Virginia Picking Up Right Where It Left Off

Posted by Matt Auerbach on November 26th, 2019

A week ago on the Eye on College Basketball Podcast, hosts Gary Parrish and Matt Norlander started a benign dialogue aiming to contextualize the greatness of Virginia head coach Tony Bennett. It began with the duo opining on how many games Bennett would be able to win against the Cavaliers’ 2019-20 schedule with a top-10 level Division II roster, and evolved into a more interesting and reasonable hypothetical — how high would Bennett finish with the roster that Danny Manning has at Wake Forest? Neither was willing to pick a Bennett-coached Demon Deacons’ squad lower than sixth, with Norlander capitulating that he could envision a scenario yielding a team that could crack the league’s top four. Such is now the universal adulation of Bennett’s prowess that none of the proclamations of his greatness, in this context or others, feels hyperbolic.

Tony Bennett is a Pundit’s Dream Coach (USA Today Images)

A year ago at this time, despite the fresh wounds of the ignominy of being the first #1 seed to ever lose an NCAA Tournament game to a #16 seed, Bennett was still thought of as one of the games’ premier coaches. The questions remained, fairly or not, however, whether his style could yield a National Championship, a question ultimately put to bed forever last April. With all the subsequent roster turnover (Virginia lost its top three scorers, all three with eligibility remaining), it was fair to expect the Cavaliers to retreat substantially this year — but early returns suggest otherwise.

Through its first six games, Virginia has allowed 256 points, with its first two opponents failing to exceed 35 and no team breaking 60. Opponents are making a staggeringly low 35.1 percent of their two-point attempts (second nationally), as Virginia once again leads the nation in defensive efficiency. In his 11th season in Charlottesville, Bennett’s teams have made such enormous success on that end of the floor old hat, finishing among the nation’s top seven in defensive efficiency in eight of the last nine campaigns. And while some may quibble with the stylistic merit of the pack-line defense and tempo-driven offense, Virginia’s regular season results are beyond reproach — exceeding 30 wins four times, dropping two league games or fewer four separate times, and multiple regular season banners. Before that accomplishment can be diminished, consider the fact that it has been so long since Duke has won an ACC Championship of its own that their last (2010) was shared with current Big Ten member Maryland.

Detractors of Virginia’s style cite aesthetics and tempo, but there is an undeniable quality of Bennett as a teacher of the game that is all too often ignored. Malcolm Brogdon arrived on campus as a fringe top-100 prospect, but left as a two-time All-American, parlayed that into an NBA Rookie of the Year award, and he may just find his way into the All-Star game this season. Joe Harris was never considered an ACC level player until he went on to make the league’s first team after his junior season, and is now scoring at a career high clip in his fifth year in the NBA. Combine these two with Mike Scott, who went from a contributor under Dave Leitao to an all-league performer under Bennett. Further, the year over year improvement of the trio of Ty Jerome, Kyle Guy and De’Andre Hunter, resulting in the 2019 National Title, makes it tough to argue that Bennett is not among the country’s preeminent developers of talent.

Through this season’s early stages, Mamadi Diakite seems to be next in line to have taken the leap from role player to a viable offensive threat, doubling his scoring average from a year ago and extending his game beyond the three-point line (50% 3FG).  With additional support from Braxton Key and the emergence of Jay Huff, Bennett has one of the most formidable two-way frontlines in the country at his disposal.

All that said, Virginia’s talent level overall is inarguably less than it was a year ago. But given the track record of its head coach and a defense that never stops, the Cavaliers will remain a team to be dealt with in the ACC race — and that will presumably be the case for as long as Bennett is in Charlottesville, assuming he doesn’t bolt to Winston-Salem for another challenge.

Matthew Auerbach (64 Posts)


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