Catching Up With Tony Bennett
May 21, 2015
CHARLOTTESVILLE — For the University of Virginia men’s basketball team, the 2014-15 season ended much earlier than head coach Tony Bennett would have preferred, with a 60-54 loss to Michigan State in the NCAA tournament’s round of 32.
The Cavaliers, seeded No. 2 in the East Region, finished with a 30-4 record, their second straight 30-win season. But the abrupt ending stung everyone associated with the program.
“When you have a team that you feel like has a chance to go far, you want to go far,” Bennett said.
“We thought there was more in the tank, but we ran into a very good Michigan State team that played well, that obviously beat some good teams and went to the Final Four themselves. So they were playing good ball. In all honesty, we were playing not our best. We weren’t playing poorly, but we weren’t playing at the level to maybe make [a deep] run.”
From 3-point range, UVa was only 2 of 17 against the seventh-seeded Spartans, and “when you shoot as poorly as we did, you’re going to have a hard time,” Bennett said. “And the fact that they guarded us hard too was part of that. They played really good defense. But even as cold as our shooting was, we were in a two-possession game there, so there were some chances.
“At the end of the year, you have to look at it and then take your hat off to [the Spartans] and say, `They got the job done, and we didn’t.’ “
Bennett, who has guided UVa to back-to-back ACC regular-season titles, has spent much of this spring on the road recruiting and speaking at Virginia Athletics Foundation events. He was in town Tuesday afternoon, though, and he covered multiple topics during an interview with VirginiaSports.com in his office at John Paul Jones Arena. Among them:
ANDERSON’S DEPARTURE: Justin Anderson, a 6-6 swingman, passed up his final senior of college eligibility to pursue an NBA career. He performed well at the NBA’s draft combine and is projected to be picked in the late first or early second round on June 25.
“It was a hard decision,” Bennett said. “I think I could have made a case both ways. There’s risks if he goes, there’s risks if he stays, there’s great reward both ways.
“He gave us a lot for three years. I loved how he improved, what he brought to the table, what he did for the University, how he helped us be successful. I’m just thankful for that. And now you want to see him launch his professional career in the right way, and if he can get into a good situation and find a good team that has a need for him, that would be terrific for him.”
Virginia would benefit, too, from adding Anderson to the list of its former players now on NBA rosters. Former UVa stars Mike Scott and Joe Harris play for the Atlanta Hawks and Cleveland Cavaliers, respectively. (Cleveland defeated Atlanta in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals on Wednesday night, with three members of Bennett’s staff in attendance at Philips Arena: Jason Williford, Ronnie Wideman and Vic Sfera.)
“There’s many different paths, or ways, to get into the NBA,” said Bennett, who played for the Charlotte Hornets for three seasons.
Another former UVa standout, forward Akil Mitchell, played in the NBA Development League this season. The only senior starter for the Wahoos in 2014-15, 6-8 forward Darion Atkins, figures to draw a pro paycheck next season, too.
Atkins might not get drafted next month, but he impressed at the recent Portsmouth Invitational Tournament.
“He’ll get invited to a lot of workouts [by NBA teams],” Bennett said of Atkins, “because they’ll be interested in him, and I think they’ll also sometimes say, `He’s such a good defender, let’s pair him against this [potential lottery pick] that we’re thinking of bringing in. Let’s see how this lottery guy does against Darion.’
“Sometimes that’s the best way to turn heads. So my hope is that Darion’s going to get into some situations here over the next three weeks where he’s going to impress them with some of the things he can do. I know he finished the year strong.”
NEW CHAPTER: For Bennett’s first six seasons at UVa, the core of his staff remained constant: associate head coach Ritchie McKay, assistants Jason Williford and Ron Sanchez, directory of player development Brad Soucie, and assistant athletics director for men’s basketball administration Ronnie Wideman.
In April, however, McKay returned to Liberty University for a second stint as its head coach, and Soucie followed him there as an assistant coach.
“I’m so excited for Ritchie to run his own program again,” Bennett said. “Brad, he did a great job in his position for us, but I think he was looking forward to being able to be on the court and go out and recruit, which he had done for so long [before coming to UVa]. I think to do that full time will be really gratifying for Brad.”
When he put his original staff together in 2009, Bennett said, he did not expect it to remain essentially intact for so many years.
“That’s been an ingredient to the success here, because that [stability] is important,” Bennett said. “I think it’s two-fold. It speaks volumes about the guys. They wanted to be part of this. They wanted to see it continue to go well. Secondly, it speaks to [the fact that] this is a good job. They’re very comfortable here. They’re challenged here. They’re rewarded in a lot of ways, and they can be a little more selective in their job choices.
“It speaks to the power of UVa. So I’m thankful for that.”
Brad Soderberg, who has been head coach at five schools, joined Bennett’s staff as an assistant last month.
BROGDON’S RETURN: As a redshirt junior in 2014-15, Malcolm Brogdon led the `Hoos in scoring (14 ppg) and was named a second-team All-American.
He’s in a five-year program in the Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy, from which he’s on track to earn a master’s degree in 2016. Still, Brogdon, a 6-5 guard, evaluated his options this spring and contemplated leaving this year to pursue a professional basketball career.
Harris did the same thing, Bennett said, before opting to return to Virginia for his senior year in 2013-14.
“After your junior year when you’ve had a lot of success, you look at it and say, `OK, what would be my opportunities?’ ” Bennett said. “You see guys that are being projected in good spots [in NBA mock drafts], and you think, `Maybe if I get a chance I can have some success.’ That’s a goal for a lot of these guys.
“The good thing about Malcolm is, it’s a goal, but he also has other goals. And it’s not like all his eggs are in one basket. So the fact that he could have it all and do it all, I think, is what brought him to the point of, `This is where I want to be.’ But I think it’s normal to say, `I wonder what I’d be projected as’ and `What is my draft status’ and `What are my opportunities?’ “
As a fifth-year senior, Brogdon “can do it all, in a way,” Bennett said.
“There’s nothing like your senior year and the camaraderie of the team. Justin will miss that, but there’s things you have to give up when you make that decision. There’s something about collegiate sports that is untouchable, and I think Malcolm’s going to have that experience. He’s going to be able to be a leader of this team. He’s going to be able to work on improving his game. He’s going to get his master’s, and then next year he’ll have that opportunity staring him right in the face, to go take that step to the professional level.”
EXPECTATIONS FOR 2015-16: Even without Anderson and Atkins, UVa is likely to begin next season ranked in the top 10 nationally. Five players who started at least 11 games each in 2014-15 are back: Brogdon, 6-8 redshirt senior Anthony Gill, 7-0 senior Mike Tobey, 6-8 senior Evan Nolte and 6-2 junior London Perrantes.
Perrantes, a two-year starter at point guard, made the ACC’s All-Freshman team in 2013-14. As a sophomore, he raised his scoring average to 6.4 ppg, but his shooting percentages dropped significantly, especially from 3-point range.
After making 43.7 percent of his long-range attempts as a freshman, Perrantes dipped to 31.5 percent last season.
Bennett expects more production from Perrantes in 2015-16, but that’s not unusual.
“I want more from every guy that’s returning,” Bennett said. “I think that’s important. I think it’ll be incremental, like it is every year.”
As an upperclassman, Perrantes will have a different status on the team. “Now you’re mature,” Bennett said. “You gotta take that next step.”
Perrantes and Brogdon were Virginia’s primary ballhandlers in 2014-15. With 6-5 guard Darius Thompson, a transfer from Tennessee who sat out last season, now eligibile, and Devon Hall, a 6-5 redshirt sophomore, having college experience, Perrantes could be used more on the wing.
“It will look different with London at times, and I think that can be positive for him,” Bennett said. “There’s a lot of keys to next year, but I think one of the significant ones is London taking that next step in his game.”
ELDER STATESMEN: In an era in which many of the best players leave college early, UVa’s rotation will include a pair of fifth-year seniors: Brogdon and Gill, a third-team All-ACC selection who averaged 11.6 points and a team-high 6.5 rebounds in 2014-15.
“It’s significant, that maturity,” Bennett said. “I think that’s been a key to our success.”
In 2011-12 and again in 2012-13, the Cavaliers tied for fourth in the ACC. In each of the past two seasons, they finished first in the league.
“All of these last four years there’s been some maturity [on the roster], and that’s been key,” Bennett said.
BIG OPPORTUNITY: From his first day at UVa, Tobey’s talent, especially at the offensive end, has been apparent. He’s had many memorable performances as a Cavalier, but consistency has eluded Tobey, who started 11 games and averaged 6.9 points and 5.1 rebounds last season.
How the `Hoos fare in 2015-16 figures to hinge to some degree on whether Tobey can shine as a senior, as Mitchell did in 2013-14 and Atkins did last season.
“You saw it with Darion in his last year,” Bennett said. “It was his to lose, that position, and I think Mike’s in a spot like that, too, where he’s now in his last year. He’s got maturity under his belt, and I think he’s really motivated and driven. He doesn’t have to be perfect. He just has to keep improving, like everyone.”
Bennett noted that Mitchell and Atkins weren’t the only Virginia big men to elevate their play as seniors. Jerome Meyinsse, Assane Sene and Mike Scott also did so.
“I’ve seen it with so many guys,” Bennett said. “I think that’s going to be important for Mike. He’s another key, he really is.”
BRUISE BROTHERS: Virginia’s frontcourt players in 2015-16 will include 6-11, 235-pound Jack Salt and 6-8, 250-pound Jarred Reuter. Salt, who’s from New Zealand, redshirted last season. Reuter, who’s from Marion, Mass., is an incoming freshman who’s now at Brewster Academy in New Hampshire.
“I think they’ll be our two most physical players,” Bennett said. “Now, Anthony [Gill] and Mike [Tobey] obviously are veterans, but that is Jack’s calling card. That is Jarred’s calling card. They’re bangers. Physical.”
Salt improved dramatically during his first year at UVa, Bennett said.
“Everybody’s different, but he reminds me, I think, of Assane [Sene],” Bennett said. “Assane was so active. He’d get people open, he’d help on defense, he was a great screener, he’d keep balls alive on the glass. He just was the consummate team player, and I think Jack has that.
“Jack can pass, Jack does some little things [offensively], and his game’s still evolving. But I told Jack, and the same with Jarred, anything they do in this next year is really icing on the cake. We want them to be ready when Mike and Evan and Anthony leave. But the physicality they bring is important.”