There is a clip from a San Antonio Spurs game where point guard Tony Parker stands in a huddle with coach Gregg Popovich having a discussion before he heads to the bench to a lead a huddle. It’s a sign of a team leader having the trust of the organization from the head coach all the way through his teammates.
As Tony Bennett talked with reporters Thursday to revisit his team’s tour to Spain earlier this month, he recalled a story with senior point guard London Perrantes that described a similar image.
”We were up big in one of our games and he asked one of our coaches, ‘Hey look can I address the guys for this fourth quarter’,” Bennett said. ”I pretty much put all the first years together on the floor and London – I think we were up quite a bit – he spoke to them without us coaches and I know his message was ‘Don’t take this for granted. This isn’t a time to show off your fancy stuff. You better work defensively. You better understand what we’re trying to establish.’ I saw him do some things like that I thought were very valuable because he does have a big voice and he has the attention of this team.”
Of all the moments in Spain, it may have been one of the most important ones. The voices from the turn-around crew for the program have all left. Malcolm Brogdon, Joe Harris, Justin Anderson, Akil Mitchell – some of the strongest voices in the locker room in early years – each finished their time as Hoos while Perrantes matured.
Now the California cool freshman is the lone senior scholarship player on the roster and the leadership mantle starts at his locker. As the starting point guard for a program with 89 victories over the past three seasons, he’s earned that right through his critical role in all of the success. That gives him a powerful voice in the program. Perrantes, who took last season’s Elite Eight loss hard, knows that and so does Bennett.
In the practices leading up to the Spain trip, Virginia’s coach challenged and encouraged Perrantes to step up in that regard.
”He knows how important that will be,” Bennett said. ”He’s obviously got the experience and he’s a very good player. I told him in the practices, you have the attention of this team. They respect your ability to play the game. You’ve proven it. I said ‘You really have a voice.’ He and I are similar. Try to encourage, but demand. He’ll twist the knife on you if he sees something in a game or he makes a play, [or] in practice, and a guy does a bone-headed thing he’ll say ‘C’mon!’ He’s real competitive. He’s very obviously, and we talk about how calm he is on the exterior, but he’s got a fire inside. He really wants to win. He’s competitive. I challenged him with his voice.”
As important as that growth is this offseason, the coaches got a chance to see a lot of new pieces play in Spain and that too will pay dividends as the season approaches. The staff decided to sit players for each of the five games and rotated only 10 players in any given outing. Perrantes and Isaiah Wilkins, the two players with the most experience, sat twice, but almost everyone else played in four of the five games. Bennett indicated that the decision was made to keep minutes evenly spread as well as to give players extended stretches on the floor. The coaches felt that was better for the players’ rhythm as well as the staff’s evaluations.
The Cavaliers won all five games, though Bennett said he thought the competition level compared to the 2012 trip wasn’t as high. The Hoos went 2-3 on that tour of The Netherlands, Belgium, and France.
Virginia took video of each game and can now use that footage to further study its roster for the upcoming season. So while the live action was nice, the 10 practices before the trip and the regular preseason workouts after the fact may be the more valuable pieces from a basketball preparation standpoint. Bennett said that the coaches would use that video to personalize workouts for each player during the preseason build-up.
”You’re getting the actual video from games where you see habits, things that need to be addressed,” Bennett said. ”We took a little time off since we’ve been back, but we’ll pick a couple of things we saw for each guy offensively and defensively that maybe it would be good to hone in on and address in a real concentrated manner for maybe a week, a week and a half, two weeks of some of this preseason time. … I think you see some habits or patterns … that this person needs to address or work on that we can really emphasize before we get into the full on training and practices.”
The ability to see some of the new players in live game action for Virginia could be a valuable tool. Austin Nichols and Mamadi Diakite each redshirted last season – Nichols as a transfer and Diakite as an early enrollee – so this was some of their first official action for the team. Nichols led UVA in scoring in Spain at 13 points per game and he averaged 5.8 rebounds as well.
”Austin did a nice job,” Bennett said. ”Austin’s played two years in college at Memphis. … He’s a real nice piece of the puzzle for us. One of the reasons we looked to get a transfer … is a guy that has that kind of game experience with the departure of Anthony Gill and Mike Tobey in the front court, hopefully a guy like Austin Nichols with his experience and talent can give us that. It was nice to see him do some things.”
Kyle Guy, Jay Huff, De’Andre Hunter, and Ty Jerome, the four freshmen in this recruiting class, have joined the program too. Diakite’s early enrollment pulled him out of that list, but he really could be considered part of that group as well. Hunter played in all five games in Spain. Guy averaged 10.3 points, second behind Nichols. Huff, Hunter, and Jerome checked in with 7.8, 7.6, and 6.8 point averages too.
Diakite led the team with 6.3 rebounds per game and he added 6.3 points too. He also blocked six shots. Huff blocked seven. Jerome made 6 of 14 3-pointers, while Guy hit 5 of 10.
All in all, it’s a five-man freshman group that has a lot of Cavalier followers excited.
”Mamadi’s upside and his talent is very high,” Bennett said. ”Similar to guys like Akil [Mitchell] and Darion [Atkins] from a defensive standpoint who are so quick off the floor and can block shots and do some things. Mamadi has a nice touch with his shot offensively and showed some things. It’s just a matter of getting consistent and tying it together. I say with all those young guys it’s maybe more a matter of not if, but most likely when they really take off and come together. … As a group, that’s a nice group of five guys. If there’s a level of patience and a real hunger to develop, that could be a really nice class whenever the time is right. As far as in the immediate, we’re probably going to need a couple of those guys whether it’s one, three, who knows, you just never know, they’re going to have to give us some time this year with the returners. There will be good competition for playing time of course, but I like the potential – which I don’t get too hung up on – but I do like the upside with that asterisk of are you going to remain incredibly hungry and have a level of patience to get to the right spots.”
Beyond the basketball, of course, the trip provided an opportunity to experience a different culture and bond with teammates. The Cavaliers visited places such as Madrid, Toledo, Albacete, Valencia, Barcelona, Getafe, and Sant Julia de Vilatorta.
Along the way, they saw the Royal Palace in Madrid and the Basilica de la Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. They visited two bullfighting rings. They received a private tour of Real Madrid’s training facility and watched Lionel Messi play for FC Barcelona.
”I was in there absolutely,” Bennett said. ”That was amazing. Those things we got to experience, to see the Basilica in Barcelona de la Sagrada, being in the Mediterranean, seeing the training facility in Real Madrid, and going to the Barcelona game watching Messi play – those experiences, it really was such an enjoyable trip that way.”