Excitement is well-deservedly building on Grounds and the UVa community around the Hoos' chances to go dancing. With Virginia 5-2, a half-game behind Duke for first place in the ACC, almost half-way through conference play, postseason play is within reach.
On Wednesday, the Cavaliers walked their way to a 59-47 win over NC State after a miserable first half. Although the game was pedestrian at best (minus that posterizing dunk from Mustapha Farrakhan), the Cavaliers showed the grit and game awareness that the best post-season teams have.
The 28-25 NC State first-half scoreline aside, NC State throughly dominated Virginia in the first half, pressing and trapping a stagnant Virginia offense while confusing the Virginia defense with constant movement and dominating post play from Tracy Smith. The Wolfpack challenged Virginia's supporting cast to make things happen on the offensive end, and Virginia failed to respond.
That's where Tony Bennett came in, and showed us why Virginia can be a team for the now.
While I was watching the NC State game from the stands on Wednesday, it was obvious to me that Virginia needed to dribble-drive and create more on- and off-ball movement to break the half-court press that NC State employed in the first half. Lone behold, Virginia after the half came out and employed the same half-court press NC State used in the first half and drove to the basket with confidence (with self-admitted poor drivers).
Bennett essentially preached the fundamentals and simplified the game at half-time to the extent that I could have made the same tactical adjustments.
With this in mind, I have great confidence that Virginia basketball is a team for the now. While Bennett may have been hired for future success, he will always be a coach that maximizes the play and confidence of now. If anything, near the end of the game, Farrakhan's dunk embodied this confidence.
“When you whip a donkey, it kicks. When you whip a thoroughbred, it responds,” Bennett said post-game. “I’m not saying we’re thoroughbreds by any means, but they responded when they were challenged and that was what we needed. I told them I was proud of them for that.”
Virginia is no Kansas or Kentucky, but that doesn't preclude the Cavaliers from being a team that can make a splash in the post-season. Teams in the Missouri Valley or WCC are never comparable to the elite teams in the nation, but sports writers picked Butler for a potential Final Four-berth and we repeatedly pencil in mid-major teams for post-season runs on our brackets with legitimate cause.
As the NC State game epitomized, Virginia is a team that can play lock-down defense (to the tune of a 19-point NC State second-half), understands player roles and the fundamentals, and has a winner-mentality coach—a team with all the makings of a bracket-buster. Add Virginia's ability to put 75 on North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and this team has recognizable ability.
Which brings me to my original point on why Tony Bennett was hired for the now and makes the Cavaliers a legitimate postseason entry: Bennett is a coach that can make the most out of the least, understands the fundamentals of the game, and refuses to lose. These points are self-admittedly cliché but absolutely true. Bennett's ability to mold a Sweet Sixteen team in Pullman is a great testament to his coaching ability.
Mid-majors win in the post-season not because of superior talent but because of fundamentals, game awareness, defined player roles, and team chemistry. With Bennett, Virginia seemingly is developing all four aspects, with talent and Sylven Landesburg to boot.
Considering this, it's not outlandish to envision Virginia making the post-season and making noise (a comparable example could be to the University of San Diego when they beat UConn a few years ago).
Anyways, this all being said, Virginia faces a major test on Saturday when it faces Wake Forest at the JPJ. Losing early in ACC play to a Wake Forest team that throughly displayed its greater talent, Virginia has a great opportunity to show the nation, bracketologists (who put us on the bubble), and poll voters that they are a confident, top team nationally.
If Virginia can beat the overwhelmingly more-talented Wake Forest, post-season play and immediate success shouldn't be a hope, but an expectation.
So while Bennett may have been hired for the future and that great first recruiting class that he's bringing to Charlottesville, he's just as much of a coach for the now. The Cavaliers are not devoid of talent, but rather piece-wise in it. Bennett is a coach that knows how to put the puzzle together now, and that should provide immediate excitement to the Virginia community.