By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Friday night he got to visit with Mike Scott after the Atlanta Hawks’ game against the Philadelphia 76ers at Philips Arena.
Saturday morning he watched with pride as his father, Dick Bennett, received the John Wooden “Keys to Life” Award at the annual Legends of the Hardwood breakfast.
Saturday night found him at the Georgia Dome for the semifinals of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament.
“It was awesome,” UVa coach Tony Bennett said of his weekend in Atlanta.
Two weeks have passed since Virginia ended its fourth season under Bennett with a loss to Iowa in the NIT quarterfinals. The Cavaliers finished 23-12 – the fourth consecutive year in which they won more games than they had the previous season. And they did so with only one senior in their rotation: point guard Jontel Evans, who missed nine games with a foot injury.
“There certainly were some positives,” Bennett said. “Our guys did some good things. We played real good stretches of basketball. We were close.”
The Wahoos tied for fourth in the ACC and won 21 regular-season games. Had they won 22, they might have well have earned an at-large invitation to the NCAA tournament. But after knocking off No. 3 Duke 73-68 at John Paul Jones Arena, UVa dropped road games to Boston College and Florida State before rallying to beat Maryland at JPJ in the regular-season finale.
Virginia then lost in the ACC tournament quarterfinals to NC State. A win in that game might have sent the ‘Hoos to the NCAAs.
“Everybody says, `After the Duke game, what happened? You lost some games,’ ” Bennett said Tuesday afternoon in his JPJ office. “And I go back to the BC and Florida State games, where we were a possession or two away. But as the season winds down, everybody’s a little worn down, a little tired, and your strengths really get exaggerated, and if you have any flaws, those show up too. And I think we saw some of that when we didn’t shoot the ball well.”
Watching Louisville, Michigan, Wichita State and Syracuse in Atlanta reminded Bennett of the importance of having players who can create shots for themselves.
“That was not our strength last year,” Bennett said, “and I think on the offensive end that maybe is an area we need to continue to improve in.”
Other than Evans, who could get in the lane but often struggled to finish at the rim, “we didn’t have those guys,” Bennett said.
All-ACC swingman Joe Harris “gets there maybe off of a screen, but that’s not the strength of his game, to just break guys down and get there. He does it a lot of different ways,” Bennett said.
“We were probably below-average at being able to create off the dribble, and I thought that at times hurt us when our shots weren’t falling or teams were really locked in to double-teaming on Joe or keying in on him. It made it a little more difficult.”
Harris, coincidentally, attended the Final Four with his father and was “blown away” by the experience, said Bennett, who felt the same way. “To go to the games in person, to drink in the atmosphere and feel the excitement of the Final Four, is awesome.”
As a coach, he said, it’s inspiring, “and it’s also a reality check when you see how good those teams are that advance. It’s a little bit of everything.”
Bennett was a volunteer assistant on the Wisconsin team, coached by his father, that reached the Final Four in 2000.
Watching the games in Atlanta last weekend, Bennett said, he could “see why those teams made it that far. There’s a few different components. You see first just the sheer talent and the ability, and that at times can take your breath away, how good they are, and it makes you know you’ve got to keep improving in that. And then you see the toughness and the effort. You see how good you have to be.”
Wichita State impressed Bennett with its maturity, defense, and unselfishness. “And then you see the Louisvilles, who are well-coached and so physically talented and play a high-possession game, and Michigan the same,” he said.
The relentlessness of Louisville big men Gorgui Dieng and Chane Behanan in the second half of the NCAA championship game Monday night also impressed Bennett. “I was like, `I hope A.G. can be sort of like that,’ ” he recalled the next day at JPJ.
Bennett was referring to Anthony Gill, the 6-8 forward who sat out this season after transferring to UVa from South Carolina, where he started 26 games as a freshman in 2011-12. Gill played at Charlotte Christian with Akil Mitchell, who as a UVa junior this season made the All-ACC third team.
Gill won’t be the only weapon Bennett adds next season. Malcolm Brogdon, the Cavaliers’ sixth man for most of the 2011-12 season, is expected back and could start at point guard. The 6-5 Brogdon had major foot surgery in March 2012 and redshirted while rehabilitating this season.
The Cavaliers also will have the services of incoming freshmen Devon Hall and London Perrantes. Hall, a 6-5 point guard whose brother, Mark, plays football at UVa, attends Cape Henry Collegiate School in Virginia Beach. Perrantes is a 6-1 point guard from Crespi Carmelite High in Encino, Calif., outside Los Angeles.
Bennett likened Perrantes’ game to that of Fred Van Vleet, a 5-11 freshman who was Wichita State’s No. 2 point guard this season.
Van Vleet scored 13 points in Wichita State’s round-of-32 upset of No. 1-seeded Gonzaga in the NCAA tournament. He had seven points against LaSalle in the Sweet 16 and 12 versus Ohio State in the NCAA quarterfinals.
“He’s real poised,” Bennett said. “London kind of plays like him: very under control, gets into the lane, makes plays, will knock down shots. Realistically, that’s what I could see him doing at our level as a freshman.”
The Cavaliers’ preparations for this season began June 12, 2012, when the team practiced for the first time. More intense practices followed in July, and then the ‘Hoos traveled in August to Europe, where they played five games against teams from the Netherlands, Belgium and France.
Once the season began, injuries and illness forced Bennett to shorten his rotation, and fatigue eventually took a toll on the team. The production of Harris, who averaged a team-high 32.5 minutes, dipped late in the season, and freshman forward Justin Anderson might have been the only Cavalier who played his best ball during the three-game NIT run.
“We rode some guys hard with heavy minutes,” Bennett said. “I asked a couple of our players, some of our sophomores and juniors, how they felt at the end of the year compared to their first two years, and most of them felt this was the most worn down they’ve been. And I think that’s because of how many games we played and how hard they had to play to be successful. Some teams can coast a little bit, but we had to be clicking on all cylinders to come away [with wins]. But I think having those extra practices in July and going on that tour certainly helped us.”
Classes end April 30 at UVa. Hall and Perrantes will arrive in early June for summer school, and the team will begin workouts with the coaching staff that month.
Since the season ended, Bennett has been meeting with his players individually to talk about their roles in the program. UVa will have the full complement of 13 scholarship players in 2013-14, and some won’t get as many minutes as they did this season.
“Everybody’s going to have to buy in,” Bennett said. “There’s going to be more big battles [for playing time]. That’ll be the big challenge next year.”
Virginia scored 2,248 points this season. The players who accounted for 2,138 of them — 95.1 percent — are expected back in 2013-14, and the `Hoos are popping up in the early preseason top-25 polls.
This should be a formidable team, and it will need to be. Notre Dame, Pittsburgh and Syracuse — all regulars in the NCAA tournament — are joining the ACC in 2013-14.
“You cannot question the jump our league is going to take,” Bennett said. “And then when [reigning NCAA champion] Louisville comes in the following year, you’re taking it to a level it has not been.”