Nothing is easy with Virginia athletics. Games that look like Virginia blowouts turn into nail-biting wins or heart-breaking losses. National recruits that bring joy when they commit to Virginia have run into academic troubles or been booted for violating team rules. So it’s understandable that Virginia fans forgot their heritage the past 3 years when Virginia basketball won 89 games along with ACC regular season & tournament titles. We got a little bit spoiled. We thought after grueling football seasons, basketball would be easy. Nothing is easy. Many Virginia fans forgot the first rule of Virginia athletics this winter.
While not easy, Virginia basketball is different. Virginia is led by a coach who has a system that wins…a lot. Like a good investor coach Tony Bennett sticks by his principles and with his system even when short term results are not what Virginia fans have come to expect. Defense first, protect the ball, never get into a run & gun shoot out against a team full of sprinters when you are a team packed with distance runners. Play the game you can win, not the game casual basketball fans and many high school recruits want to see. Ahhh… the recruits. This is where Virginia basketball gets hard.
Let’s get one thing straight about Virginia basketball. Virginia will never seriously compete for the double-elite high school players who want spend a year auditioning for the NBA while pretending to be college students. Kentucky signed more 5-star recruits (6) in 2013 than Virginia has signed in the history of the program. Kentucky signed five more 5-star kids in 2016 and 3 more the year before that. Virginia will never sign recruits with the high school resumes of kids that Kentucky and Duke sign every year. If an 18-year old’s objective is to build a highlight reel while breezing through a semester of pseudo-college classes, then playing in the pack-line defense (or sitting on the bench of you don’t learn it well enough) for Tony Bennett at Virginia is going to be a perpetual non-starter.
Before we curl into the fetal position and start rocking ourselves to sleep, Virginia just smoked a very good North Carolina team. UNC is packed with McDonald’s high school All-Americans who can practice all day because their ‘classes’ aren’t really classes at all. North Carolina runs the up-tempo offense that NBA scouts and high school recruits adore, yet Virginia beat them convincingly playing Tony Bennett basketball.
The soothing reality for Virginia fans is that unlike football, Virginia can win a basketball national championship. However, it is going to look dramatically different than Kentucky, Duke, or Louisville who are more than willing to sell their basketball souls for another championship banner.
Virginia is different. Not just because it plays good defense and routinely wins games scoring less than 60 points. Virginia is different, in a good way, because it develops its players. It has seniors. Virginia signs kids who are solid top 100 recruits the nation, sometimes top 50 recruits…and then it frequently redshirts them. Devon Hall, Mamadi Diakite, Jay Huff, and Diandre Hunter were all top 100 recruits and they all have been redshirted or are redshirting.
Devon Hall is a redshirt junior. He is having the best season of his career. He is a leader on the team. He is an incredibly smart player. He plays ridiculous defense. At 6-5 he is developing into a solid offensive presence, both in the paint and out. He is stronger and more athletic than at any time in his career. Thanks to Tony Bennett’s system and the maturity of the kids he recruits; Devon Hall will be back next year. Tony Bennett traded what would have been a largely unproductive and frustrating freshman year for Devon Hall for what will be by far his best and most productive season…next season.
What makes Tony Bennett’s program so interesting and I would argue exciting, compared to the traditional college basketball blue-bloods-turned-opportunists, is that he is playing the long game. He knows he is not going to sign top 10 recruits unless one of those actually kid wants to actually go to college… and learn to play grueling defense before he shows off his windmill thunder dunk. To steal a baseball analogy, Tony Bennett plays small ball. He is not banking on big homerun hitters to win games with dramatic grand slams. He is going to hit singles, bunt, steal bases, hit & run to manufacture enough offense to win while his stifling defense frustrates the opposition into mistakes.
There are no surprises when kids come to play for Tony Bennett. The players are bought-in to the system and want to do what it takes to win in a proven system. They clearly like winning and do it a lot, despite the sheer talent stacked against them on any given night in the ACC. While Virginia is not often the Las Vegas betting line underdog based on the success of the program, Virginia is the non-NBA farm team underdog every season. Virginia is different, winning the hard way. Virginia has more in common with “Rudy” than the Fab-5 or Phi-Slamma-Jamma. Winning year in and year out using an unusual system with underdog kids has tremendous appeal. I think that’s a big part of why John Paul Jones arena is one of the most exciting venues in college basketball and Scott Stadium…is not.
The chatter amongst those who know basketball far better than me is that Jay Huff and Diandre Hunter have the most NBA potential of all the players on the Virginia roster. Neither will play a minute this season for a team that has at times struggled to close in games it clearly should have won. Why aren’t these kids playing now? Would Virginia have won one or all of the Villanova, Miami, Va Tech, or Syracuse games with a little help from these talented freshman? Probably, but it’s not part of the plan for Virginia basketball. It’s not how Tony Bennett plays the long game.
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Photo: David Rayner