By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Tony Bennett has been employed at the University of Virginia for nearly 10 months, and he still hasn’t coached his first ACC basketball game.
His wait ends Saturday. UVa (8-4) plays its conference opener at noon.
The opponent: N.C. State (0-1, 11-4).
The venue: RBC Center in Raleigh, N.C.
The likely outcome: Who knows?
Twelve games in, neither Bennett nor anyone else has a great read on his team. The Cavaliers followed their best performance of the season — a 72-63 upset of then-No. 24 UAB on Dec. 30 — with perhaps their most disappointing: a 72-53 victory over lowly Texas-Pan American.
“A lot of your season is geared towards preparing you for conference play,” Bennett said after practice Thursday at John Paul Jones Arena.
“Certainly, being my first time through this league, I’m sure I’ll learn a lot of things. I don’t exactly know what to expect, except that when you get into high-level league play, nothing but quality play will keep you in games.”
Bennett came to UVa last spring from Washington State, where he’d been head coach for three seasons (and an assistant for three seasons before that). The ACC’s reputation played a huge role, Bennett said, in his decision to leave Pullman for Charlottesville.
“Having been an assistant in the Big Ten [at Wisconsin] and then an assistant and a head coach in the Pac-10, you want a chance to test yourself against the perceived best, and that certainly is this league, year in and year out,” Bennett said.
“You test yourself over the long haul, and that’s the challenge that you get. That’s the opportunity that you get. I think they go hand in hand, challenge and opportunity, whenever you play in a league like this. Because if you can do well in a league like the ACC, it really sets you up for some good things.”
Bennett’s counterparts in the Pac-10 included two coaches with ties to the ACC — Arizona State’s Herb Sendek (N.C. State) and Stanford’s Johnny Dawkins (Duke).
When he asked them about the conference, Bennett said, Sendek and Dawkins “talked about the things that everybody talks about: just how prestigious it is, and certainly so competitive.”
Against Florida last weekend, N.C. State had a terrific opportunity to enhance the ACC’s reputation. The Wolfpack instead suffered a heartbreaking defeat. State led the Gators 61-59 in the final seconds of overtime, only to lose 62-61 on Chander Parsons’ 75-footer at the buzzer.
Never, State coach Sidney Lowe said, had he experienced a loss so painful.
“That was the worst one,” Lowe said Monday morning. “Every loss hurts. But to have it happen that way, it’s tough.”
Some of the sting faded Wednesday night, when the Wolfpack whipped Holy Cross 87-70 in Raleigh. Twenty-four hours earlier in Charlottesville, UVa had earned a thoroughly unimpressive victory over UTPA, one of the worst teams in Division I.
“I thought we were taking steps in the right direction [before that game],” Bennett said. “Hopefully, we were just off and will come out better for N.C. State.”
He’s always thankful for a victory, Bennett said, but as watched his team stumble through the UTPA game, an old saying kept running through his mind: Don’t accept in victory what you wouldn’t accept in defeat.
“There’s some things that happened, that we worked on, that won’t hold up when we get into league play, and that discouraged me,” Bennett said.
“So you address it, you go to work and hopefully you improve on it when you step back onto the court. Being on the road is no easy thing, so we’ll have to be that much sharper, and I’m hoping that even though we won it left a taste in our mouths that we can’t come out with that kind of execution on both ends of the floor and expect to be successful, or competitive, in the ACC.”
In 2008-09, the Wahoos’ final season under Dave Leitao, they won only 10 games. So progress is evident. Still, they’ve been maddeningly inconsistent.
“It’s a long season,” Bennett said. “You gotta have an even keel. You don’t get too up when you have a nice win, and you don’t get too discouraged if it’s not a nice performance.”
Bennett said he looks more at the quality of his team’s play than at its record. Against UTPA “the quality wasn’t there,” he said. “Whether you win or lose, you always say, ‘Was there quality on the floor?'”
Asked at his press conference Tuesday night how it felt to be 9-4, Bennett smiled and said, “I wish we were.” He politely noted that the Cavaliers’ record was actually 8-4.
“If we’re 9-4, I’ll feel real good,” he said. “That’d be good.”
This is also the first ACC game for two of Bennett’s assistant coaches, Ritchie McKay and Ron Sanchez. Another assistant, Jason Williford, started at forward for Virginia in the ’90s, so he knows all about the rigors of conference play.
So do the UVa players, except for freshmen Jontel Evans and Tristan Spurlock.
“Every game is war out there,” junior forward Mike Scott said. “You can’t take any game lightly, in or out of the ACC, but ACC games, every one is a rivalry.”