After the Virginia basketball team picked apart his Monmouth club, coach King Rice sat down with media members and shared quite a bit of praise for the Cavaliers.
Rice discussed how UVA can make teams look bad on a given night, throwing in North Carolina and Duke as examples. He gave De’Andre Hunter a ton of credit for his big 23-point game. He pointed out how the Hoos play hard with a lot of effort throughout the game. It’s just the latest example of a coach coming into that press area at the John Paul Jones Arena after a loss like the Hawks’ 73-53 setback Sunday and giving glowing remarks about the Virginia basketball program.
Yet, one little nugget within Rice’s opening statement caught my ear that I thought really captured what Tony Bennett and the Cavaliers have built.
“He’s such a discipline coach, and when you’re watching his team play, you see it, but you don’t really see it until you’re out there with your kids,” Rice said.
Rice’s point was that Virginia plays the game with strong fundamentals, a clear purpose, an understanding of the game plan, dedication to both ends of the floor, and with unrelenting effort. When I heard that statement live, however, I thought he said ‘He’s such a disciplined coach.’ I’m not sure that one letter changes things too much, but it is what set off a train of thought about what that meant and how well it describes Tony Bennett.
Here’s a coach firm in his convictions, both on and off the court.
Bennett is unwavering with a commitment to defense, more specifically the Pack-Line defense. He requires players to give a continuous effort to it, while also nailing down the details needed for team defense. On the other end of the floor, Bennett preaches quality possessions and good shot selection. Players have freedom within those parameters based on their skill sets after they’ve demonstrated consistency. In regard to schemes, he prefers a system with heavy off-ball screens and shared responsibility.
Over the years, some observers wonder why he doesn’t throw in a zone or a press. Others wonder why he doesn’t run more on-ball screens and shoot faster with more transition. Critics don’t like the pace in general. Why not make a few allowances to gain in recruiting? Then there’s redshirting and how it fits into all of that.
Beyond the big picture things, there are in-game questions too. Virginia doesn’t often make sweeping adjustments within a game where a 1-2-2 zone appears or the offense becomes a drive-and-kick 3-point contest, though Bennett did dump the plans against UNC Wilmington in the NCAA Tournament and went with a five-guard lineup that the Hoos hadn’t even practiced. The adjustments are usually more subtle. Maybe the Hoos trap an on-ball screen or invert the offense to post up a guard.
None of that is earth-shattering. What UVA does on the basketball floor isn’t a secret strategy. Many coaches have similar approaches. Even the criticisms from outside observers, whether that is recruiting approach and rankings or pace of play or something else, aren’t without merit. There are different ways to run a program after all.
That’s where ‘He’s such a disciplined coach’ came to mind, though.
Among all the chatter outside of the John Paul Jones Arena about tempo, recruiting rankings, a style without the focus on a single ball-dominant guard …
Within the recruiting landscape dealing with corruption according to FBI charges this summer …
Competing against the likes of Duke and rosters full of early NBA entrants …
And more …
Bennett embodies what he wants out of his program. He stays disciplined. He’s steady. He’s patient. Nothing is heavily reactionary.
He made some adjustments on the floor to free up spacing for players to be more assertive, but he didn’t overhaul the whole system. He doesn’t waver on his defensive requirements. He doesn’t scattershoot offers across the recruiting world, sticking to multiple evaluations and his own in-person judgment.
Even within a season, Bennett maintains that discipline with what he believes is best for the program. Look at last season’s situation with Austin Nichols, who was dismissed after playing only one game despite more than a year of investment in development and the plans for how he would fit into the program’s play. Or Sylven Landesberg. On the other end of the spectrum, there are the decisions with redshirts even knowing the fodder that can create on the recruiting trail.
It’s particularly apropos right now too with the ongoing message board fascination that is Jay Huff. Or Mamadi Diakite. Or De’Andre Hunter. In the ongoing debate about who should start, why Huff didn’t play in the opening game, accelerating development, offense vs. defense, and the like, Bennett remains steadfast. “They are going to get their chances,” he said after the opener with UNC Greensboro but he might as well have been talking about any player after any game at any time in his tenure.
Those decisions are made by a disciplined coach too. He will study the video and information at hand, both in practice and in games. He’ll weigh pros and cons. He’ll evaluate long term and short term. He won’t rush into decisions. Measured as always, sometimes Bennett will be right and sometimes Bennett will be wrong. Coaching is an art in that sense and not a paint-by-number book.
And that all adds up to a successful program. Virginia has started the season 4-0 for the third time in four years. The Hoos are chasing their fifth straight NCAA Tournament berth. They’ve won a game in the Big Dance for four straight seasons. Bennett has won nearly 70% of the games he’s coached. He’s closing in on 200 wins at Virginia alone.
In other words, Bennett’s disciplined approach has made him pretty good at his discipline.