By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — At Washington State, Tony Bennett launched his career as a head coach with a 71-60 win over Alabama-Birmingham. The Cougars advanced to the NCAA tournament’s second round that season, 2006-07, and finished 26-8.
Bennett is making no promises that his first season at UVa will go that well. Asked this afternoon how good the Cavaliers would be in 2009-10, he said, “Don’t know. I honestly don’t.”
What we do know is that the Bennett Era here starts Nov. 13, when Virginia hosts Longwood at John Paul Jones Arena.
That will be the first opportunity for fans to see a Bennett-coached UVa team. The Cavaliers have no exhibition games this season. Instead, they’ll play two closed scrimmages.
The ACC released its 2009-10 men’s basketball schedule today, and the Wahoos will play 29 regular-season games, starting with Longwood and closing with ACC rival Maryland, March 6 at the JPJ.
UVa didn’t hire Bennett until nearly April, by which time part of the 2009-10 schedule was already set.
“We inherited a lot of those games,” he said, “and then we tried to add some good ones and make it a balanced schedule, with a number of BCS schools and some quality non-BCS schools.”
In recent years, such marquee non-conference opponents as Arizona, Gonzaga, Stanford, Syracuse and Xavier have played at UVa. The defending NIT champion, Penn State, visits the JPJ for a Big Ten/ACC Challenge game Nov. 30, but there’s not much sizzle to the Wahoos’ home non-conference schedule.
Virginia’s most attractive out-of-league games will be played in Mexico, Alabama and Florida. In the Cancun Challenge, UVa meets Stanford on Nov. 24. The next day, Virginia will face Kentucky or Cleveland State. The ‘Hoos will visit South Florida on Nov. 16 and Auburn on Dec. 7.
Of his scheduling philosophy, Bennett said, “I think you want to get yourself ready to play against great, great league competition, and you have to have a balance in the sense of home and road. I think you also have to look at your team as well.”
He inherited a team that finished 4-12 in the ACC and 10-18 overall in 2008-09, the Cavaliers’ fourth and final season under Dave Leitao.
Virginia’s top six scorers are back, led by sophomore Sylven Landesberg, the ACC rookie of the year last season. The team’s other veterans include four players who started at least 15 games apiece in 2008-09: senior guard Calvin Baker, junior forward Mike Scott, sophomore center Assane Sene and sophomore point guard Sammy Zeglinski.
“There’s some game experience in the group,” Bennett said. “There’s not been a lot of wins under the belts of these guys, but there is experience.”
On the trip to Cancun, UVa will face the challenge of playing two games in two days. That, Bennett said, will be good preparation for what the Cavaliers hope to face in the ACC tournament, which starts March 11 in Greensboro, N.C.
Win or lose in Mexico, the players should benefit from the experience. So should their coaches.
“You gotta find out at some point,” Bennett said. “You have to find out where you’re at. You’re sometimes better off learning about your team heading into conference play than not knowing where you stand.
“You’re always thankful for what you learn. Even when it’s hard sometimes, or when it’s good, you gotta know. You get exposed in certain situations, and then you go to work. Some people say, ‘Well, can you hurt your confidence too much?’ I think there has to be a balance. You take that experience and use it.”
New to the program, in addition to the coaches, are two freshmen: 6-8 forward Tristan Spurlock and 5-11 point guard Jontel Evans.
Bennett’s message to them?
“Be ready to go,” he said. “I think when a new staff comes in and everything’s new, as we always say, the slate’s clean in terms of opportunity to play. For young kids, old kids, it comes down to what you show the coaching staff. I just want guys who are bought into helping us win and being about trying to be the best team we can be, whoever that is.”