Tag Archives: Coach Tony Bennett

Virginia’s Win over Duke is a Big Win for College Basketball

The scoreboard in Durham read:

Virginia 65

Duke      63

But the bigger story was this:

Real College Basketball – 1

NBA Minor League – 0

The University of Virginia scored a big win for college basketball on Saturday. Virginia, notched an improbable, but not shocking win against the NBA’s minor league franchise-in-residence at Durham, otherwise known as the Duke Blue Devils.

Let’s be clear about one irrefutable truth – Duke has the most talent of any team in college basketball. I am not sure there is a close second. Kentucky maybe, but no other team has the wealth of talent that a Coach K has assembled at Duke. Duke has multiple NBA lottery draft picks on their roster. So how did UVa, who has zero NBA lottery draft picks on their roster, beat Duke at Cameron Indoor?

I am not sure it’s that hard to understand. Virginia is a tightly knit team of college basketball players who are completely vested and committed to the University of Virginia and the success of UVa basketball. Duke is a confederation of future NBA basketball players, none of whom give two rips about Duke, Durham, or college basketball unless it impacts their route to the NBA. In real world terms, the Virginia players are home owners with a vested interest in the success of their program. Duke’s players are renters, looking to move out as soon as they can. Which one of those is better for the long term prospects of the neighborhood? Which is better for college basketball?

I was awed by some of the jaw-dropping plays Duke made on Saturday. They are an impressive collection of massively talented basketball players. To their credit, the Duke one-and-dones seem like good kids in addition to being ridiculously talented athletes. They are not dirty cheap-shot artists, like Grayson Allen. They are not foul-mouthed cry babies…like Greyson Allen. The fab Freshmen at Duke have not emulated Grayson Allen, primarily because they don’t care about Grayson Allen or anything else about Duke basketball…and that’s why Virginia won on Saturday.

I think the one-and-done kids play hard. I think they would much rather win than lose. I am sure they work hard in practice. However, there is no doubt that the success of Duke basketball is not at the top of their list of priorities. Duke is a holding bin, a way station on the way to the NBA for all of Duke’s contributing players. While I am sure they like Duke and respect Coach K, if VCU could convince these kids that VCU was a better conduit to the NBA than Duke, there is no question these kids would punt the Devils and embrace the Rams. This is why Duke lost today. This is also why Duke lost to Boston College and NC State. When your NBA highlight reel is your highest priority, winning is nice, but it’s not the ultimate goal.

By contrast, Virginia’s players are fully vested in their university, their coach, and their program. Several of Virginia’s players will certainly have professional basketball careers and one or two might have long careers in the NBA. However none of Virginia’s starting 5 will be NBA lottery picks, but they will all be Virginia basketball legends and adored by Virginia fans for the rest of their lives.

There is no question that Virginia’s players love UVa. They love their coach. They love Charlottesville. By the time they graduate they will have spent 4 or more of their most formative years immersed in the culture of UVa, Charlottesville, and the Virginia basketball program. They are part of the fabric of UVa. They bleed for UVa. Duke’s current crop of fab-freshmen will spend the obligatory 8 months in Durham before moving on to the NBA. While I am sure they would like to win the ACC championship and the NCAA tournament, the Virginia players would given their first born to bring championships home to Charlottesville. That’s why the Bad News Bears won today. It is why Virginia will remain relevant on the national stage as long as Tony Bennett is leading the program.

I have no illusions that Virginia is the favorite to win the NCAA tournament this year.  I will be thrilled if they can win the ACC regular season. It is a long road ahead and Virginia has to clear many high hurdles to win the ACC much less win the NCAA championship. By the time March rolls around, less talented legs are tired and the Duke thoroughbreds might be in a better physical condition to make a tournament run. However, if the winner of the Big Dance comes down to heart and determination, a real college team like Virginia will be tough to beat and fab-freshmen can move on to the NBA, making room for next year’s mercenaries.

Sorry Duke, Virginia is the New Taste in College Basketball

Reading some of national reporting on college basketball, particularly Virginia basketball, it might be easy to conclude that there was a crisis in college basketball. It would be easy to conclude that Virginia basketball was an infection slowly killing college basketball. It would be easy to conclude that Virginia was leading NCAA basketball down the path to attention deficit disorder-driven doom.

Such a conclusion couldn’t be more wrong.

I watched Duke play Florida State the other day. It is hard not to be impressed by the embarrassment of riches Coach K has brought to Durham. Duke starts 4 freshmen. At least 2 of those 4 will be one-and-dones. The other 2 could spend a second season in Durham pretending to be college students, but it is not likely. Smart money says all four call it quits on going to class in January and conclude their stints at the NBA’s minor league franchise-in-residence at Durham after March Madness concludes.

As I watched the track meet with FSU, I couldn’t help but wonder what Shane Battier, Carlos Boozer and Jay Williams thought. I can’t imagine what Bobby Hurley, Christan Laettner and Grant Hill think. I am sure they are happy with the continued success of the program. Duke is an unquestioned big dpg in NCAA basketball. However, watching Duke play basketball today has very little in common with Duke basketball that put the Blue Devils on the map. It looks nothing like the game that Battier, Booozer, Laettner, and Hurley played. Funny, I don’t remember many reporters griping about too much defense when defense was Duke’s calling card.

The Duke of old was known for discipline. Hard-nosed, aggressive man-to-man defense was Duke’s differentiation. While Duke had very talented players back in the day, they lived and died with their defense and the offense it so frequently spawned. Prior to the current incarnation of Duke basketball, players went to class and graduated with college degrees.

Not any more. The Duke of today is a staging area for NBA players. A way station, a holding bin. Duke no longer has a brand or calling card other than a roster stacked with kids who have no interest in a Duke education. Instead, they have every intention of leaving Durham before the first commencement ceremonies of their college “careers.” Remember when Coach K wouldn’t raise a championship banner in Cameron Indoor if a player on his team had not finished his degree? Yeah, those days are over.

Watching Duke play these days is like any other play ground game. it is festival of 1-on-1 moves and dunks. Duke’s defense is more happenstance than strategy & execution. When ridiculously talented players log enough minutes, eventually they will be in a position to make a remarkable play. Duke’s defensive success is more like looking down and finding a 4-leaf clover than the result of a well deployed plan.

On the other hand, I just got back from the Virginia/North Carolina game in Charlottesville. UNC came into today’s game averaging 85 points per game. They scored just over half of their average today as Virginia dominated the Tar Heels for the second year in a row in John Paul Jones Arena.

In past two games combined against Virginia, the Heels have scored 92 points for a per-game average of 46. That doesn’t happen by accident. It also is not a result of Virginia’s roster being stacked with 5-star, future NBA lottery picks. Rather it is the result of a program that is committed to winning differently and generally has its way setting tempo and controlling the pace of play.

Unlike Duke, Virginia wins based on stellar execution at both ends of the floor. They win by playing the best defense in the country. They win by frustrating offensive juggernauts used to having their way running up and down the court doing tomahawk and windmill dunks. UNC didn’t have any windmill jams on Saturday. Instead they got their butts kicked at both ends of the court by a team that, on paper, had no business staying within 20 points of the Tar Heels. What’s not to love about that?

David slaying Goliath has always been a popular theme in college athletics. Until Virginia started averaging close to 30 wins a season, no one ever evaluated David’s style points for how he slew Goliath. That Virginia fans went as crazy over 3 uNC shot clock violations as they did for De’Andre Hunter’s thunder jam over Joel Barry shows me that Virginia fans appreciate the full breadth of the college game.

Virginia can’t win playing UNC or Duke basketball, so they don’t. Instead, they play aggressive defense. They make the extra pass on offense. They play Virginia basketball. True basketball fans should at least appreciate if not relish the fact the Coach Tony Bennett has found a way to run with and beat the big dogs by intentionally not playing their game. Strategy and execution should be as appreciated as a part of college basketball as a break-away slam.

I suspect those who grimace at the way Virginia has creeped into the top tier of basketball programs are the same folks who like to see a winning score at the US Open of -20. On the surface a birdie-barrage looks more entertaining than hacking out of knee-deep cabbage.

However, what the run-and-gunners  and birdie fanatics miss is an appreciation for the strategy options and execution that turn an expected outcome on its head. Maybe what irks Virginia’s detractors the most is that Virginia wins enough big games now, that after a beatdown of UNC, no one even considered storming the court…since Virginia has now done this 5 times in a row.

I am not asking everyone to be a Virginia fan. All I am asking is for an accommodation, for a grudging acceptance that there is more than one way to succeed mightily in college basketball. Virginia might be an acquired taste, I understand that, but so is good bourbon, good scotch, and stout beer. Beating the tar out of the Heels two years in a row is a great reason to celebrate the acquired tastes in life, wherever we find them.

Is Virginia Basketball the Bitcoin on the NCAA Basketball?

Has anyone but the most ardent Virginia basketball fan heard of Kihie Clark and Kody Strattmann? For those with better things to do, that is your UVa 2018 basketball recruiting class. Any guess where this recruiting class is ranked in the ACC? Don’t bother looking it up. It’s last. There is a chance Virginia could add a name or two to the ’18 class, but don’t bet a week’s pay on it. Worried? Don’t be.

If anyone is concerned about the future of Virginia basketball, please watch Devon Hall play this year. Hall is not only a a top statistical performer for the team, he is a floor leader, a general who knows what Coach Bennett wants at all times. He is like having an assistant coach running the offense and setting the defense in real time. Not many top programs have this type of player anymore. Virginia makes a living off of guys like this and will continue to do so in the future.

Let’s face the reality of Virginia basketball – Tony Bennett runs a different program compared to most of the other top tier teams in the country. Virginia’s defense grabs most of the headlines from the national media who generally are too simple-minded to appreciate the skill and teamwork of great defense. They want all icing & no cake, so when Virginia basketball fails to look like the mind-numbing NBA, they complain that they are bored. Too bad for them. Like good scotch, Virginia basketball is a taste worth acquiring.

However, where Tony Bennett really excels, where he is radically different in his program strategy, and where he makes his bones winning lots of basketball games is in his roster management and player development.

It is hard to argue with CTB’s results bringing Virginia back to the conversation of the elite teams in the country. It is just an unusual path. Like the value of bitcoin, fan confidence in the future success of the Virginia program is based on trust. And like bitcoin, there are likely to be spikes and crashes in the public perception of his roster management and his recruiting. The results to date are stellar however, so fans should trust his system, trust his eye for talent, and trust his ability to develop talent over a college career. Ahhh…. the multi-year college career. We don’t hear much about that anymore, with the exception of UVa and maybe Wisconsin & Villanova, but it is a crucial part of Tony Bennett’s strategy and Virginia’s success.

It is important to get two things out in the open that will not change for Virginia basketball:

  1. Virginia will never land top 15 recruits who are likely “one & done” players. Nor will Virginia land top 40 recruits who think they are one & done, but really aren’t. In Tony Bennett’s system, a top 40 recruit, pretending to be a college student for 6 months, who is not committed to intensely effective defense will sit on the bench. Think that is an attractive option to prima donna kids who think they are the next LeBron James?
  1. Malcolm Brogdon winning the NBA rookie of the year will do nothing to help Virginia’s recruiting with top 40 kids. Brogdon is the poster-child for Virginia athletics. Virginia fans love Malcolm Brogdon, but that carries no weight with high school kids looking for a basketball home. A true student-athlete, had he not made it in the NBA, Brogdon’s fall back was likely medical school. He went to college for 5 years and finished with 2 degrees. How appealing is that to hot-shot high school kids who have no real interest in 5 months of college education, much less 5 years and 2 degrees? Not very.

This is not to say that the Virginia program is void of ACC talent. Quite the contrary. It is just different than any other program in the ACC and most programs in the nation. CTB and his staff find the right “fits” for the program and develop that talent over time. London Perentes anyone? Joe Harris? Both of these recruits garnered collective yawns from the recruiting services and did little to boost the “ranking” of Virginia’s recruiting classes – yet both were All-ACC performers and are playing professionally in the NBA (Perentes making his debut with Cleveland last week)

The tough reality for Virginia fans is that recruiting for Tony Bennet is going to run in cycles.

Scan Virginia’s roster and you will find 5 active redshirt players (Devon Hall, Mamadi Diakite, Jack Salt, Jay Huff, & De’Andre Hunter), with a 6th (Francesco Bodocci) in progress. Intermixed with the redshirt players are talented recruits who have played since their arrival in Charlottesville.

A couple of interesting points about the redshirt strategy at Virginia besides the fact that I love it: First, if CTB can get kids with the maturity and foresight to see the advantages both athletically and academically of taking a redshirt year, Virginia is already ahead of the game. The second key point – not all of the redshirt players are off the radar “fliers”. Diakite, Huff, Hunter, and Hall were all top 40-100 recruits. In each of these instances, Tony Bennett has taken talented, highly recruited kids and taken their least productive years in Charlottesville as overwhelmed freshmen adjusting to the speed of the game and learning Virginia’s stifling pack-line defense and traded it for their most productive year as a 5th-year senior. Devon Hall is the classic example of why this is an outstanding strategy – if you can find the right kids.

The redshirt strategy is also why Virginia’s recruiting will run in maddening cycles. Top 40 kids with talent enough to crack any line-up in the nation aren’t coming to Virginia. Top 40-100 recruits in 2018 look at the Virginia roster and see it is packed with talented players, 4 of whom have a redshirt season under their belts and lots of eligibility remaining. From their view, Virginia might be a 2 year wait before they garner significant minutes. Is anyone shocked those kids have, thus far, decided to start their college careers elsewhere? So for his ’18 class, Coach Bennett made the best pitch he could for kids who would light up the recruiting rankings and missed. Top 100 recruits can look at a roster, watch the steady progression of current players, and decide if Virginia is the right fit for them. In 2018 they decided it wasn’t.

2019 will be a different story. Significant minutes will be up for grabs when Devon Hall, Nigel Johnson, and Isaiah Wilkins graduate. There might still be a wait (or hopefully a redshirt year) in the future for top 100 kids coming to Virginia in the 2019 class, but there are more routes to playing time and the wait for significant minutes might be one year away instead of two.

All of this is not to say there is not risk in Tony Bennett’s strategy. His last two recruiting classes are more “London Perentes” than “Kyle Guy”. Sometimes Bennett misses on a recruit – a player does not develop like we all hope or runs out of patience competing for playing time. From the 2017 & 2018 recruiting classes, I will be shocked if all 4 turn out to be strong ACC players. Maybe he has found the next Jared Reuter instead of the next Joe Harris. We just don’t know yet, but it is highly unlikely that CTB whiffs on all 4 players. It is more likely that CTB found at least 2 more London Perentes or Jack Salts who can help Virginia stay at or near the top of the toughest basketball conference in the nation.

The most important reality for Virginia fans is that there is not another path to basketball relevance. I have not spoken to any fans who want to play the one & done game. That space is already occupied. Kentucky, Duke, and uNC have sacrificed their academic integrity for the right to remain basketball blue bloods. I don’t fault them for it, but it is just the stark reality. Virginia does not have a history and a story to compete for top 15 recruits with these programs, so a head-2-head strategy to “out-Duke” Duke is doomed for failure. So CTB and his staff will compete for kids in the bottom half of the top 100, look for hidden gems, and redshirt as many as possible.

The 2017-18 season is just underway and Virginia has already climbed the polls based on their performance to date and history of quality play the past 6 years. Virginia’s ranking may be a little lofty this early in the season, but this team is packed with talented players many of whom have an extra year of development and maturity under their belts. When March madness rolls around, I expect Virginia to be in the thick of it again – playing maddening defense that will confound opponents and irk journalists. If Virginia is going to make a deep run in the NCAA tournament in March it will be on the backs of redshirt players augmenting the production of Kyle Guy and Ty Jerome.

Virginia won’t have as many NBA players on the roster in 2017-18 as Kentucky or uNC, but they might win as many or more games. Winning is the best and Virginia basketball does it a lot. Winning differently and I would argue in better fashion, is what makes Virginia a truly standout program. We can thank Tony Bennett and his staff for the return to the top of the basketball pyramid, but we have to endure the recruiting realities of being the different kid on the block. My best advice for Virginia fans, trust Coach Bennett, trust the system, trust the recruiting, and strap in, its a good ride – maybe not as good as the bitcoin ride, but it likely has a higher probability for sustained success.