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How Tony Bennett Turned Virginia Into College Basketball’s Spurs

With the Cavaliers, Bennett has built a program that seems to feed on itself, sustaining success regardless of the players on the floor. His Cavs are tough and deep and efficient. You can call them boring, but this April, they might finally win it all.

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The best team in college basketball might not send a single player to the NBA this June. The most consistent program in the ACC over the past half decade has recruited only one McDonald’s All American in that span. The University of Virginia has a coach who once swore he’d never go into the profession, and a collection of players who were chosen, in part, for their ability to cope with losing. Under head coach Tony Bennett, the Cavaliers have built a program that seems to feed on itself, turning midlevel recruits into incubating redshirts into ACC stars. They have forged a culture that perpetuates success, regardless of the individuals on the floor, like college basketball’s version of the San Antonio Spurs. They are tough and deep and efficient, among the favorites to win a national championship in April.

Are they boring?

That’s how they’ve been characterized time and again throughout the Bennett era. For the Win: “UVA Basketball Keeps Winning But That Doesn’t Mean We Have to Like It.” Deadspin: “If You Like Painful Basketball and Dickhead Fans, Root for Virginia.” ESPN’s Myron Medcalf took it a step further, wondering in 2015, “What if Virginia as a 1-seed is bad for college basketball?” Bennett has said he doesn’t care what people think. In 2015, Virginia’s president, Teresa Sullivan, weighed in, posing with Virginia mascot Cav Man holding a sign that said, simply, “NOT BORING.”

When I bring this up to sophomore guard Ty Jerome, I can almost hear him rolling his eyes through the phone. “To be honest, I wouldn’t have anything to say to anyone who thinks that about us,” he says. “But for the sake of your question, I’ll say this: We are everything that college basketball is supposed to be about. All of our guys have completely bought in. We’re focused on the now. We’re not worried about the next level, at least not at the moment. This is basketball in its purest form. There are no egos on the court. It’s everything you could ever want from this sport.”

Evidence of this presents itself one night in late February. From the stands in John Paul Jones Arena, where the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets are playing on the road at Virginia, one can glimpse the classic tells that a once-competitive basketball game has reached the stage that nearly every UVA game reaches these days — that moment when the opponent falls into dead-legged and heavy-eyed resignation, a pained succumbing to what has been inevitable since the opening tip. Tonight, with about five minutes remaining in the second half, all the signals arise. It’s evident in the hands, clutching shorts; in the backs, hunched over. Passes fly inches off target. Jumpers fall pitifully short. The scoreboard still suggests that Georgia Tech has a chance, but anyone watching knows there will be no comeback. Against Virginia, there rarely is.

“You just sense it,” senior forward Isaiah Wilkins says of moments like this one.

Redshirt freshman guard De’Andre Hunter says he notices it just after the kind of possession that has become a hallmark of Virginia games. The shot clock drains. A forced jumper goes up. Ball grazes rim. Heads drop. “That,” Hunter says, “is when we know we have them right where we want them.”

Jerome is more blunt. “Some teams,” he says, “almost quit.”

Each of these players is speaking generally, not specifically about the game against Georgia Tech. The Yellow Jackets, in fact, fare better than many teams have against Virginia this season, eventually losing 65–54. It could have been much worse. About a month earlier, Virginia held Clemson to 13 points in the second half. Three days after this game, the Cavs will hold Pittsburgh to seven — seven! — points in the first. Virginia is giving up 52.1 points per game, best in the country, and allowing teams to shoot 37.5 percent from the field, which ranks third. According to adjusted defensive efficiency stats measured by KenPom.com, this year’s Virginia team has the best defense of any team since the 2001–02 season, which is as far back as the site’s data goes. This is not just the best defense in the country — it’s one of the best in the recent history of the sport.

Sitting in the press room, minutes after watching UVA clinch the ACC regular-season title against his team, Georgia Tech coach Josh Pastner puts it more directly. “If they continue to stay healthy, I think this is Coach Bennett’s year to get to the Final Four,” he says. “And possibly win the whole thing.”

This season’s Cavaliers team is no anomaly. Under Bennett, Virginia has cemented itself alongside Duke and North Carolina among the ACC’s and the nation’s elite programs. It has won three of the past five regular-season ACC championships, including this season’s, and is on track to earn its third no. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament during that span. Per KenPom, UVA has fielded one of the nation’s top seven defenses in six of the past seven years. Bennett has built a national powerhouse through selective recruiting, methodical player development, and a sustained culture of valuing team goals over individual ones. He and his staff have consistently turned slow-footed shooters into lock-down defenders and developed middling recruits into NBA mainstays, all while listening to semiannual chatter among opposing fans and reporters who wonder whether the success of such a slow-paced team damages the sport by turning away casual fans who’d rather see a barrage of 3s and dunks.

Bennett has yet to reach a Final Four. After losing three transfers, this year’s team started outside the AP Top 25 but has steadily climbed the polls all season, now in its third consecutive week at no. 1. It is now clear: No matter how many players it loses, Virginia should be considered an annual contender. This team may be Bennett’s best yet. “Maybe some teams we’ve had here have had more individual talent,” he says, “but this team has a togetherness and a unity that’s special. They’ve come as close to maxing out their potential as any team we’ve had.”

The site NBADraft.net does not project a single player from Virginia’s roster to be selected in the 2018 or 2019 drafts. According to the 247Sports composite rankings, the Wahoos’ past four recruiting classes have ranked 32nd, 62nd, seventh, and 98th. And yet Virginia has put together perhaps its most impressive regular season of the Bennett era, sitting 26–2 and 15–1 in the ACC, ranking first in both polls, the RPI, and the KenPom rankings. They beat North Carolina and Clemson at home and defeated Duke at Cameron, and with two games remaining, they lead the ACC by three and a half games.

Justin Anderson is one of many former Virginia Cavaliers who have found a place in the NBA
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When this year’s Cavs are clicking — and they are almost always clicking — they look like a ruthlessly efficient machine. Sophomore guard Kyle Guy probes the paint in search of shots for himself or others. Jerome is liable to shoot the moment he steps across half court. Wilkins serves as the rabid and disruptive spark to the defense while bigs Jack Salt and Mamadi Diakite (a junior and sophomore, respectively) provide garbage buckets and active hands. Senior guard Devon Hall is the steadiest presence on the nation’s steadiest team, shooting 45 percent from 3 and 91 percent from the line, and ranking second on the Cavs in scoring, rebounds, and assists. The team lacks a true star, with no player making even the honorable mentions in Sporting News’ midseason All America team, and yet it would be unsurprising to see one or more players join Malcolm Brogdon, Justin Anderson, Joe Harris, and Mike Scott as Bennett-era players who’ve carved out roles in the NBA.

It would be even less surprising to see Virginia celebrating a national championship in San Antonio this April. For Bennett, that would be the highlight of a career he never imagined he’d have.

He didn’t want to be a basketball coach. Bennett laughs when he says it, talking by phone in late February. “I swore it off; I really did,” he says. His father, Dick, was a Wisconsin coaching legend, working his way from coaching a high school freshman team in 1965, to a varsity team in 1966, to the NAIA’s Wisconsin–Stevens Point in 1976, to Division I Wisconsin–Green Bay in 1985, and then finally, 30 years after he began coaching basketball in the state, taking over as head coach of the Wisconsin Badgers in 1995. In his fourth season in Madison, he led the Badgers to their first Final Four in 59 years. Bennett’s older sister, Kathi, coached the women’s teams at Indiana and Northern Illinois. He’d seen enough stress in both his father and his sister’s lives to turn himself off from the idea of following their paths.

“I was like, ‘Why would you ever want to do that?’” he says. “I thought I was going to play for 10 or 15 years in the NBA and then just retire on a beach in Hawaii, and that would be it.” After Bennett, a point guard, led his father’s Green Bay team to an NCAA tournament berth, Charlotte picked him in the second round of the 1992 NBA draft. After two seasons backing up Muggsy Bogues, a foot injury limited him to only three games in his third year. And after rehab, he signed another pro contract — in New Zealand, with the North Harbour Kings. Says Bennett: “I just kind of thought, ‘I’ll get healthy over here, and then when I’m ready I’ll head back to the NBA.’”

While Bennett tried to work his way back to full health, his team’s management came to him with a proposal: What if he became a player-coach? He gave the idea some thought. He and his wife loved New Zealand. She was working as a youth pastor in a newly founded church, and they were both spending their 20s in one of the most beautiful countries on earth. As long as he got to keep playing when healthy, Bennett reasoned, he could give coaching a shot. Even by international basketball standards, New Zealand was something of a hinterlands, one of the few leagues in the world where the concept of player-coach was still viable in the 1990s. “It wasn’t just playing and coaching, either,” says Bennett. “I swept floors before practice; I went out to local businesses and tried to get sponsorships. I did a little bit of everything.”

Everything, that is, except play his way back into the NBA. It felt clear to Bennett that his time as a high-level professional basketball player was over, but he came to enjoy the coaching portion of his player-coach responsibilities. “I found myself thinking, ‘You know, this isn’t so bad,’” he says. “‘It’s actually kind of enjoyable. It’s not as good as playing — definitely not. But it’s still competitive. You get to build relationships. And you get to be immersed in the game.” Missing home and family, Bennett returned to the States in 1999 to serve as a volunteer assistant for his father’s Wisconsin team. Dick Bennett retired in 2000, and new coach Bo Ryan hired Tony as an assistant coach. After three years, though, Dick decided he still wanted to coach, and he took the head job at Washington State. Tony followed. This time, when his father retired for good in 2006, Tony took over for him as head coach.

The Cougars won 26 games in Bennett’s first year, tying a school record. “My father took all the bullets, rebuilding that program,” says Bennett. “By the time I took over, we’d rebuilt it to a point where we had a chance.” After three seasons as head coach in Pullman, Bennett took the job at UVA in 2009. He inherited a team that had won 10 games the previous season. Just as striking, he inherited a team that played at the 89th-fastest adjusted tempo of Division I’s 344 teams. Bennett immediately slowed the pace. “Playing this way,” and here Bennett is referring not only to the pace of play but also to his offensive and defensive systems, “is such a team-oriented way to play. It’s something I’ve seen have a lot of success.” In Bennett’s first year, Virginia ranked 316th in adjusted tempo.

“I really wanted to buy in, but it was hard for me,” says Wizards forward Mike Scott, one of the holdovers from previous coach Dave Leitao’s regime. “I was so used to getting out in transition, so it was hard playing the way he wanted.” For a stretch, Bennett started walk-on Will Sherrill over Scott, in part to prove that he would sit talent in favor of players who bought in to the principles he valued. Early in his career, says Scott, “I was a selfish player. But that whole experience was really good for me. The way he pushed me — that’s what helped me to play at the next level. I had to learn how to be a great teammate.”

When Bennett looked across the country (and beyond) for his earliest recruiting classes, he kept an eye open for the skills that college coaches everywhere covet. He wanted shooters and bangers, athletes and ball handlers. He didn’t contend for the services of one-and-done players, but he wasn’t morally opposed to them, either. He did, however, have one unique requirement, something he’d learned from his father when watching him rebuild programs at three different schools.

“I always think to myself about a player, ‘Can I lose with you?’” says Bennett. “Losing is a truth serum. That’s when you really learn about people. If we can lose together, and we can still survive — to me, that’s the foundational piece.”

Ty Jerome drives to the hoop in a February game against Georgia Tech in Charlottesville
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Evan Nolte stretches his legs out at a picnic table just outside of Ace Biscuit & Barbecue on a warm February afternoon. He digs into a sausage-and-egg biscuit topped with gravy, and he smiles. “I love this place,” he says. He is talking about the biscuit joint, but also about Charlottesville, a town where he spent five years of his life. He’s in town today to watch his former team and return to the school he helped win two ACC championships and reach an Elite Eight. He got that chance because he could shoot and pass and grab the occasional rebound. And, as much as anything, because Bennett deemed him a player with whom he could lose.

“It just felt different here,” says Nolte, remembering his recruiting process. A four-star recruit from Georgia, he had offers from Oklahoma, Ohio State, Georgia Tech, and many others. “Even though Bennett had just gotten here, it felt like there was a togetherness among the team that I didn’t really feel other places.” This word — togetherness — came up time and again in my interviews with current and former players. Says Jerome: “We get breakfast together. We get dinner together. When something goes wrong, we fix it together. We lose together, and we win together. That’s just who we are.”

No basketball game, though, has ever been won over a team meal. Virginia’s success is built on the way it plays. As much as anything, it’s built on the pack-line defense. Bennett’s signature system runs on heavy ball pressure and well-positioned, tightly compacted help defense, with off-ball defenders perfectly calibrating their own place in the “gap.” The post is often doubled. Passing around the perimeter is not only tolerated — it’s welcomed. But the tightness of the “pack” — the four off-ball defenders — makes penetration and passes into scoring positions in the paint almost impossible for an offense to come by. “Everyone has to be completely bought in to the concept of playing team defense,” says Bennett. “You have to ask about your players, ‘Do they have the heart for it?’”

Bennett has coached several excellent one-on-one defenders. Brogdon won the NABC Defensive Player of the Year. Anderson became a first-round pick on the strength of his defensive versatility. On this year’s team, Wilkins serves as the perfect anchor in the pack line, active and relentless and capable of protecting the rim when the system breaks down. One fact, though, is often overlooked regarding Bennett’s system: To play at UVA, you don’t have to arrive on campus as a good defensive player. In fact, you can be borderline incompetent.

“Coming out of high school,” says Nolte, “I was a terrible defender. Just terrible. I didn’t even realize that Virginia was a team where defense was such a big part of their identity.” Says Harris, now on the Brooklyn Nets: “I was just a shooter. That was it. I had no idea how to properly defend guys who are elite.”

A player can arrive as a poor defender. But until he improves, he’ll never see time on the floor. When players first get to Charlottesville, early in their first summer of practices before their freshman year, they are often shell-shocked. “Honestly,” says Jerome, “there are moments where you’re like, ‘Seriously? Two and a half more hours of defense today?’ Everyone loves the system. We’re 100 percent bought in. But it’s human nature to think, ‘This? Again?’”

Most painful: the three-on-three closeout drill. Three offensive players scatter around the perimeter, one in each corner and another at the top of the key. Three defenders cluster together underneath the basket. A coach throws the ball to an offensive player chosen at random, and from there, they play three-on-three. Maybe it doesn’t sound like much. But when a player is sprinting from underneath the basket to where a dead-eye shooter is standing, or trying to cover the gap on a floor that can feel like acres of space, it’s easy to get beat. “You have to be in a dead sprint closing out if you want any chance,” says Nolte. “It exaggerates the amount of space you have to cover.” And when the offense scores, the defense stays on. Sometimes for possession after possession, until they’re begging for a lucky miss, a sloppy pass, any kind of break. “When I first got there, I would just pray — pray — that the offense would miss,” says Anderson, now with the Philadelphia 76ers. “By the time I left, though, it was one of my favorite drills.”

In time, and in the system, lax defenders like Nolte become solid, and talented defenders like Anderson become elite. “The crazy thing,” says Nolte, “is that one-on-one, I couldn’t guard a single guard in the ACC. But in the pack line, I made a lot of impact. It’s just being in the right position. It’s effort. It’s shocking to me that more teams don’t play that way. Like, you don’t have to have Kawhi Leonard to be a great defensive team. You can do it even with someone like me on the floor.”

Virginia’s defensive consistency has pushed it to the top of the ACC. UVA is 7–7 against Duke and North Carolina over the past five seasons. “You realize very quickly,” says Nolte, “defense is how you beat the Dukes and Carolinas of the world. You’re never going to have more offensive firepower than them.” (Anderson has a broader take: “We beat those teams because we were just better than them. Period. We didn’t care if someone was supposed to be a top-five pick. They’re going to see five jerseys in front of them at all times. They’re going to see a level of toughness and soundness they’ve never seen. It doesn’t matter how talented you are. When we’re clicking, we can beat anyone in the country.”)

On the other end, the Cavs run the mover-blocker offense, a motion system developed by Bennett’s father. Players are divided between “movers” (scorers) and “blockers” (screeners) who make cuts and screens depending on how they read the defense, rather than according to clearly defined sets. KenPom ranks Virginia as the 38th most efficient offense in the country. They are, however, slow, often bleeding the shot clock until they find a look to their liking. This is where the criticisms of Virginia’s style often arise. “The only thing we’re doing on offense is trying to get a good shot,” says Nolte. “It just speaks to how disciplined we are that we take that much time.”

After the Georgia Tech game, Diakite sits in a media room surrounded by reporters, reflecting on one of his best performances of the season. He had nine points on 4-of-4 shooting in 15 minutes, and after, he spends a few moments talking through the work he’s done on his jumper, on his post game, on his cuts to the basket. A few seconds in, though, he stops, almost embarrassed, as if catching himself.

“But I don’t forget,” he says. “Defense always comes first.”

Virginia’s Devon Hall and Jack Salt during a January game against North Carolina in Charlottesville
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UVA will likely enter the NCAA tournament among the field’s favorites. This year’s team has a wider range of offensive playmakers, and even without the individual defensive brilliance of players like Brogdon or Anderson, they might play better team defense than any group Bennett has had. Their captains include a redshirt senior (Hall), a true senior (Wilkins), and a redshirt junior (Salt). “For those guys, it’s like they started working for a company in an entry-level position,” says Bennett. “They started as redshirts, or as guys who didn’t play much. They had to be role players. When those guys get into a position of leadership, there’s a sense of ownership that you can see in a powerful way. This team is theirs. And their unselfishness and unity is what has made this team come as close as any to maxing out its potential.”

While Bennett and the players keep talking about reaching their ceiling and remaining together and playing the right way, others, who have more distance, can reflect on the arc of the Cavaliers program. Among the Bennett-recruited players currently on NBA rosters — Brogdon, Anderson, Harris, and London Perrantes — not a single one arrived in Charlottesville as a top-45 recruit. Only Anderson was selected in the first round. All, with the exception of recent G League call-up Perrantes, have carved out roles for themselves at the game’s highest level.

“The reason we’ve gotten to the next level is that Coach Bennett taught us how to guard,” says Harris. “It’s the same with all of us: Malcolm, Justin, Mike, me. When people are evaluating you, they trust you a little more when you’re coming from Coach Bennett’s program. They know what they’re gonna get.”

The former players let their minds drift back to those moments like the one late in the second half against Georgia Tech, when the opponent begins to give in, when the lights go out.

Says Harris: “It’s exciting.”

Says Anderson: “It’s hilarious.

Nolte, though, likes to imagine other moments, long before the final minutes arrive, when opposing players look on their calendars and see the game that’s coming next. “You just know,” he says, “they’re looking at it, and they’re saying to themselves, ‘Oh, we have to go to Virginia? Man.’” He leans forward, shakes his head, and grins.

“Like, ‘Virginia? Really? Shit.’”

And now that they’re a few years removed, the ex-Cavs have also gained perspective on the notion that their team is boring. Nolte, for one, has no patience for it. “What we did was just play defense, and people were upset because we were so good at it,” he says, shrugging. “That’s it.” There is another team, in another league, with a self-sustaining culture of winning with a rotating cast of team-oriented players, a team that was, for many years, called “boring.” Perhaps Virginia will follow the model set in San Antonio: Win enough games over enough years, and eventually you become cool.

“If you think winning is boring, you need to stop playing whatever sport you’re playing,” Anderson says. “What could be less boring than winning games, doing it the right way, playing with your boys, your brothers, with these coaches and leaders and mentors who are changing your life?”

Anderson thinks back on the nights when his UVA teams bent opponents to their will, much as this season’s version has done time and again. “You walk away at the end of the night from an arena on the road that’s completely quiet, or from JPJ [John Paul Jones Arena in Charlottesville] that’s going crazy it’s so loud — if you’re an 18-, 19-, 20-year-old kid, that’s supposed to be boring?

“No. That’s not boring to us. That’s the time of our life.”

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