By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — In 1989, a sweet-shooting left-hander from the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay played for the North basketball team in the U.S. Olympic Festival.
Two years later, that same point guard performed on a much bigger USA Basketball stage, playing on the U.S. team that won the bronze medal in the Pan American Games in Havana, Cuba.
Tony Bennett, now the University of Virginia’s third-year coach, still treasures his memories of those experiences. So when he had an opportunity to work with USA Basketball as a coach this summer, he didn’t hesitate.
At the end of the July recruiting period for Division I hoops, Bennett left the evaluation of prospects to his assistants — Ritchie McKay, Ron Sanchez and Jason Williford — and flew to Colorado Springs, Colo., to be a court coach for the U.S. team that left today for the World University Games, Aug. 13-22 in Shenzhen, China.
Bennett spent July 29, 30 and 31 in Colorado Springs, after which the squad was cut from 20 players to 14. The final 12-man team was announced Wednesday.
“It’s intense,” Bennett said last week at John Paul Jones Arena. “It was 20 really good players, and they were all desperate to make the team.”
The court coaches, whose work with the team was limited to three days in training camp, were Bennett, Arizona’s Sean Miller and VCU’s Shaka Smart. The staff that’s overseeing the team in China consists of head coach Matt Painter (Purdue) and assistants Cuonzo Martin (Tennessee) and Brad Stevens (Butler), all of whom were at the training camp in Colorado Springs.
Bennett and his fellow court coaches took part in “four intense training sessions, about 2½ hours each,” he said.
“Then after each session we’d go into the ‘war room,’ or whatever you want to call it. We’d go into the room with a white board and talk about, ‘OK, here’s what we see. Here’s what we think.’ We’d put the players on the board and talk about, ‘Here are the positions we need. What are we looking for, for this team? Coach Painter, what are you looking for?’ We were all able to observe and put input into it and talk about each player.”
Bennett believes his recent interaction with some of the nation’s most respected coaches will help him at UVa.
“Absolutely. We went to lunch and dinner each day and talked hoops,” Bennett said. “Certainly we talked about the [U.S.] team and what we were doing, but you pick up new ideas and talk about things.”
The head coach of the Pan Am team for which Bennett played in 1991 was Gene Keady, Painter’s predecessor at Purdue. Sitting in the war room in Colorado Springs “drew me back,” Bennett said. “I wondered when I was playing in ’91 if the coaches were like, ‘OK, Bennett, he’s on this line. No, he didn’t look good in this session.’ I was kind of cracking up thinking about that.”
When he returned to Charlottesville, Bennett shared with his players the highlights of his experience. He’d been thinking about them throughout his stay in Colorado Springs, wondering how UVa’s top players might fare in that setting.
“I said, ‘If you have a weakness, it gets exposed pretty quickly in those kinds of settings. If you can’t handle the ball, if you’re a little shaky with your feel and you’re unsound, you’ll look bad, because you’ll turn it over against the pressure, because everybody’s guarding hard. If you can’t guard a guy and keep him in front of you, he’ll blow by you,’ ” Bennett recalled.
“Of the guys that didn’t have great athleticism, which was very few, the ones that did well were usually terrific shooters, and they still knew how to play. The guys that were good, they understood their strengths and they stuck to those.”
The final roster includes Minnesota big man Trevor Mbakwe. One of the Cavaliers’ most memorable victories in 2010-11 came at the Golden Gophers’ expense in Minneapolis, a game that Mbakwe brought up with Bennett in Colorado Springs.
“He goes, ‘You guys shot the lights out on us,’ ” said Bennett, who chuckled at Mbakwe’s reference to “that young white guy who was making all those shots.”
That guy was, of course, freshman swingman Joe Harris, who hit 4 of 6 attempts from beyond the arc and scored 24 points in UVa’s 87-79 victory. “I told Joe in front of the team, ‘You were the young white guy,’ and they all laughed,” Bennett said.
Bennett’s teammates on the Pan Am team included Grant Hill, Jimmy Jackson and Christian Laettner. Bennett recently ran into Hill in Orlando, Fla., and they reminisced about their time together in 1991.
“That’s the bond you remember forever when you play on one of those teams,” Bennett said. And that’s why he speaks so highly about USA Basketball to his players at UVa.
“I told every one of them, ‘If you ever have a chance to get invited to a tryout for a USA Basketball team, whether it’s the under-19s, the World University Games, the Pan Ams, whatever, do it,’ ” Bennett said.
“What a chance if you can make it, and even if you get cut. I talked to a couple of those guys [cut in Colorado Springs], and I said, ‘This can be a tremendous springboard for you. Write down what you gotta go work on, because you get exposed.’ You figure it out: This is where it’s at.”