Virginia Basketball Season Preview: Will "Bennett Ball" Bring Hope?

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Virginia Basketball Season Preview: Will
(Photo by Victor Decolongon/Getty Images)

Last year was an unmitigated disaster for Virginia basketball.

The Cavaliers had trouble running an offense, limiting turnovers, keeping players healthy and could not stop anybody on the defensive end.

That's not exactly a formula for success.

As a result, Virginia posted a paltry 10-win season, the lowest number since the early 1970s. It also meant that 2007 ACC Coach of the Year Dave Leitao was shown the door after just four seasons as head coach of the Cavaliers.

His replacement, former Washington State coach Tony Bennett, certainly did not have the warm welcome he would have expected.  Rumors had been flying over potential candidates like Minnesota's Tubby Smith, Oklahoma's Jeff Capel, and even Alabama's new coach Anthony Grant.

Bennett suffered from the wild imaginations of Cavalier fans. However, in just one offseason, the 40-year old with a mere three years of head coaching experience have fans believing that he may be the one to get Virginia back on track.

Indeed, considering how high skepticism and negativity have surrounded the major-revenue programs at Virginia, fans wanted to be on guard. Just like having your heart broken by previous relationships, Cavalier fans did not want to jump to quickly on the Bennett bandwagon.

The truth is, though, you can't help but like the guy. 

Bennett has this endearing charm that has already seemed to claim the jaded hearts and minds of the Virginia fans heading into this season.  Not a small task by any stretch of the imagination.

Of course, he was able to get people to believe with more than just good rhetoric.

Bennett has yet to coach a game for Virginia, but he already has some impressive feats to his credit.

First, Bennett was able to assemble one of the best coaching staffs in recent memory for Virginia.  With the addition of former Liberty coach Ritchie McKay and former Cavalier Jason Williford alongside his top assistant at Wazzou Ron Sanchez, Bennett has a staff with several strengths.

McKay brings head coaching experience as well as strong recruiting ties, having been able to bring in Seth Curry to play for the Flames last season.

Williford brings knowledge about the Cavalier program and also has strong recruiting ties to the metro Richmond area.

Sanchez represents a connection to the West Coast and New York.  He is a young man with talent and potential, while also bringing an expertise of working alongside Bennett and attaining success.

Second, Bennett was able to hold on to both incoming recruits guard Jontel Evans and forward Tristan Spurlock. Both men will provide depth at key positions for Virginia to be successful this season.

Third, Bennett has already gotten off to a quick start on the recruiting trail. Already, Virginia has five commitments for next season. Chief among these newcomers is James Johnson, a 6'9" senior from California who is currently ranked in the top 100 of most recruiting services.

Clearly Bennett has tried to pick players that fit his system, not necessarily the five-star home run names that Virginia has historically failed to get anyway.

It seems clear the Cavaliers are going to try and become successful by playing "Bennett Ball," an efficient and deliberate offense mixed with a suffocating defense.

The question is, will it work in the high-flying ACC?

The answer depends on how the players will be able to work together and improve a team defense that could not work as a cohesive unit last season.

For you see, Virginia's problem is not the talent on the team.

The Cavaliers have the reigning ACC Rookie of the Year in Sylven Landesberg, a future NBA draft pick. They also boast a solid post player in junior Mike Scott, who has the potential to rack up a double-double each and every night he hits the court.

The Cavaliers have senior Calvin Baker, the former CAA Rookie of the Year, an experienced hybrid guard who has proven to hit key shots in late-game situations.

However, this is a bizarre case where the whole is less than the sum of its parts.

Virginia lacked many things last season, but the greatest frustration came from a lack of unity. The team lacked an identity, as evidenced by the many starting lineups Leitao employed last season.

Having depth is one thing, but constantly changing your lineup to match your opponents' style does not help your team understand its own strengths and weaknesses.

Tony Bennett brings a style that forces other teams to be the ones making the adjustments. It may not be glamorous, but it certainly has the potential to be successful.

"Bennett Ball" is very similar to the slow-down offense employed by legendary coach Terry Holland which, in the 1980s-90s, led Virginia to two Final Fours and two NIT championships.  Over a ten-year span, during the height of the Holland years, the only ACC teams with better records were Duke and North Carolina.

The good news for Bennett is that, although a new system cannot be learned over night, he has one thing on his side. Virginia's schedule is about the easiest schedule an ACC team could ever hope for.

The Cavaliers clearly wanted to avoid another 10-win season and the out-of-conference schedule is tailor-made for Virginia to make the biggest improvement in the ACC this upcoming season.

Virginia also is lucky in their ACC schedule, playing Duke and North Carolina only once. It is a conference schedule nearly identical to the 2007 season, when the Cavaliers went 11-5 and grabbed a share of the ACC regular season title.

However, this season is more than just cupcake games and low scores. If Virginia is really going to make strides this season, it will need progress from two players: Sammy Zeglinski and Jeff Jones.

Zeglinski, a rising sophomore point guard, certainly experienced growing pains last season. The young man has a great deal of energy and demonstrates a hard work ethic. He also had a great deal of experience, averaging nearly 24 minutes a game as a redshirt freshman.

On the other hand, Zeglinski's ball-handling and decision-making were suspect. The guard-heavy ACC last season absolutely took the Philadelphia product to school.

In Virginia's first game against North Carolina, Zeglinski had four turnovers to only one assist. Ty Lawson, by comparison, had nine assists and zero turnovers.

For the year, Zeglinski had 84 assists but 70 turnovers. That ratio must improve in Bennett's offense, for it is predicated on efficiency. Fortunately, with most of the top point guards now playing in the NBA, Zeglinski may have a leg up on some of his new colleagues.

Considering that Baker is a combo guard lacking ball-handling skills and Jontel Evans is a true freshman, Zeglinski is really the only option to be the point guard of the team this season and therefore must begin to excel in the categories that define his position.

He must also improve on his shaky defense that often allowed defenders to blow by or use his own energy against him.

Jones has also been criticized for his defense during the Leitao years. The budding offensive threat often saw his playing-time cut for missed defensive assignments, and the demotions seem to have taken a toll on the young man.

Jones has shown a tendency to press throughout his career, particularly in big games. As a result, his offensive numbers were horribly inconsistent.

As a result, Jones is entering his junior year and looking to make a J.R. Reynolds-type evolution in 2009-10. We know he can put up big numbers, like the 15-point performance against Arizona in his first collegiate road game or the 16-point explosion against Miami last season.

However, Jones has had horrible slumps which has contributed to Virginia's lack of offensive identity over the years. As a shooting guard, he simply cannot afford to vary so wildly throughout the season.   

If Virginia is to be successful this season, Jones must begin to act like the high-scoring high school superstar he once was. He must provide the outside threat to complement the slasher Landesberg and the post presence of Scott.

There are reasons to believe that Jones may be on the verge of a breakthrough, but Virginia fans have thought that before. 

Will a new system and a new culture bring about a new result of winning for Virginia?

Tony Bennett has many things in his favor, but he still has to experience the first-year transition that is usually far from seamless. 

Nevertheless, expect Virginia to be a much improved ballclub from last season.  The Cavaliers will be dancing in one of the many postseason tournaments by March—a statement which sounded absurd just one year ago.

The Cavaliers may be another year away from the NCAA tournament, but with a coach named Tony Bennett, you can bet Virginia will always have their dancing shoes nearby.

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