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Looking back on the forgotten casualties of the Tony Bennett regime

Early on in Bennett’s tenure, the Wisconsin native was forced to pursue a roster that his predecessor had constructed; some players struggled to adjust to his style

<p>Since the start of his tenure at Virginia in 2009, Coach Tony Bennett brought to the table a defense-first and tempo control mentality.</p>

Since the start of his tenure at Virginia in 2009, Coach Tony Bennett brought to the table a defense-first and tempo control mentality.

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It was March 31, 2009. The Black Eyed Peas had just released their hit single “Boom Boom Pow” and former president Barack Obama had recently begun his first term in office. In a crowded press room in Charlottesville, the former men’s basketball coach of the Washington State Cougars was ready to accept his new position at Virginia. 

Sandwiched in between then-University President John Casteen and Athletic Director Craig Littlepage, a 39-year-old Tony Bennett sat smiling. When he opened his mouth for the first time as head coach of the men’s basketball program, his collected, midwestern charm took over the room. 

“I came here to build a great team, but more importantly, I came here to build a program that lasts,” Bennett said. 

That same night, Bennett was sitting on a couch at the home of 18-year-old Tristan Spurlock. After the conclusion of the press conference, the head coach grabbed his keys and headed up US-29 towards Northern Virginia to convince Spurlock, a recruit under former head coach David Leitao, to reaffirm his commitment to Virginia. 

Now 30 years old, Spurlock still remembers this first encounter with Coach Bennett. 

“My mom and dad loved him,” Spurlock said while resting on a hotel couch in Montevideo, Uruguay. “Anyone who has been around face-to-face with Tony would love him.” 

Fast forward 10 years — “With the fourth pick in the 2019 NBA draft, the Los Angeles Lakers select De’Andre Hunter,” NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said in his usual monotone voice. 

After embracing his family members, Hunter, dressed in a sparkling black suit, beamed as he shared a hug with his former college head coach that lasted almost as long as his time with the Lakers — Hunter was immediately traded to the Atlanta Hawks. Only four years prior, the 6-foot-7 forward committed to Virginia as a raw prospect whose inconsistent jump shot could not compensate for his lanky, 190-pound frame. Now, a key member of the Hawks, the 221-pound Philadelphia native will forever be remembered as a Cavalier legend.

Ranked No. 73 in the 2016 edition of ESPN’s top 100 high school basketball players in the nation, Hunter was not always destined for an NBA future. In fact, on paper, not much separated Hunter from another gangly 6-foot-7 Cavalier recruit. Ranked No. 80 in the 2009 edition of ESPN100, Tristan Spurlock, now a member of Defensor Sporting Club in Uruguay, had a similar resume to Hunter when he came to Grounds as a freshman. 

Why then are most of you unfamiliar with the name Tristan Spurlock? The answer might simply be timing. 

From 2007 to 2009, Coach David Leitao secured the signatures of four ESPN top 100 high school basketball recruits. When Leitao was fired at the conclusion of the 2008-2009 season, both expected recruits and current players found themselves in limbo. While recruits, such as John Brandenburg and Tristan Spurlock, contemplated withdrawing their commitment, then-current players — including Jeff Jones and Sylven Landesburg — had the option to transfer. 

“I wanted to reopen my recruitment after Leitao got fired,” Spurlock said.

On the other side of the Virginia basketball program, the newly-hired Bennett was tasked with putting together his final roster by the beginning of the upcoming fall semester. With limited time on his hands, Bennett had little choice but to pursue a roster that Leitao had constructed. 

Having coached high school, Division I and AAU basketball, Brian Daly — a longtime associate head coach for Penn State and the former high school coach of Jeff Jones — knows a thing or two about roster construction. 

“The word family is used a lot,” Daly said. “You spend a lot of time with these individuals and they do become part of your family — you don’t want a dysfunctional family. That’s the tricky part; you don't know somebody until you live with them.”

Before he was fired, Leitao had developed his unique vision of a Virginia basketball family. In each new recruit that he signed, Leitao envisioned a player that would excel in the home that he had built. As a result, when Bennett took over in March 2009, Bennett stepped into a house that was no longer his home. With his own idea of a cohesive family, the Wisconsin native began his tenure in Charlottesville wanting to learn more about the players that Leitao had already brought to the program. Would they fit his style? Could they live in his home?

First, Bennett had to convince the players to stay. In the end, three of Leitao’s ESPN100 recruits — Jeff Jones, Sylven Landesburg and Tristan Spurlock — decided to remain in Charlottesville for the 2009-10 season.

Tristan Spurlock admits he was unfamiliar with Bennett’s controlled and deliberate style when he reaffirmed his commitment. 

“I knew that he coached Klay Thompson, … [but] I might have not known how defensive minded Tony was,” Spurlock said. “I don’t think I did my research well enough.” 

A free-flowing, offensive-minded forward coming out of high school, Spurlock prided himself on his athleticism and ability to get to the rim. By the same token, Jones and Landesburg were also originally recruited by Leitao for their offensive talent. Known for his shooting and microwave scoring, Jones dominated the Philadelphia Catholic league in high school. As the highest ranked Virginia recruit in the history of ESPN100, Landesburg scored 28 points in his first game — the highest ever mark by a freshman Cavalier. 

With Bennett at the helm in the 2009-10 season, however, these offense-minded Cavaliers were in for a rude awakening. According to the college basketball statistical archive KenPom, Virginia’s adjusted pace of play dropped from 67.2 possessions per 40 minutes in Leitao’s final season with the Cavaliers to 61.7 in Bennett’s first season.

“Their styles are completely opposite,” said Brian Brown, long-time Virginia sports fan and Class of 1987 alumnus. “I don’t recall U.Va. having a clear style of play under Leitao. On the other hand, you know Bennett is about defense and specifically the Pack Line defense. Win or lose.”

With an unconventional style of defending, the four-time ACC Coach of the Year’s Pack Line defense presented an unfamiliar obstacle to Jones, Landesberg and Spurlock. Unlike recent Cavaliers, however, in their first year under Bennett, these prolific scorers may have been less prepared for what to expect. While Leitao may have promised them a swift path to the rotation and a degree of on-court autonomy, the pack line defense required focus, spatial awareness and months of practice. 

Daly insists that the hardest part of Division I basketball for any college player is learning to play team defense.

“I read a quote last week explained how kids believe that the way to earn playing time is to score points, but they don’t realize that the way they actually get on the court is by playing defense,” Daly said. 

During Bennett’s tenure in Charlottesville, the Cavaliers have epitomized this adage. From Malcolm Brogdon to De’Andre Hunter, some of the most successful offensive players at Virginia first took the court under Bennett because of their defensive prowess. In addition, both Brogdon and Hunter found success with the Cavaliers because they bought into Bennett’s off-the-court philosophy, a philosophy that Darden Prof. Catherine Burton attributes to the Wisconsin native’s budding dynasty. 

“Tony Bennett has built his program atop what he refers to as the five pillars: humility, passion, unity, servanthood and thankfulness,” Burton wrote in a 2019 article. “Players have earned accolades not just for their play, but for their commitment to academics and community service.”

Scouted by Virginia since he was in eighth grade, Spurlock always believed that the Cavaliers gave him the best opportunity to play high-level basketball and stay close to his hometown in Woodbridge. It seemed destined to be a perfect marriage. 

“[Virginia recruiting] was so consistent man,” Spurlock said. “I saw them everywhere [when Leitao was coaching] and same with Tony. They even came to my senior-year graduation party.”

Coming from a family where neither parent played collegiate or professional sports, the college recruiting process for the Spurlock family, as with many families of top players, lacked absolute clarity.

“The majority of players, in my experience, are overwhelmed by the college recruiting process,” Daly said. “The hardest part for families and players is understanding what is real and what appears to be real.”

For Spurlock, Virginia’s interest in him was undoubtedly real, but that did not mean that the 18-year-old 6-foot-8 forward fully understood Bennett’s program and the rigors of Virginia when he reaffirmed his commitment to the Cavaliers in spring 2009. 

“I loved my time at U.Va.,” Spurlock said. “[But] I underestimated how tough U.Va. was academically. Nobody mentioned that U.Va. was the Stanford of the east in recruiting.”

On top of early morning workouts and daily practices, under Bennett, Virginia men’s basketball players were notoriously held to strict academic standards. While the University of North Carolina reportedly allowed its athletes to take academically insufficient courses in 2010, Bennett was holding his players to the same academic course load as any student at the University. Thus, when the Wisconsin native heard that his star player Landesburg had been skipping classes, Bennett made a significant stand in his first season as head coach and promptly suspended Landesburg. 

Following Landesburg’s suspension, the Cavaliers closed out the season with a second round loss in the ACC tournament, finishing the 2009-10 campaign with a record of 15-16, 5-11 ACC — the worst mark in the history of Bennett’s tenure at Virginia. 

While Landesberg put up impressive numbers during this uninspiring season, both Jones and Spurlock struggled to adapt to Bennett’s style of play. The numbers are evidence — Jones averaged 7.3 points and Spurlock — playing in just 13 games — averaged only 2.3 points. Over the years, each has voiced the frustration that they felt during their first and only season playing under Bennett. 

“I feel at U.Va., sometimes I was labeled as a great shooter,” Jones said in an interview following his decision to transfer to Rider at the culmination of the 2009-10 season. “But I feel at Rider, I can show my complete game that I always knew I had.”

As a freshman, Spurlock believed he was being underutilized in Bennett’s system.

“Athletically, I was the best on the team,” Spurlock said. “I was killing it in practice and then I wasn’t playing. I thought I was a one-and-done or two-and-done player.”

Looking back on his time as a Cavalier, Spurlock wishes he had been a bit more patient with his decision to transfer, which eventually led him to Central Florida.

“I knew I was leaving after maybe my third or fourth DNP … I think it came to me a little earlier than it should have,” Spurlock said. “For me defense was like, ‘alright, I’ll play it if you need me to, but I came here to score.’” 

After leaving Virginia following the 2009-10 season, both Jones and Spurlock sat out a year due to the NCAA transfer rules at that time. Each went on to average more points at Rider and UCF, respectively, in the following seasons. Still, neither Jones, Spurlock nor Landesberg — who left college basketball entirely after he was suspended — were drafted by an NBA team. Instead, all went on to continue their post-collegiate basketball careers abroad. 

Leaving El Estadio Jaime Zudáñez, after a game where he scored 18 points and grabbed eight rebounds, Spurlock crouches as he climbs into the driver's seat. As he makes his way through the beautiful coastal city of Montevideo, the 6-foot-8 forward thinks of his two kids — he will have to put them to bed when he gets home. Unsurprisingly, his time at Virginia is the last thing on his mind. 

Still, whether as a basketball fan or as a human being, one cannot help but wonder — what if Leitao had not been fired in 2009?

If you are a fan of the Cavaliers, this thought has probably never been entertained. Having led the Cavaliers to five ACC regular season titles, two ACC tournament championships and one NCAA National Championship, Bennett has almost been deified in Charlottesville. At the same time, if you are Jones, Landesburg or Spurlock, that thought must creep up every once in a while. 

Nevertheless, to this day, both Jones and Spurlock maintain a high degree of respect for Bennett as a coach, despite never excelling within his program — Jones even declined to participate in an interview for this article for fear of insulting the legendary coach.

Looking back on the 2009-10 season, it is clear Bennett established the foundations of a cohesive family and a durable home. Thrust into his role leading a celebrated ACC program, history will not criticize Bennett’s early decisions.

A few holdovers from his predecessor’s tenure might see things a little differently. Their stories are only a microcosm of a larger historical trend in college sports. For every De’Andre Hunter that has benefited from a stable program and the wisdom of a tenured coach, there have been thousands of highly-ranked recruits that never quite adjust to a dramatic coaching change. 

Perhaps the NCAA’s “one-time transfer rule,” instituted in spring 2021, can help to remedy situations like these. The rule allows athletes to transfer to a different school once during their career without having to sit out for a year or be granted permission from the school or coach. For many, however, this change has come too late.

12 years removed from his time in Charlottesville, Spurlock chooses to look at the glass half full.

“It’s been fun man,” the former ESPN100 recruit said of his professional career abroad. “I’ve got a chance to really play basketball for a living.”