By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — For Tony Bennett, his first season at the University of Virginia included an eight-game winning streak, a nine-game losing streak and, in general, more ups and downs than an elevator.
“It was a lot of everything,” Bennett said with a laugh. “It really was.”
The Cavaliers’ roster when practice opened last fall included forward Jamil Tucker, guard Calvin Baker and swingman Sylven Landesberg. None of those three accompanied the team to Greensboro, N.C., this month for the ACC tournament.
At various times during the season, Baker, Landesberg and center Assane Sene were suspended, and Tucker (academics) was dismissed from the team without making a 2009-10 appearance.
A high-ankle sprain cost power forward Mike Scott three games, and once he returned his production levels varied wildly. Inconsistency plagued guards Jeff Jones, Mustapha Farrakhan and Sammy Zeglinski for much of the season.
Center Jerome Meyinsse emerged, in the twilight of his college career, as a remarkably effective post player, and walk-on forward Will Sherrill earned a spot in UVa’s frontcourt rotation.
Jontel Evans struggled with his shot but proved to be a defensive stopper at point guard. Swingman Solomon Tat rarely played but provided leadership from the bench and in practice.
The Cavaliers’ season officially ended March 12 with a quarterfinal loss to eventual champion Duke at the ACC tournament. The only seniors left on the team by then were Meyinsse, Tat and walk-on Tom Jonke, but forward Tristan Spurlock, a seldom-used freshman, and Landesberg, the team’s leading scorer and a second-team all-ACC pick, left the program this week.
Spurlock is transferring to another school, and Landesberg, who had academic issues, plans to pursue a professional career.
In 2008-09, the Wahoos’ final season under Dave Leitao, they went 4-12 in the ACC and 10-18 overall. The ‘Hoos finished 5-11 in ACC play and 15-16 overall this season. They also won a game at the ACC tourney for the first time since 2006.
Expected back in 2010-11 are Scott, Zeglinski, Jones, Farrakhan, Sherrill, Evans and Sene, and they’ll be joined by a large and well-regarded recruiting class.
“These are the initial stages, and there’s some tearing down, even before foundations are laid,” Bennett said. “Sometimes there’s some hard things that the program has to go through, and those things have happened and are happening, and we’re starting hopefully to build.”
In an interview Tuesday night with VirginiaSports.com, Bennett reflected on his tumultuous first year and looked ahead to his second season.
White: You’ve had some attrition in your program. That was not unexpected, was it?
Bennett: “Everybody has their own philosophy. Some coaches come in and there’s a lot of changes made right away. The way I believe it works is, when you’re not real familiar with a program or the players in it, then this first year belongs certainly to the players. There’s evaluations that are going on. There’s relationships being built, there’s familiarity being established with the coach and the player, the player and the coach. I think sometimes you can be premature when you take over a new program and think things have to happen right away. I think you have to judge and see, and that way the players get a feel for you and decide if they want to be a part of what you’re doing, and vice versa from a playing standpoint.
“That’s why I always feel after that first year, at the end of it, you sit down with each player, you have an individual meeting with them with your staff, and you put everything on the table.”
White: What goes on in these meetings?
Bennett: “You’re very real with your expectations for the players. You talk about the areas that you like, the things that need to be improved. You ask the player what his expectations are and talk about what you potentially see the future looking like.
“No one can look into the future and say this is exactly how it’ll play out. But it’s very important that there’s a two-way communication. With all of our players that’s been the case. The parents are honestly involved with that, whether I have them on a conference call at the end of it and summarize, or if the parents are there [in person].
“It’s sort of a give and take. And then, if there’s some question marks, you always ask the question: Is this a place you can see yourself getting what you want — certainly from an academic standpoint, that goes without saying — but from an athletic-experience standpoint? Because every player’s competitive. They love to play, and they have aspirations. That’s kind of what takes place after the year, and that’s how a lot of decisions are made.
“Every program I see and I’ve been around, there is attrition, for different reasons: whether it’s getting closer to home, playing-time issues, not seeing quite the same vision that a coach has, academic issues. All those things come into play, and I just think it’s got to be a very real and candid time between a player and a coach and his staff and the family. It’s always about what’s best for the player, what’s best for the team.
“The bottom line is, there’s healthy conversations, and you gotta be on the same page, and that’s how the program will move forward. You want kids that really can see themselves fitting in.”
White: The team played well in its final three games of the season, all without Landesberg. How will the losses of Spurlock and Landesberg affect UVa in 2010-11?
Bennett: “Certainly with the departure of Tristan and Sylven, that leaves some holes that need to be filled, and I just want to pick up where we left off from the Maryland game to the Boston College game to the Duke game and, with the addition of the incoming players, start really forming a team that can be as good as it can be. And I think now we know where we’re at. I think after, for example, Sylven’s first year, there was a question, ‘Well, is he going to be here or not?’ He had a decision to make. And after his second year, Sylven had a decision, and has made a decision, about pursuing his pro career or coming back.
“That was always going to be an issue with Sylven, and then there’s always that decision regarding Tristan and others: ‘Do I see myself as part of this where I can really reach my goals and meet the needs that I have and fit in?’ I think every player has to make that decision. No one is chased out or run off; it’s not like that.”
White: How do you see playing time being allotted next season, especially in the backcourt, where you’ll have multiple options?
Bennett: “It’s what I do with my recruits, it’s what I do with my incoming recruits, it’s what I do with my players in the program: I will guarantee nothing. You will get what you earn.
“No guarantees. There’s seven perimeter guys competing for four or five spots. Two guys aren’t going to play. And the third might [not play much]. I [told the returning guards], ‘That’s the bottom line. At this level, that’s the reality of it.'”
White: Are you through recruiting for 2010-11?
Bennett: “We have a scholarship available now, and we’re going to do what’s best for our team. If we can find someone who we think can help us, we’ll definitely take a look at that. There’s always the option of banking it in next year’s class, but certainly we’re going to explore every option and continue to evaluate if there’s someone out there that we think can help us.”
White: Would you be interested in taking a transfer?
Bennett: “There’s so much to offer here. Again, we want to get the right kind of player, and if it fills a need, you take a look at it. Absolutely, we’re going to pursue options and see if there’s someone we can find that can help this program.”
White: Are you confident everyone in the program is now on the same page?
Bennett: “I hope so. As a coach and a staff, you continue to evaluate your program, and certain situations can change, but you evaluate where your program is at and the student-athletes in it and their commitment to the program and desire to move it forward, putting the team before themselves and then advancing themselves as much as possible in that process.
“Again, I think that’s why you always take that first year and let guys get familiar with you and your coaching staff, what your expectations are. I think that second year there’s not as much gray area in terms of what you expect from your players.”
White: You and your father endured a trying first season at Washington State. (The Cougars finished 13-16 in the Bennetts’ first year in Pullman). How did your first season at UVa compare to that experience?
Bennett: “It’s a little easier when you’re the assistant. When you’re the head coach, you’re really going through it.
“What was different about this year was, our start was modest, and then a third of the way through, with the start of the ACC, we got hot. I think some things broke right, and we found ourselves in a position where we were atop the ACC, and it was exciting, and it was a taste of hopefully what will come consistently. And then going through the stretch where we lost those nine games — some competitive, some really not — we had to start really examining, ‘Hey, where do we have to get better? What can we do to improve?’
“And then with the situation with [Landesberg’s] suspension, with the guys having to rally together, and then finishing with a solid showing against Maryland and a victory against BC and then a solid showing, for the most part, against Duke, at least it left a better taste in your mouth than if we just would not have been able to have any success.
“So there was a lot there, a lot to think about in the offseason, a lot to ponder, a lot to improve on. And then knowing you have a large class coming in, there’s a lot there to dwell on.”
White: How prominent will the freshmen’s roles be next season?
Bennett: “Again, the guys that are most ready to help us be as good as we can be will play, whether that’s the fourth-years, third-years, second-years, first-years. But there’s going to have to be some contributions from some of those [new] guys.
“Everybody will be fighting for that time. You always want competition, and certainly the guys with returning experience have an upper hand because of what they’ve been through, and they’ve played under me, so that should help. But we’re going to need something from these young guys, and they’ll certainly have opportunities, as will everybody in this program.”
White: Do you worry that losing Landesberg and Spurlock will hurt UVa in recruiting?
Bennett: “This program has so much to offer. I know that we respect the young men in this program. Playing time is always a sticking point or a touchy issue with certain recruits. As far as Sylven’s situation, his decision to go pro, I don’t think that will. We’ve tried to help develop [players], but there’s certain things we’re not going to bend on in this program, those things are established, and I think that can be a positive to some people, certainly, when you take a stand and say, ‘This is what our program will be about, and there are expectations.’
“Again, most programs lose players, there is attrition, and that’s a part of it. I think we treat players well. There’s a good relationship between Tristan and myself, and Sylven and myself. There’s not bad blood; these are just decisions made. One was a career decision. Well, they both were in essence. But one was leaving college to move on to professional aspirations. The other one was a healthy conversation, with all the facts on the table, and it was a decision that Tristan made because he thought it was best for his future, and his family thought that.”
White: Did your first season at UVa shake your confidence in your system or your belief that you can have long-term success here?
Bennett: “No. Quite the contrary. I think we saw the ability to be competitive with us getting started.
“I think every year, as I’ve said from Day One, you look at your personnel. You try to come up with a system, a style of play that best suits your team and gives you the best chance to be successful, and that is always evolving. Again, there will be some constants. Defensively, you’re going to have to be so good. But certainly I’ll look at this year and say, ‘OK, what can we do better in both areas to improve?’
“I look at the talent level and the competition and say, ‘Where were we deficient? What holes do we have to plug with recruiting, with personnel, and then from a system standpoint, what are some things we have to look at to be better and find ourselves? Where have we found ourselves laboring in games?’
“Next year will be unique with the mix of young kids and some returners, but I think seeing us have some success in stretches and be competitive [this season] gives you hope. And then, boy, when you go through [rough] stretches, you realize how competitive this league is. I got a look at both of them, but I see the potential that can happen here.”
White: [Strength-and-conditioning coach] Mike Curtis didn’t start at UVa until last June, so this will be his first full spring with the team.
Bennett: “I think that will be significant. His program changes. The first year is almost like our basketball program: It’s just laying some groundwork. He does some corrective training, but every year it goes up a notch, with the expectations and the workload and what they’re doing.
“You let them physically and mentally rest for a couple weeks [after the season], and then you start getting after it. I think the kids, even by themselves in the offseason when they’re away from us, can train more intelligently now. Not saying we’re going to do exactly the same things we did last year, but they can say, ‘I know offensively some of the kinds of shots I’ll get. I know what’s going to be required defensively. I understand those things the coaching staff values.’ So those are things that they can work on on their own, with a little more conviction and a little more certainty that this will equate to the play that will take place once the season starts.”
White: Did you get much positive feedback on the team’s play at the ACC tournament?
Bennett: “Yes. One of the main reasons I came to Virginia is, I really believe this is a place where my vision for this basketball program is in line and fits the vision that certainly Craig [Littlepage] has, and most — not all, you can’t please everybody — most of the alumni and the fans have, for how they want this program run and how it will be built.
“They know it goes in stages and steps, and when they see [performances such as UVa’s in Greensboro], and they see certain things that are moving in the right direction — maybe not from a results standpoint, but just from a quality standpoint — there’s tremendous backing.”
White: What do you think when you look at the NCAA tournament and see teams such as Cornell and Northern Iowa and Butler and Saint Mary’s winning?
Bennett: “It’s great. So much is made of recruiting [players whom analysts give] five stars and four stars. The bottom line in college is that there’s not as big a separation. It’s how kids develop and how teams develop that determine their success. Unified teams that show maturity and have guys that can shoot, certainly, and are willing to play together will compete against teams that appear to have more talent.
“But how do you define talent? It all comes down to what teams are playing the best. There’s always that saying: I’d rather have a team that plays great than has great players.”