Virginia basketball has taken Tony Bennett on a roller coaster ride this season


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It’s a simple question. Or, it should be.

How has this season gone?

“I’ve got a lot to think about and a lot to say,” Virginia coach Tony Bennett answers, “because it’s kind of been a bit of a roller coaster.”

A tired cliche, maybe, but in this case, also an apt and entirely accurate one. Because here’s the thing: Virginia does not do roller-coaster seasons. For the better part of the last 15 years, Bennett has built his program to ensure that. The Cavaliers do what they do, unflinchingly, without compromise. Calling their typical season a flatline would be unfair — that’s constant, but linear — so instead, let’s go with any hill scattered throughout Charlottesville: on a steady incline, slowly rising and climbing, until (hopefully) a satisfying peak.

The “how” is just as unchanging. Bennett’s preferences for age and roster continuity are no secret; he practically mastered the method of slow-cooking talent. He brings in three-star guys, lets them marinate in his pack-line defense principles for a few years, and voila: stars. The Hoos, both in play style and program proclivities, are a monolith. And it all usually works— the largest, looming reminder of which is the 2019 national championship banner hanging from the end zone of John Paul Jones Arena.

Except this season, Bennett’s along for a ride.

An 11-5 record out of the gate, with no marquee wins but instead five blowout losses, all by 16 or more points. Then, a players-only meeting — after Bennett did what he rarely does, and prematurely ended a practice — spurred change in the form of an eight-game winning streak, one which temporarily pushed the Cavaliers back into the top 25. But what’s a good climb without a drop thereafter? That would be three more losses in the last five games, including the worst ACC defeat of Bennett’s tenure: a 34-point no-show at rival Virginia Tech. A win at Boston College on Wednesday was, briefly, stabilizing, but with a trip to No. 10 Duke on Saturday, more whiplash may be right around the corner for Virginia (21-8, 12-6 ACC).

When Bennett describes it all, his tone even alternates like he’s on a high-speed attraction.

“We knew it was going to be somewhat building. We knew we were going to try to be competitive and close,” he says. “And so you sort of felt like, ooh, this is a rebuild. Hey, we’re here! Oh, now we’re fighting to try to get in the tournament?”

A breath.

“All those things.”

Five of the top seven minutes-getters from last season’s ACC regular-season co-champions departed. That included super senior Kihei Clark, the last remaining player from the 2019 national championship team.

“It’s the most new team we’ve ever had, probably since … God, I don’t even know,” Bennett says with a chuckle. “Maybe since I’ve been here.”

Bennett’s title team returned 60.2 percent of its minutes played from the year before, per KenPom. This season’s squad? Almost half that, at 34.1 percent — which is 224th nationally. But old habits die hard, so Bennett pieced together the roster as he always has: with an eye toward retention. “Let’s try to pour into them,” he says, “and build them.” So in came two stopgap super seniors, Jake Groves (Oklahoma) and Jordan Minor (Merrimack), to fill frontcourt holes, but also junior Dante Harris (Georgetown) and sophomore Andrew Rohde (St. Thomas). Guys who can, in theory, be a new core. Guys who can stay. Guys who — along with along with four-year starting guard Reece Beekman and sophomores Isaac McKneely and Ryan Dunn — could get Virginia back to its way.

Easier said than done.

Continuity has been a major factor in Virginia’s success under Bennett. Players come in, struggle to learn his patented pack-line, but stick around and grow through their rough patches. This summer? Bennett had to condense that sometimes season-long process into a matter of months. “TB’s system is hard to understand,” says Dunn, a finalist for the Naismith Defensive Player of the Year. “I mean, it was hard for me at first. If you pick it up early, good for you.” A program that finished with a top-25 adjusted defensive efficiency every year from 2012-2020 — seven times finishing in the top five — looked little like its normal self early on. In Virginia’s first five losses, it allowed an average of 72 points per game and 1.14 points per possession. “You kind of think that you’ve got certain things down,” Minor says, “and then you get into live play, live action — and you realize you’re a step behind.”

Bennett’s few returners saw he was trying to embrace experimentation. Letting guys play through mistakes, with a longer-term vision in mind. “He was a little bit more lenient,” Dunn says, “a little understanding that, we’re all new.” But losses of that magnitude, that frequency were unfamiliar. From 2014 through the title-winning season, the Hoos averaged 29.7 wins, with four ACC regular-season and two tournament championships. Frustration boiled over, as much as it does with the ever-pleasant Bennett, during one practice after the team’s blowout loss at Wake Forest on Jan. 13. Bennett can’t even remember now if he kicked his players out or just ended things early.

“That,” he says of the practice in question, “has not happened much.”

A players-only meeting ensued, led largely by Beekman. Now in his fourth season in Charlottesville, the 6-foot-3 point guard deferred his NBA dream in hopes of accomplishing something once borderline guaranteed at Virginia: winning an NCAA Tournament game for the first time in his career. Both of the tournament teams Beekman has been on — as No. 4 seeds in 2021 and last season — were upset in the first round by No. 13 seeds: Ohio, and then in devastating fashion last March, Furman. In that players-only meeting, the reigning ACC Defensive Player of the Year told his teammates that this season was reminding him of his sophomore year in Charlottesville, in 2021-22: when Virginia finished 21-14 … and went to the NIT.

“He said he’s been there, done that, and he doesn’t want to do that again,” McKneely says. “He wants to play in March.”

Roles were defined right then and there. Frustrations were voiced. “Closed mouths,” Minor says, “don’t get fed.” The result was immediate: that eight-game winning streak — albeit with only one of those victories against a projected NCAA Tournament team, Clemson.

Still, given the start to the season: substantial progress.

One key change was inserting Minor, the 6-foot-8 super senior, into the starting lineup. Having played mostly zone at Merrimack the last four seasons, learning the pack-line was about as easy as learning a new language. “Zone coverage versus man-to-man anticipation, being continuous,” Bennett says, “was a bit of an adjustment.” But one-on-one film sessions with the coaching staff eventually got Minor up to speed. He strung together some nice practices in early January, and Bennett played him the last seven minutes of the NC State loss, before making him a starter at Wake Forest.

In his second start, Minor posted a season-high 16 points, five rebounds, two assists and two steals against rival Virginia Tech. Virginia is third nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency since he joined the starting lineup, per Bart Torvik’s sorting tool.

“Our defense,” McKneely says, “changed completely.”

Minor’s rebounding and ability to hedge ball screens and defend ACC bigs one-on-one have made the difference. “I would love to have a guy like that for two, three years,” Bennett says. “But I’m glad we have him for this year, for sure.”

Bennett already had two anchors in Beekman and Dunn — arguably the best perimeter defensive duo in America. Beekman ranks in the top 25 nationally in steals, and he accomplishes that while only committing 1.7 fouls per 40 minutes. McKneely, the team’s second-leading scorer and a 45.3 percent 3-point shooter, describes training against Beekman this summer succinctly. “Not fun at all,” McKneely says. “Pretty much a nightmare.”

Beekman could become just the third player in conference history to repeat as ACC Defensive Player of the Year, joining Duke’s Shelden Williams and North Carolina’s John Henson. But he’ll have to stave off Dunn, Bennett’s latest hidden gem, to do so.

Ryan Dunn, seen here defending Virginia Tech’s Lynn Kidd, could be the national Defensive Player of the Year. (Brian Bishop / USA Today)

Almost a decade ago, former Boston College and current Penn coach Steve Donahue told Bennett about a Philadelphia-area recruit he should look into. That player was De’Andre Hunter — who won National Defensive Player of the Year (one of three under Bennett to do so) in 2018-2019. “So whenever I see Steve,” Bennett says, “I’m like, hey, any more De’Andre Hunter’s out there?” They’d always laugh and move on, until a few years ago. “He’s not De’Andre, but there’s a not-well-known kid with dimensions and upside,” Donahue told Bennett. “You should go watch him.” Bennett did and was impressed — but he only had one scholarship available, which soon went to four-star wing Isaac Traudt. Dunn’s family called Bennett soon after and said their son still wanted to come to Virginia, even if it was as a preferred walk-on, so eager were they to join Virginia’s development system.

Another scholarship opened up when a different player transferred out, and Dunn’s dedication always stuck with Bennett. And then when he got to campus? “He just brought an energy,” Bennett says. Dunn was the rare freshman to crack Virginia’s rotation. Dunn says he didn’t even know how good he could be defensively until he briefly played in an early-season loss to Houston and wound up guarding All-America guard Marcus Sasser, who’s now with the Detroit Pistons. “He trusted me to guard their best player,” Dunn says. “That was kind of the eye-opener for me.”

Now it’s Dunn doing the eye-opening, as one of the best defenders in America. At 6-foot-8, he has the 10th-best block rate in America, per KenPom; every high-major player above him is at least 6-11. He’s already had 10 games this season with at least three blocks, not to mention his four games with three or more steals. He’s garnering first-round NBA Draft buzz.

“Me and Reece on the floor,” Dunn adds, “is kind of a scary duo to go up against.”

Even with a typically elite defense, Virginia struggles to find consistency. Immediately after the eight-game winning streak, it lost by double digits at home to Pitt.  The Hoos, who rank 63rd on KenPom and 46th in the NET, are projected as a First Four team in The Athletic’s latest Bracket Watch.

“We’ve got a small margin for error,” Beekman says.

Much of that is tied to Virginia’s offense … or lack thereof. This has rarely been a high-scoring outfit under Bennett, who prefers a plodding pace— Virginia ranks dead last in Division I in adjusted tempo, per KenPom — but this team is averaging a mere 63.2 points per game. That ranks 354th nationally. Its current adjusted offensive efficiency rank of 179th would be the second-worst ranking of the Bennett era. “It’s really been hard for us,” Bennett says, “and that can kind of get to you confidence-wise.”

So the roller coaster continues. “Of course winning’s a blast, losing sucks, everyone knows that,” Bennett says. “But the joy’s like, hey, man, they’re getting better and they’re competing.” But just trying hard, Bennett knows, does not get you into the Big Dance.

It takes wins. Improvement. And like Virginia usually does, peaking right now.

One more simple question, then:

Can this year’s team do what it takes to get in?

“If we’re going to make it to the tournament or do anything … the whole is going to have to be greater than the sum of the parts. They’re gonna have to do it together,” Bennett says. “We’ve gotten blown out by 20 a bunch of times, 30 — or plus — and that usually has not happened to us in a long time. So those are the things that we’ve got to keep working on. But those are things you feel like OK, humbling, but all right. Now let’s try to scrap it back together.”

(Top photo of Tony Bennett during Virginia’s Feb. 13 game against Pitt: Ryan M. Kelly / Getty Images)

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Alexandra Williams
Alexandra Williams
Alexandra Williams is a writer and editor. Angeles. She writes about politics, art, and culture for LinkDaddy News.

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