ABRAMENKO: Building a program that lasts

In 2019 as in prior years, Bennett’s team has relied on defense to dominate

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Coach Tony Bennett has brought a defensive mindset to Virginia basketball that transcends who is on the roster.

Christina Anton | Cavalier Daily

Over the past several years, Virginia has emerged as one of the best defensive basketball programs in the NCAA. Throughout the nation, Virginia has earned the reputation of being “annoying” to play against, and it’s not hard to see why. On their path to winning the NCAA championship last season, the Cavaliers allowed an average of just 56.1 points per game.

Last season may have been the most successful in Virginia basketball history, but the team’s defensive dominance is nothing new. Since Coach Tony Bennett came to Virginia in 2009, he has produced 26 out of the top 100 players with the highest defensive rating in the ACC since the 2009-10 season, and five of those are in the top 10. Junior forward Jay Huff is ranked first. The Cavaliers have allowed a season average of 60.1 points or fewer per game for the past eight seasons.

This season so far is continuing the trend. In fact, eight games in, it is the most impressive start defensively to a season yet for Virginia. They lead the NCAA in fewest points allowed per game by a large margin — just 43.9 points. Virginia is able to achieve this all while playing clean basketball, as the Cavaliers lead the ACC in fewest fouls overall.

How are the Cavaliers able to perform so consistently — year after year — with different rosters? It all starts with the mastermind behind it all — Bennett. Bennett started coaching in New Zealand as the head coach of the North Harbour Kings in 1998 before moving back to the United States to coach at Wisconsin and Washington State and eventually Virginia. When Bennett became head coach of the men’s basketball team, he was determined to transform the team by carrying on his father’s legacy. Bennett’s father, Dick Bennett, invented the defensive strategy commonly referred to as “pack-line defense,” which is what Virginia has been using ever since Bennett became head coach.

Part of Bennett’s success has to be attributed to what he calls the “five pillars.” These are the values that he teaches his players and centers the basketball program around, not just for basketball, but for every aspect of their lives. These pillars are humility, passion, unity, servanthood and thankfulness. These make Bennett’s players play selflessly, win humbly and lose gracefully, but it also turns them into respectful and dignified men that will positively represent the University for the rest of their lives.

“I came here to build a great team, but more importantly, I came here to build a program that lasts,” Bennett said before starting his first season at Virginia.

Since the beginning of Bennett’s career at Virginia, the Virginia basketball’s record has been 261-90, including the program’s second and third ACC championship titles, and its first-ever NCAA championship. Despite a tough loss against Purdue, Virginia has still started this season 7-1 and the Cavaliers remain title contenders, even without Kyle Guy, De’Andre Hunter and Ty Jerome.

With such an impressive reputation, joining the program can be intimidating for new players. However, Bennett does a good job of making the transition as smooth as possible. 

“[Bennett] slowly walks you through it, so it’s not like he expects you to walk in and just have everything figured out from the very first day you step on the court,” freshman guard Casey Morsell said. “We get here in June, so each workout he adds more and more of what he expects on the defensive end.”

What sets Bennett apart from other college basketball coaches is his consistency and extreme attention to detail. 

“I’ve worked with [several] other coaches in my time, and there have been similarities,” associate head coach Jason Williford said. “They all had an emphasis on defense. The difference with Tony is he is very meticulous and focused on the details.”

Bennett expects a lot from his players, but through encouragement and support, he ensures that all his players will reach his expectations.

“He’s so detailed in what he expects,” Morsell said. “He studies it with you too, in terms of having you prepared, having film and different resources to make sure that you’re prepared.”

Bennett’s expectations do not change based on who he has on his roster either. Bennett looks for the same things in every player he recruits — work hard and show him that you can play defense.

“He’s [all] about work,” senior forward Mamadi Diakite said. “We’ve been doing the same thing defensively since I’ve gotten here, and depending on what kind of team he has each year … he just changes the system offensively.”

Because Bennett is so specific on what he wants from his players, he is able to trust them and give them a lot of responsibility out on the court. Bennett is known for never seeming nervous and always being mild-mannered on the sidelines — even when his team is losing — because of the faith he has in his players.

“It’s all about trust,” Diakite said. “We’ve been here, we’ve been through all the ups and downs, we’ve got wins and losses, and he trusts us because of that.”

Bennett also looks for the senior members on the team to take on a leadership role and pass down his lessons and values to the younger players. This allows for consistency and a continuous and smooth transition from season to season.

Not everyone is built for Bennett’s style of play, however, and he is very careful in which players he recruits for his roster. According to Williford, the first thing they look for in recruits is their defensive ability, and the players know it too.

“He’s a defensive-minded coach, and obviously he recruits kids that are good and that are willing to play defense,” Diakite said. “So coming in you already know that ‘I have to play defense in order to play, in order to touch the floor, in order to do anything offensively’ so there goes the first challenge — you want to be the best defender you can.”

Bennett has ushered in a golden era for Virginia basketball, producing the most successful season in the school’s history. Bennett’s consistent values and expectations, the supportive team culture he produces and skillful recruiting for which he is responsible suggests that he has indeed built a program that lasts.

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