By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Rick Carlisle is always welcome back at his alma mater, especially in John Paul Jones Arena. Tony Bennett would love for Carlisle to talk to the UVa men’s basketball team.
“If it’s ever possible, yeah, but he’s in high demand right now,” Bennett said with a smile Wednesday.
Indeed, Carlisle’s profile may never have been higher. This UVa graduate (Class of ’84) is head coach of the Dallas Mavericks, who this month knocked off the Miami Heat in the NBA Finals.
“I think he was such a great model for so many coaches,” Bennett said, “but specifically for our team. [The Mavs] certainly had talent, with [Dirk] Nowitzki and all the other players, but they were really guys that accepted their roles, did what it took to make the team successful, and then beat a team probably with more talent. He referred to it sometimes as ‘old-school ball.’ He said, ‘We’re just a bunch of old-school ball players. We want to be good and do what it takes.’ It was exciting to see, and it validated the power of a unified team.”
Carlisle was a co-captain on the UVa team that reached the Final Four in 1984. He also won an NBA title as a reserve guard for the Celtics in 1986.
Bennett is heading into his third year as UVa’s coach. Before he came to Charlottesville, Bennett had met Carlisle, but they didn’t have a chance to talk at length until a couple of years ago, when Carlisle came in for the NBA Top 100 camp at JPJ.
“He spoke to the NBA players that were coaching here,” Bennett recalled, “and then he came up to the office, and we visited for over an hour.”
Bennett laughed. “A lot of it, we talked golf and the mechanics of the golf swing. He’s a golf nut. So we talked about a lot of golf, and basketball. He was really gracious to spend that much time with me and real enjoyable to talk with. And he’ll occasionally give me a call or send me a text, just to touch base, and I’ll try to do the same.”
If Bennett’s players were not aware before this season of Carlisle’s ties to the University, they are now.
“Any time a UVa alum is successful in sports, specifically basketball, coaching or playing, but any endeavor — an academic pursuit, a business pursuit — we always try to highlight that to our team and say, ‘Look at what this institution has produced, in every aspect,’ ” Bennett said. “And that’s a powerful testimony for this school, for what can be achieved. And then when you have a guy like Carlisle who played and coached and whose picture they see every day when they’re walking from their locker room to the practice gym, it validates it. And how he goes about it. It’s not so much the success he had, but the process and the way in which he achieved that success that’s right in line with what we’re trying to do.”
ROLE MODELS: The accomplishments of Brian O’Connor‘s baseball team, which advanced to the College World Series this season, have not gone unnoticed in the basketball offices at JPJ. That’s been another teaching point for Bennett with his players.
“We just talked about how successful they’ve been and how they’re such a team,” Bennett said of the baseball Cavaliers. “They’re so sound. They eliminate losing. They don’t beat themselves, and they built it with character guys and have established a program that’s becoming a dynasty.”
LEARNING EXPERIENCE: The Wahoos’ second season under Bennett ended with a devastating defeat in the ACC tournament’s first round. Virginia lost 69-62 to Miami in overtime after blowing a 10-point lead in the final 40 seconds of the second half.
Can the ‘Hoos somehow turn that disaster into a positive?
“Absolutely,” Bennett said. “It can fuel the fire for that desire to be better and improve in the offseason. You have to use it that way. Individually, by working on becoming a better shooter at the free-throw line, being sure with the ball, playing to the final horn, just looking at all those areas. But it’s more of a motivational piece to really fuel that fire. It’s not your only motivation, but you use that and remember how [the loss] stings.”
Bennett has reviewed videotape of the game’s decisive sequences many times, though not recently.
“I want to enjoy some of my summer,” he said with a laugh. “But no, certainly you watch it, you learn from it. But there’s a point where you’re beating a dead horse. The outcome’s not going to change. But I watched it quite a bit. That’s something we hopefully will use to improve on when we get in those spots again. You watch the NBA playoffs, the College World Series, tournament play, and we talk about the idea of eliminating [the things that cause] losing and not beating yourself.
“In that Miami game, we beat ourselves. Certainly [Miami] made some plays, and that was a perfect storm, but when we’re missing free throws and turning it over, we’re doing some things that beat ourselves. And we talk about how, if you just eliminate those areas, you’ll be surprised how good a team will be.
“I think when a team understands that, then you become really good. It’s always interesting to see how many teams will beat themselves, and we’ve done that enough times. We’re not going to be perfect, but we’ve got to eliminate that more and more. Then you start focusing on things that help you win, but you’ve got to start with those first.”
NEW KIDS IN TOWN: The players who signed with UVa in November — guard Malcolm Brogdon, small forward Paul Jesperson and power forward Darion Atkins — have been in Charlottesville since the middle of this month. They’re training with Mike Curtis, Virginia’s strength-and-conditioning coach for basketball, and taking summer-school classes.
“It seems that they’re fitting in well,” Bennett said. “I asked them, and they said, ‘These are long days.’ When you add the volume of their workouts with Coach Curtis, and their pickup ball [with the team’s veterans], and then the intense classroom work, it’s a long day.”
Joe Harris, KT Harrell, James Johnson and Akil Mitchell went through the same regimen as newcomers to UVa last summer.
“Now they’re a year removed,” Bennett said, “and they’re so much more comfortable and better adjusted, because they kind of know what to expect. They’ve been through it. Where with the young guys, they kind of smile and say they don’t quite know what they’re in for. You can’t. The only way you can go through is to get the experience and learn some of the things that it’ll teach you, the volume of work, the intensity through the season, through the summer stuff. But they seem to like it. They’re a hard-working group. They seem to get along well with each other and their teammates. They’ve got a lot of things in front of them, and how quickly they’ll adjust to the learning curve will determine how early they can contribute.”
WARM RECEPTION: NCAA rules prohibit Bennett from commenting publicly on prospects who have not signed letters of intent with UVa. He’s delighted, though, with the way recruiting is going and said the response the Cavaliers are getting from players and coaches around the region has been encouraging.
“The reason why is, time has elapsed,” Bennett said. “There’s relationships that are being built that are stronger. There’s now a familiarity, and it’s a little more like people are saying, ‘OK, this is what they’re about. This is what they’re trying to do.’
“They’ve seen some of our successes and some of our failures, and it’s not an unknown quantity as much, and they’re getting to know you a little more: the players, the AAU coaches, the high school coaches. And this place sells itself in a lot of ways. But they maybe see some improvement [from the Cavaliers]. And so I think all those positive things can help get the attention and build the relationships. Like I said, it takes time to get that. Sometimes it’s harder with more of the local guys, and the closer ones, to break down some barriers or get them as interested, because they have a little more perceived knowledge of your situation. So when you have a little time to build those relationships, it can be positive.”
Like his peers around the country, Bennett will spend much of July on the road recruiting.
HEIGHTENED EXPECTATIONS: In two seasons under Bennett, Virginia is 31-31. A .500 record in 2011-12 would be a major disappointment. Mustapha Farrakhan and Will Sherrill graduated, but UVa returns the other key players from its 2010-11 team — Harris, Mitchell, Harrell, Mike Scott, Assane Sene, Sammy Zeglinski and Jontel Evans — and Johnson is coming off a redshirt year.
UVa will be projected to finish in the ACC’s upper half this season, though that’s not a subject Bennett has broached with his players.
“What I’ve talked to them a little bit about in the spring and the times we’ve talked [recently],” Bennett said, “is, ‘Keep taking steps to improve. You should be a better team in your third year than you were last year. You’ve got more experience back, the guys that will be going into their third year in this system. There’s playing experience. There’s maturity. There’s some nice pieces in place, so let’s improve, and let’s make the most out of this offseason so we’re better [in 2011-12].’
“We just want to be a better team. How that plays out in terms of wins and losses and where we finish, that certainly will take care of itself. But I want us to take a step with this team and be an improved team in a lot of aspects.”