REKULAPELLI: Tony Bennett is one of the best college basketball coaches at player development

The Virginia coach has developed lightly-recruited players into stalwarts for a winning program

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Virginia basketball coach Tony Bennett has built a winning program without the five-star recruits other elite coaches have at their disposal. Richard Dizon | Cavalier Daily

Almost 10 years ago, Tony Bennett dialed up Craig Littlepage, former Virginia athletic director, to turn down Virginia’s offer and continue coaching at Washington State. Yet, according to the Daily Press, Bennett’s wife, Laurel, encouraged him to take more time in making his decision — time that has led to four ACC regular season championships, two ACC Tournament championships, four ACC Coach of the Year awards, two Henry Iba Awards, an AP National Coach of the Year award and seven NCAA Tournament appearances.

When looking at his numerous personal and team accolades, the common college basketball fan may attribute Bennett’s success to the quality of his recruits — as is often the case for household name coaches like Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski, Kansas’s Bill Self and Kentucky’s John Calipari. Year after year, these coaches recruit five-star talent, bringing in the likes of freshman phenom forward Zion Williamson, 2014 number one overall pick Andrew Wiggins and NBA wonder Anthony Davis, respectively. 

Bennett, on the other hand, has never recruited a five-star player to Virginia. Players that are now nationally recognized, like sophomore guard De’Andre Hunter and junior guard Ty Jerome, were four-star recruits, and senior center Jack Salt and freshman guard Kihei Clark were three-star recruits. Looking back further, 2017 NBA Rookie of the Year Malcolm Brogdon had his best offers from Notre Dame and Virginia, and 2019 NBA Three-Point Contest champion Joe Harris was a three-star recruit out of Chelan, Wash., a mountain town of 4,000 people. 

So the question remains, how has Bennett replicated this success without big-name recruits? The answer is player development. What often differentiates Bennett from coaches like Krzyzewski, Self and Calipari and arguably makes him a more impressive coach, is his ability to find those “diamond in the rough” players and develop them together into a great basketball team. 

Take the 2013-14 Cavaliers — Bennett’s entrance into the college basketball spotlight — for example. Virginia came into the season ranked 24th but quickly dropped from the rankings after losing to No. 14 VCU. However, once ACC play started, the rest was history, as the Cavaliers went a spectacular 16-2 in conference and entered the tournament ranked sixth in the nation. 

What happened next is forever engraved in the memories of Virginia fans, as Virginia — led by three-star recruit Joe Harris and four-star recruits Malcolm Brogdon and Justin Anderson — defeated No. 7 Duke in the ACC Championship game, a team with 10 top-100 recruits. 

From there, Harris, Brogdon and Anderson have all found places on NBA teams, with Harris and Brogdon starting for the Nets and Bucks, respectively. Harris is one of the most lethal three-point shooters in the NBA, defeating three-point magician Stephen Curry in the NBA Three-Point Contest and shooting 46.3 percent from the three-point arc. Brogdon has served as a sort of Swiss army knife for the Bucks, shooting 92.8 percent from the free-throw line and over 50 percent from the field while averaging almost 4.5 rebounds and 3.2 assists per game. 

This is to the credit of Bennett’s all-encompassing coaching style that emphasizes offensive and defensive efficiency — teaching players to play the game in its entirety rather than only serve the team in a few particular ways even as a starter. Brogdon and Harris were never known just for their lights-out shooting and court vision but also their relentless defense and workhorse tendencies. 

The same scenario was true last year, through ACC play and the ACC Tournament, as Virginia, with four top-100 recruits, went 17-1 in the ACC and won the ACC Tournament, defeating teams like Duke and North Carolina, who combined for 15 top-100 recruits. 

Players like Devon Hall, who was a three-star recruit coming into Virginia, and Jerome, a lightly recruited four-star recruit, burst out onto the national scene. Hall, in particular, quickly developed over his four years as a guard with excellent court vision and passing abilities, eventually being drafted by the Oklahoma City Thunder in the 2018 NBA Draft. This year, Jerome has similarly caught the eye of prospects with his pinpoint passing and ability to finish on the glass and if he decides to declare, could be a late first-round pick. 

Krzyzewski, Self and Calipari year after year have winning programs that contain NBA talent through and through. Bennett, on the other hand, has created a winning program in Charlottesville that doesn’t just contain NBA talent, but develops it. While Coach K, Self and Calipari recruit future NBA stars and are often considered the best in the business because of their ability to recruit, Bennett should equally be in the conversation for the best coach in college basketball for his remarkable ability to consistently win with lower-rated recruits that are molded into NBA talent. 

Akhil Rekulapelli is a Sports Columnist for The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at sports@cavalierdaily.com.

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