ELDER: In defense of Tony Bennett and Virginia
It doesn’t take a basketball savant to tell you the Virginia men’s basketball team’s 65-39 loss to Florida Saturday night was bad. Really, really bad.
In its most important game of the season, the Cavalier offense laid just about as big of an egg as you’ll ever see in the craziness of March Madness. The Cavaliers shot a pitiful 29.6 percent from the field, scoring their fewest points ever in an NCAA tournament game. Florida went on a 21-0 run stretching between the first and second halves — Virginia didn’t score a single point for 7:55.
Those who have followed coach Tony Bennett’s Cavaliers this season likely know this game was a reflection on Virginia’s limited roster, which Bennett tinkered with all year. But some in the national media chose to use this loss as an example of the shortcomings of Bennett himself.
Yahoo Sports columnist Pat Forde took to Twitter during the second half of Virginia’s defeat to throw in a dig at Bennett.
“Indiana fans who want Tony Bennett, please stand up,” Forde tweeted in reference to the head coach opening at Indiana after the Hoosiers fired Tom Crean March 16.
At 10:48 p.m., Forde felt the need to toss one more jab at Virginia before the night was over.
“Hey, Virginia almost scored 40,” Forde said. “Good job, good effort.”
As unbecoming and uninformed as Forde sounded, he was not alone in his criticism of Bennett’s style after the Florida loss. Washington Post sports columnist Barry Svrluga wrote on the difficulty of getting players and fans to buy into Virginia’s “methodical” approach which — he says — is “not the most attractive brand of basketball.”
As columnists, both Forde and Svrluga are entitled to their own opinions. Certainly, neither is wrong in saying Virginia’s performance Saturday night was anything short of uninspiring.
But to question Bennett’s credentials for other basketball openings — as Forde did — is foolish. Remember the uproar just last week when Illinois was rumored to offer Bennett a whopping $4.8 million per year in base salary? Previous Illinois coach John Groce made just $1.6 million last season. After an 18-16 record — including a 7-11 mark in the Big Ten — and a first-round exit in the NIT this season, do you really think Indiana wouldn’t welcome Bennett’s services?
Likewise, Svrluga’s argument doubting the program’s buy-in seems far-fetched. Few venues offer the home-court advantage of Virginia’s John Paul Jones Arena. Sometimes the biggest crowd eruptions come from forced shot clock violations — a direct reflection on Bennett’s style. And watching senior guard London Perrantes with his face buried in his hands, agonizing on the bench over the final minutes Saturday night sure seems like buy-in from the players to this columnist.
Many — myself included — have been very critical of the team and its struggles this season. Just last week, I noted how difficult it would be for Virginia to make it to the second weekend of the NCAA tourney. Both UNC-Wilmington and Florida are very good teams.
But to suggest Virginia’s shortcomings this season were in any way due to Bennett’s style is inaccurate.
Pundits who think otherwise are quick to forget that Virginia lost Malcolm Brogdon, Anthony Gill and Mike Tobey to graduation from last season’s team. The Cavaliers also endured the surprising dismissal of Austin Nichols, leaving another gaping hole in the frontcourt Bennett did not expect to have to fill either this season or next. Without bringing in NBA lottery picks, that talent is awfully hard to replace in a single season.
Under Bennett’s guidance, Virginia has won an NCAA tournament game for four consecutive years. The Cavaliers have earned an NCAA tournament No. 1 seed and won the ACC regular season title in two of the past four seasons. They won the ACC tournament championship for the first time since 1976 three years ago. Virginia also happened to make the Elite Eight and nearly the Final Four last season.
And on a team without any elite-level talent this season, Virginia still defeated Notre Dame, North Carolina and Louisville — twice.
“The thing that was frustrating is we really accomplished a lot this year,” Bennett said. “To end that way is obviously what really stings. It really does.”
The Cavaliers were undoubtedly flawed — they had no real post presence, no slashing guards or players who could consistently hit outside shots. But Virginia still won 23 games. Few coaches could accomplish such a feat in the ACC with Virginia’s roster. It also bears noting that two teams that joined Virginia in the Elite Eight last season — Oklahoma and Syracuse — did not even qualify for this year’s NCAA tournament.
Bennett knows this as well as anyone.
“Take this game away — and you can't take it away completely — but to finish 11-7, to win 23 games, to make the tournament, to advance with the inexperience and to stay together,” Bennett said. “I admired that about them.”
Unlike Forde and Svrluga, Virginia fans shouldn’t let Saturday’s defeat overshadow the job Bennett has done at Virginia. One loss, however bad, does not define a program. Bennett has made Virginia one of college basketball’s most respected teams. Expect the successes to continue.
Robert Elder was the 127th Sports Editor for The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter at @R_F_D_E.