Virginia Slowly Rolls to the Top of the ACC StandingsPosted by CD Bradley on February 8th, 2014
When Tony Bennett began his tenure as Virginia‘s coach, the Cavaliers were the slow team in a fast conference. In his first season, they ranked 317th out of 347 teams in possessions per game, and have only gotten slower since. The ACC was the ninth-fastest league that year, making a 16-15 Virginia team even more of an outlier, but the Cavaliers finished 5-11 in the ACC. Fast forward four years: Bennett’s team finds itself at 10-1 in ACC play and controlling its own destiny for a conference title by staying true to the methodical offense and stifling defense that has become a family trademark.
In fact, when asked about the walk-it-up tempo employed by his team in a 60-possession win at Georgia Tech on Saturday, he quickly mentioned his father, Dick Bennett. Tony Bennett played for his father at Wisconsin–Green Bay and then coached under him at Wisconsin and Washington State. The younger Bennett learned well the lessons of his father, considered by his peers a master tactician. Sports Illustrated‘s Luke Winn wrote the primer on the defensive style at the heart of both Bennetts’ success. When the elder Bennett went to the Pac-10 in 2003, his son said Saturday, he found himself as the coach of the slow team in a fast conference. But then Ben Howland came to UCLA, among others, and the league’s pace slowed toward Bennett’s preferred crawl. A similar transition has moved to the ACC, where Virginia isn’t even the slowest team anymore. Miami is the slowest team in America; both Clemson and Syracuse rank among the most methodical 10 teams in the country; and the ACC has fewer possessions per game than any other conference. Virginia is a relatively quick 338th in tempo, but much more importantly to Bennett, his team ranks third in defensive efficiency.
“Each coach has their own philosophy of what gives your team the best chance to win, and we have to start and win with defense,” said Bennett, after his team held Georgia Tech to a single free throw in a 22-1 run over the last 9:50 of Saturday’s 64-45 win. “I don’t know if [the ACC slowdown] helps us or hurts us. I just know that we have to play a certain way and that’s what gives us our best chance.” Georgia Tech coach Brian Gregory said that while defense remains Virginia’s trademark: “They really hang their hat on that,” it’s the improved offense that has been key to their success; this has been the most efficient offensive team of Bennett’s tenure. “They’re going to keep getting defensive stops, and eventually they’re going to make enough shots to beat you. That’s the difference for them this year, they’re much more offensively explosive. […] They’re almost better defensively because they don’t have the pressure of having to get those stops because they struggle to score.”
At 10-1, Virginia is second in the ACC, two games ahead of a Pittsburgh team it has already beaten once. It trails only Syracuse, and the only game between the two teams this regular season is on March 1 in Charlottesville. Next Saturday’s road trip to Clemson is the only other game that the Cavaliers have left against a team with any realistic chance to go dancing come March. Tony Bennett has the Cavaliers shutting down offenses and scoring efficiently at a snail’s pace, and they’re off to the school’s best start in the ACC since Ralph Simpson was a junior some three decades ago. And they just might win their first conference title of Bennett’s tenure — doing it with one 60-possession win at a time.