By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — In Tony Bennett’s four seasons on the coaching staff at the University of Wisconsin, the Badgers went 83-46.
The first of those teams won 22 games and advanced to the Final Four. The last finished 24-8.
So Bennett had known nothing but success as a coach when he and his father arrived at Washington State in 2003 to try to revive a moribund program. He was quickly reminded that he wasn’t in Madison anymore.
“Tough,” Bennett said Tuesday night when asked about the early years in Pullman, Wash.
In the Cougars’ first season under the Bennetts — Dick was head coach, Tony his top assistant — they finished 13-16. Year No. 2 brought a 12-16 record, and the Cougars went 11-17 in 2005-06.
“It was hard yards,” Bennett recalled. “It was three years of just inching it forward, inching it forward, trying to establish the foundation, the things that’ll make a program good in the years to come.”
In Pullman, the breakthrough came in 2006-07, the younger Bennett’s first season as head coach. WSU went 26-8 and advanced to the NCAA tournament’s second round. In 2007-08, the Cougars reached the Sweet 16, and they made the NIT in 2008-09.
All of which helps UVa’s first-year coach deal with setbacks such as the one his team experienced Monday night in College Park.
Maryland led by 29 points late in the second half and coasted to an 85-66 victory, the Cavaliers’ most one-sided loss under Bennett.
“Certainly you have to draw on those [experiences at Washington State],” Bennett said. “It doesn’t make it feel any better. But this is part of it. We have a ways to go. We’re building. It’s a long-range project, and we’re thinking big picture. It just hurts when you feel like you take a step back.”
In 2008-09, the Wahoos’ final season under Dave Leitao, they went 4-12 in the ACC and 10-18 overall, and they were picked to finish 11th in the league in Bennett’s first year.
Heading into their Wednesday night date with Florida State (6-5, 18-7) at John Paul Jones Arena, the ‘Hoos are 5-5 in ACC play and 14-9 overall, so there are undeniable signs of progress.
Still, Bennett said, the Maryland game “was a humbling experience. It doesn’t mean we’re through with those. I hope we are. It always makes you step back and say, ‘We’ve got a ways to go.’ And that’s OK. That’s who we are. I just tell our guys, ‘Hey, let’s grow from it.’ But those can have a way of stinging you, and now there’s not much time [to get ready for FSU].”
Most disappointing for Bennett at Comcast Center was his team’s lack of effort on the defensive end. The Terrapins shot 70 percent from the floor in the first half and 56.3 percent for the game.
“I’ve complimented our guys time and time again about how hard they’ve played, and I thought our heart got taken from us in that Maryland game,” Bennett said.
The loss was the third straight and fifth in seven games for UVa. More challenges loom. After hosting FSU, UVa plays three of its next four games on the road.
Bennett has said from Day One that his focus this season is on quality of play, not wins and losses, and that hasn’t changed.
“We’re trying to build some things that will carry over,” he said. “Hopefully tough defense, hopefully soundness, hopefully things that we’re making progress on, but they don’t happen overnight, and you can’t assume they’re going to be there. Sometimes you do take steps back, and then you gotta regain it, work at it, reclaim it, and fight again, and that’s the process we’re in.
“We got off to such a good stuff [in the ACC], and you kind of think, ‘What could maybe happen?’ And now you hit a bump in the road, and it’s just a challenge.
“There’s no shortcuts to rebuilding. When you get off to a good start, you’re always hopeful, but you can’t stop the building process. You can’t take shortcuts to building habits that are hopefully going to set this program up in the long run to be consistent.”
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Bennett, like many coaches, prefers to hold out until the second half a player who picks up two first-half fouls.
That’s why Sylven Landesberg and Mike Scott spent much of the first half on the bench Jan. 23 at Wake Forest, which went into the break on a 15-0 run.
Five days later, at John Paul Jones Arena, Landesberg took a seat after being called for his second personal, and in his absence Virginia Tech closed the first half on a 15-5 run.
Against Maryland, Bennett showed he can be flexible. With 8:53 left in the first half, Scott picked up his second foul, and Bennett replaced him with Assane Sene.
After the Terps ran off seven straight points, Scott re-entered the game.
“It was getting out of hand,” Bennett said. “I just felt like we needed Mike at the time. It was worth the risk. We were having a hard time putting the ball in the basket, having a really hard time stopping them from laying it over the front of the rim or getting easy looks, and I thought, ‘It’s now or never.'”
Scott, who finished with 16 points and 6 rebounds, never picked up a third foul.