By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — If it took longer than many expected for the details of his new contract to be worked out, UVa men’s basketball coach Tony Bennett never doubted the deal would get done.
“There was no stress,” he said recently in his John Paul Jones Arena office.
Bennett’s fifth season at Virginia ended on March 28 at Madison Square Garden, where his team lost to Michigan State in the NCAA tournament’s round of 16. About nine weeks later, on June 3, athletics director Craig Littlepage announced the University had signed Bennett to a new seven-year contract that runs through the 2020-21 season.
“I know a lot of people were wondering, `Well, why isn’t this done?’ ” Bennett said.
That he and Littlepage and executive associate AD Jon Oliver were rarely all in town at the same this spring contributed to the delay, but Bennett wasn’t worried.
“We knew something was going to happen,” he said. “I’m so thankful that they are committed to this program.”
That commitment is reflected in the increased pay for the members of Bennett’s staff, including associate head coach Ritchie McKay, assistant coaches Jason Williford and Ron Sanchez, and director of operations Brad Soucie.
Bennett’s record at UVa is 106-60. In each of his five years, the Cavaliers have won more games than they did the previous season. In 2013-14, Virginia swept the ACC’s regular-season and tournament titles for the first time in program history.
“To do both, that’s a different animal,” Bennett said, and he believes that speaks to the potential of the program.
“You have a vision when you take the job,” he said. “You kind of have a plan in place. You hope that if things progress or goes as you envision, you’ll have a chance to touch those special things: conference championships, tournament championships, deep runs in the NCAA tournament, ultimately a chance at a national championship. That’s always the ultimate goal. But until you get close to it and knock on the door to it, you always wonder, `Can we?’ But [2013-14] just validates that it is possible. If things go well, it’s not as far away as you think.”
COMING AND GOING: In November, three players signed letters of intent with UVa: Jack Salt, BJ Stith and Isaiah Wilkins. Since the end of the season, Bennett has added two more players: 6-6 swingman Marial Shayok and 6-5 guard Darius Thompson.
The second session of summer school started Monday at UVa, and all five newcomers are enrolled.
Shayok, who’s from Ottawa, Canada, starred for Blair Academy in New Jersey as a 12th-grader in 2013-14. Thompson, who’s from Murfreesboro, Tenn., was a freshman at Tennessee.
Virginia had a history with each one. Shayok took an official visit to UVa last fall before signing with Marquette, which released him from his letter of intent this spring after head coach Buzz Williams left for Virginia Tech. The Wahoos were among the finalists for Thompson before he chose Tennessee in March 2013.
“So there was familiarity, which was important, similar to with Anthony,” said Bennett, referring to big man Anthony Gill, who transferred in 2012 to UVa, which had recruited him at Charlotte Christian School, from South Carolina.
“I think that’s important,” Bennett said. “You establish some things on the front end. It’s not just like a late addition without knowing anything about them or going blind.”
Thompson, who started 10 games for the Volunteers in 2013-14, must sit out the coming season, but he’ll be able to train with strength and conditioning coach Mike Curtis. Moreover, he’ll play an important role on the scout team in practice.
“He’s a little bit on the slight side, so he has a chance to really develop his body and his athleticism and his strength with Coach Curtis,” Bennett said. “That’s invaluable to have that year. We’ve seen that play out with Mike Scott and certainly A.G. and Malcolm [Brogdon]. And he’s got three years left, so he’s going to be more mature. He’s got game experience under his belt at the high-major level. He played in the NCAA tournament, the Sweet Sixteen, he started some games [for Tennessee] and he has a real good feel.”
Shayok’s predecessors at Blair Academy included Mike Tobey, now one of UVa’s top post players. Sanchez and Blair Academy coach Joe Mantegna are close.
“He’s an excellent coach, so you know how [his players have] been developed,” Bennett said.
Like Salt, Shayok wasn’t as heralded as some of his peers, but that doesn’t concern Bennett.
“He doesn’t have a lot of the gloss or the stars behind his name that some other guys do, but he’s very similar to Jack — just hungry, loves the game,” Bennett said. “Similar to Joe Harris, who didn’t have a lot of stars behind his name, nor did Akil [Mitchell]. Those are the guys we like, because they want to come in and make a mark, and they’re excited about being here.
“We didn’t have to try to twist their arm or beg. We just said, `This is the opportunity,’ and when the opportunity was in front of them, they really liked it.”
Shayok followed the `Hoos during the 2013-14 season, Bennett said, and liked what he saw.
“He even said, `I didn’t know a whole lot about you, but now after watching you this year, it makes me even more excited, and you guys are even more desirable,’ ” Bennett recalled.
“And so those are pluses. When you don’t have to try to beg, when you can say, `This is who we are,’ and when they’re excited and they really want to be a part of it, it’s wonderful.”
SPANNING THE GLOBE: Shayok won’t be the only player from outside the United States on the 2014-15 roster. Salt, a 6-10 center, is from Auckland, New Zealand.
“Virginia has a world-class and international reputation academically, and then there’s some more notoriety from a basketball standpoint,” Bennett said. “The world’s shrinking with [technology], and [prospects can see] a bunch of games.
“Some of the European prospects we’ve recruited, they’ve been able to watch a lot of our games on-line, and that’s all positive.”
BACK TO WORK: All 13 of Virginia’s scholarship players are enrolled in this session of summer school, and the coaching staff can work on the court with the players two hours each week. The first practice is Tuesday.
“I think this’ll be a little different summer,” Bennett said. “For one, I’ll be here.”
Last July, Bennett was an assistant coach on the USA Basketball team that won the gold medal at FIBA’s under-19 world championships in Prague, Czech Republic. Tobey was one of the U.S. players, and he and Bennett missed several weeks of practice in Charlottesville.
“Last summer there were some things we were unsure about [as a coaching staff],” Bennett recalled. “We were always working on developing skill and making improvements, but we were dabbling a little bit with some changes to [the offense].
“I would never say anything’s a waste of time, but I think this year we’re a little more certain of what we’re going to do, how we’re going to do it, and I think that’ll help the younger guys get up to speed quicker.”
Also, Bennett said, “I think it’s a significant summer for a number of our players in terms of their individual game improvement, taking another step. It doesn’t have to be a major step, but another step.”
Among those in that group, Bennett said, are juniors Justin Anderson, Evan Nolte and Tobey. In terms of athletic eligibility, Gill and Malcolm Brogdon are also juniors, but each in his fourth year of college.
“When you go from being an underclassman to an upperclassman, now you’re without excuse, we like to say,” Bennett said. “You’ve been in the program for two years. You’re going into your third, and there’s got to be some jumps for those guys. They have to be extremely hungry, and my hope is the success that they had [in 2013-14] makes them more hungry, because again we got stopped short of where we wanted to go, and that should really drive them to be better. If they’re resting on their laurels, if they’re thinking, `Well, that was something’ and feeling good about it, then it’ll show pretty quickly.”
At this time last summer, there was little doubt that Harris and Mitchell would have significant roles in the season ahead.
“Well, now those are two spots that are gone,” Bennett said. “Whether it’s four guys absorbing those minutes, whether it’s three guys, it’s not as clear-cut who’s going to be penciled in for those spots. I think that’ll be really good from a competition standpoint this summer and fall. Guys will go at each other, and it’ll start shaking out as we get closer to playing. But I like it, because I think they’ll be hungry guys. There’s some nice length and athleticism and talent here.”
Before his veterans left town at the end of the 2013-14 school year, Bennett said, “I told them: `We get better if you get better individually.’ The onus is on them to have a hunger and a drive that’s intrinsic. You’ve got to be driven to take that next step with a reckless abandon individually.
“It’s that skill development, that strength and athleticism development, and if they individually get better, then we’re going to be better as a team collectively. But there is a price you gotta play, and there’s no substitute for putting the hours in in the gym and honing your skills and improving in areas you need to and making the ones you’re good at better. And the guys that work hard and have a tenacity, it’ll show. And the guys that are lukewarm, it’ll also show.”