The Three Storylines for UVA Basketball's Tony Bennett This April

Ben GibsonSenior Analyst IApril 13, 2009

While the Tony Bennett era at the University of Virginia is just a few weeks old, there are still some intriguing storylines that have been either played out or will soon be answered for the Cavaliers heading into a new era this offseason.

Let's take a look at how the new and unexpected hire has done on the job already:

1. Hired former Liberty head coach Ritchie McKay as an assistant.

When people think you can't recruit, why not grab the guy who was able to pick up the leading freshman scorer in the country?

In a bit of a shocker, McKay, who led the Liberty Flames to a school record in wins with a 23-12 record in the Big South, has jumped ship to help Tony Bennett as an assistant.

With the departure of Seth Curry to Duke, it certainly makes sense that Liberty was going to go downhill a bit, but their loss is Virginia's gain as they now have an assistant with 13 years of Division I head coaching experience.

McKay brings Bennett an instant recruiting boost and helps complete the master plan Virginia's athletic director Craig Littlepage had earlier this year when the team was struggling mightily.

It appeared that an all-star assistant may have allowed former Virginia coach Dave Leitao to keep his job, but that did not come into place.

Instead, Virginia has made some sweeping changes, but the new culture may help establish new recruiting lines that can pay off in the long run.

McKay and Bennett may have to face off in recruiting wars against the likes of Duke and North Carolina, but both men have had to make tougher sells before. 

When McKay was at Portland State his team was entering a program making the jump from Division II to Division I, facing stiff penalties left over by his predecessor and pretty poor facilities.

With a $121-million dollar arena, an ACC affiliation and a beautiful campus, I think McKay definitely sees a great deal of potential.

Virginia fans hope it pans out.


2. Hired American assistant coach and former Cavalier, Jason Williford.

Perhaps one of the biggest complaints made about the Leitao regime behind closed doors was the fact that the former Virginia players did not feel welcome in the program.

Virginia has some influential alumni like Dallas Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle and Seattle's Wally Walker who was a long-time executive for the Supersonics. 

You better believe Walker saw Bennett up close and personal and he strongly believes in the 39-year old.

Bennett has helped repair some of those old wounds by bringing back an old Cavalier in Jason Williford.

Williford has spent the past four seasons working for former Cavalier coach Jeff Jones up the road at American University, using his connections as a former player at John Marshall High School to court some of the top prospects from Central Virginia.

With Leitao's near miss on Richmond product and current Tar Heel Ed Davis and the success of former L.C. Byrd player Tyrese Rice at Boston College, Bennett is clearly working hard to make sure he has connections to help recruit in that area.

Williford, therefore, brings experience, knowledge of the area, and knowledge of the program, all of which are things Bennett lack but things he will need to be successful in the ACC. 

If Bennett can connect to the past, it will make a much brighter picture for Virginia's program.

3. Has spoken with both of Virginia's incoming recruits Jontel Evans and Tristan Spurlock

The biggest question Virginia fans will face in the upcoming weeks is whether or not the Cavaliers will lose on of their 2009 commitments because of the regime change.

Both Evans and Spurlock have stayed particularly mum on the subject.

Clearly the Tony Bennett-style offense may not be the most glamorous out there, but he has constantly been heralded as a "player's coach" who maximizes potential.

Even the current Virginia players, in their short time with Bennett, seem to realize that he is a rather personable guy.

Virginia guard Jeff Jones particularly has seemed enamored with the coach and the ACC Rookie of the Year Sylven Landesberg has said he will do what he can to make sure both men honor their commitment.

Losing Evans would hurt since he is a point guard and the Cavaliers sorely need depth at the position, but the talented Spurlock is even more of a necessity coming into next season.  Spurlock has a great deal of athleticism and offensive firepower that Virginia sorely needs in its frontcourt. 

With the offensively-raw Assane Sene and the undersized Mike Scott taking the vast majority of the minutes, Spurlock could be an instant contributor on this team.

However, with other suitors waiting in the wings for a de-commitment, the pressure will be on Bennett to hold on to the talented forward to help turn around a program facing its lowest win total since the 1970s.

Hopefully for Virginia, they can hold on to both players, but with most coaching changes, transfers and de-commits are typically the norm.


Final Thoughts

To be honest, for as surprising the decision to pick Bennett may have been, he has certainly had a good few weeks to start out.

During his honeymoon phase, he has already hired two high quality assistants and brought his best recruiter from Wazzou as well.

Bennett has done a good job saying the right things; he is going to adapt his style to the players around him. 

His players will work hard and when you have a proven system, you do not always need five-star recruits to be successful.

Of course, every coach sounds great in the beginning (even Lane Kiffin...maybe).  Leitao said the right things and so did Pete Gillen, but their tenures at the University of Virginia ended rather unceremoniously.

What these two previous coaches have shown is that the real question is not whether or not Tony Bennett can turn things around.  After all, both Gillen and Leitao took Virginia to the NCAA tournament and national rankings. The real question is, can Bennett sustain a level of success over time?

That question will not be answered for quite some time, but these three stories certainly can help lead him in the right direction.


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