seasons.

The only other team to win 26 games was a team that came one game short of a national championship.

Sure, Bennett's team fell back a step this year but so did Leitao's.  Both men had extremely young players but Bennett still managed a winning season, Leitao managed the lowest win total in decades for Virginia.

Most importantly, Tony Bennett brings an image of what Virginia basketball will look like. He has a plan, even if it is not the most glamorous.

Dave Leitao, for all his strengths, could never find a true identity for his team. 

For evidence, look at his starting lineups.

In Virginia's 27 games, 12 players started at least one game.

Ten players averaged over 10 minutes per game.

That is not depth, that is confusion.

The Cavaliers had to adjust to every team they played as opposed to making teams adjust to them. That won't be a problem under Bennett.

From now on, when you play Virginia you know what you're going to get. Bennett's team shut you down and make you work for every possession.

His team is the gnat that constantly swarms around you, annoying you into frustration and mistakes.

Is it pretty? No. 

Does it work? Yes.

Looking back at Virginia's golden years under Terry Holland and his heir apparent, Jeff Jones, Bennett's system is similar to the style that brought Virginia so much success.

Offense is so sporadic unless your team is loaded with All-Americans that defense is the only true basis for consistency. 

In 1995, Virginia used its multiple defensive schemes to reach the Elite Eight. Their performance against Kansas was truly something special.

For further proof, look no further than Wisconsin.

Wisconsin was like Virginia, trying to win in the Big Ten playing their game. They tried to out-recruit Indiana and Michigan State, but it simply was not feasible.

When you have an identity, it's no longer about finding the Burger Boys, it's about finding those players that fit into your system. Once you do that, you make recruiting much easier.

Wisconsin adopted the tough defensive mind and became a stalwart in the conference, there is no reason to think Virginia cannot be equally successful.

Remember, Virginia knows it won't be able to topple UNC and Duke from the top of the ACC.  The Cavaliers simply want their spot near the top. Bennett can get them there.

Lastly, the "blocker mover" offensive scheme is something that works pretty well with the current roster we have.

Simply put, Bennett's system is inverting the common themes of basketball. It is about big men being able to shoot and guards being able to bang down low and finish at the basket thanks to elaborate screens and ball movement.

Well, the ACC Rookie of the Year Sylven Landesberg will be able to finish down low as he already showed an amazing ability to get to the line last year.

Rising senior Jamil Tucker could also find an opportunity to have a breakout year since he has the best shooting stroke on the team. 

The big man is deadly from outside and his numbers could go way up in this system.

Bennett may be a risk, but every coach is ultimately a risk. 

I think Virginia fans can be pleasantly surprised with this man because he will do what matters most--win.

 

BAD COP

I want to say this as politely as I can, because I do not blame Tony Bennett.

Tony Bennett is a very good man who is young and talented. 

He very well could be a great coach, we could build monuments to him and we will call him "Tony the Tiger."

However, if you are Craig Littlepage, you need to have your bags packed today because your complete disrespect towards the fans and alumni at Virginia has come shining through again.

Littlepage fired Leitao so abruptly, he needed to have a plan.

Leitao's season was horrible certainly, but his team had shown some progress and he deserved one more year to show that the 2007 ACC Coach of the Year and regular season ACC title was no joke.

By firing him, Littlepage was sending a message that he was raising the stakes for Virginia basketball.

He let these rumors of Tubby Smith and Jeff Capel go along for two weeks with no word.

He never even hinted at Tony Bennett until it was official.

Bennett would have been fine if Virginia fans had been given some kind of warning. 

Without warning though, it's like thinking you're going to meet Tiger Woods and get Geoff Ogilvy instead.

Both men are fine golfers and major winners but come on, it's Tiger Woods!

This hire was supposed to change the image of Virginia basketball nationally.  It was supposed to open up checkbooks and fill up seats in the John Paul Jones Arena.

Certainly if Bennett wins, that will take care of itself.

However, his name alone won't do it unless people think he is giving a concert instead of coaching a basketball team.

Craig Littlepage has put Bennett in a horribly awkward position and he has put himself in a seat about as hot as the sun.

Now we must worry about the fallout of this decision.  Coach transitions inevitably lead to players leaving or de-committing.

Will Landesberg stay knowing that a slower offense will most likely results in his numbers lowering his sophomore year?

I never thought he would go before because he had failed to fully prove he could hit the medium to long-range shots but it could happen.

Will Virginia lose out on Tristan Spurlock, a quality big man now being courted by Georgetown after previously committing to the Cavaliers?

Even if Bennett is able to keep them to stay, he still has a big problem at point guard.

His blocker mover offense is reliant on low turnovers.  He values possessions and Virginia for the most part, has not.

Virginia was 9th in the ACC when it came to turnovers committed and 10th in assist to turnover ratio.

Virginia's lead point guard Sammy Zeglinski had 84 assists to 70 turnovers.

That could spell disaster in Bennett's system.

Calvin Baker has played point but he is a shooting guard whose ball-handling skills are not up to par with most in the ACC.

This discrepancy was best exemplified in Virginia's first game against UNC this year.

Zeglinski shot 1-of-8 with one assist and four turnovers.

Ty Lawson of the Heels shot 7-of-10 with nine assists and zero turnovers.

Sure you expected Lawson to win that battle, but zero turnovers? That hurts.

Bennett will clearly have to prove that he can recruit in the ACC, a task many coaches have struggled to do.

Bennett did a good job of finding players to come to Wazzou, particularly as an assistant. However, the Rivals rankings show that in his three years as head man, he has recruited one four star recruit and no five star recruits.

His system may work, but he will need superior talent to play it, especially in the ACC.

I hope Bennett a great deal of luck and success, he may need it.

 

FINAL THOUGHTS

I must say, I really enjoyed writing this series on the coaching search.

Now that is has come to a conclusion I can't help but feel like I will miss the rumors and intrigue.

Coach Bennett, Virginia is going to accept you. It is nothing you did for you have have a proven system and a winning attitude.

Judging by the fans of the program you are leaving behind we are lucky to have someone of your caliber here.

Virginia has put a great deal of trust in you, Craig Littlepage has essentially put his job in your hands.

Virginia wanted to make a statement with this hire and it seems clear that the statement has become: "We will outwork you and even if you have the better talent, we will do what we can to fight to the finish."

After all, it was John Paul Jones who said, "I have not yet begun to fight."

No one knows how this hire will ultimately end. 

Jeff Capel was a risk and I think Oklahoma is okay with that decision. 

People didn't expect much out of Coach K when he came from Army, I think that worked out too.

As our own Lew Wright might say:

"Tony Bennett is a young and talented coach that has the mental fortitude and the personality to silence all the critics in the ACC and beyond.

Seriously."

So as they said 50 years ago, Tony Bennett, take me to the moon!

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