An extra take on Virginia

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The main reason for the trip to Charlottesville earlier this month was the chance to talk with new basketball coach Tony Bennett. There wasn’t a definitive story idea going in, more like a handful.

Such as Bennett’s history of helping engineer turnarounds. And how successful he can recruit with a defense-first system (though that hasn’t hurt Mike Krzyzewski any over the years). And what it will take to make Virginia relevant again after winning one NCAA tournament game in 14 years.

The final product in today’s dead-tree edition is a composite of those ideas and more, which is to say it’s partially about Bennett, partially about Virginia and not necessarily as thorough as it probably could have been if one or the other was completely emphasized.

Of course, there’s always the blog, and the plan is to drop a few vignettes from the cutting room floor in over the next few days. It will be a nice, healthy distraction for me from the actual work required from me from this week’s golf tournament.

Including this.

In the long-term, it’s easy to envision Virginia finally rising up and emerging as annual pain in the neck for the rest of the ACC.

For those who don’t believe Bennett can recruit excellent talent, just look at Washington State’s DeAngelo Casto and Klay Thompson – two members of this summer’s U.S. under-19 national team.

And for those who believe Bennett is wedded to a plodding system, go back and watch some highlights of the Derrick Low/Kyle Weaver Wazzu team a few years ago. They forced opponents into long offensive possessions, then picked and prodded until they found good shots at their end. That’s not boring. That’s good basketball.

It would be no surprise if four years down the road Virginia looked a lot like the teams from the second half of Herb Sendek’s tenure at N.C. State – disciplined, effective and a team no one wants to play late in the season because of how different they are from other opponents.

But what of the short term? Bennett takes over a team that went 10-18 – Virginia’s worst record since 1967. It could go either way, and here’s why:

THREE REASONS BENNETT CAN SUCCEED QUICKLY

1) Smarts: It’s safe to assume the things Bennett described as his “non-negotiables” – things like tough defense and soundness all over the floor – will be instilled before everything else. Virginia can and will be beaten next year, but it’s tough to envision the Cavaliers beating themselves,

2) Size: In case anyone hasn’t noticed, Virginia could easily wind up starting 6-foot-6 guard Sylven Landesberg, 6-foot-8 power forward Mike Scott and 7-foot center Assane Sene. That’s a lot of size, and Bennett will find some way to make it work in his favor.

3) Schedule: The ACC schedule rotation pops up in the Hoos’ favor. Virginia will play Maryland, Miami, N.C. State, Virginia Tech and Wake Forest twice. That means Duke and Georgia Tech once each at home, North Carolina and Clemson once each on the road. It’s the same schedule the Cavaliers used to share the league title in 2007.

THREE REASONS BENNETT MIGHT NOT SUCCEED IN YEAR ONE

1) Transition: Sometimes the first year under a new coach is bumpy. Sometimes it isn’t. Bennett thrived in his first year at Washington State, but had the benefit of working as an assistant with the Cougars for three years before taking over, so there was built-in familiarity. This one can be applied to any new coach, especially one like Bennett who is treading in unfamiliar territory.

2) Tempo: Bennett said he received plenty of questions from recruits about whether the Cavaliers will strictly adhere to a slow, Princeton-style, and he responded by showing tapes of his past teams running NBA sets. The question isn’t whether a more deliberate pace will work; it can. It’s whether Bennett can get his players to commit to it. Maybe there’s an adjustment period there. To be sure, the process of “buying in” is a priority.

3) Talent: The truth of the matter is Virginia was 10-18 last season, at one point losing 12 of 14. The Cavaliers lost only one of their top nine scorers from a year ago, and presumably should improve some. But 10 of those losses were by double-digits, so it’s obvious there’s some work to do just to bolster Virginia’s competitiveness.

WAY-TOO-PREMATURE FORECAST

Virginia is a team capable of surprising opponents this season. The Cavaliers were already a headache at home, beating Clemson, Maryland and Virginia Tech late in the season at JPJ. The schedule works in their favor, and last year’s lumps are going to only help Landesberg, Scott and Sene (among others) in the long term.

The worst-case scenario is Virginia goes through the same growing pains Washington State did earlier this decade, scores less than 40 points a few times and winds up with a similar record as last year. But realistically, there is substantially more talent (and support) in place in Charlottesville, even if it hasn’t functioned with efficiency.

A more upbeat outlook has Virginia looking like a solid NIT team, a bunch that picks off nearly all of its nonconference home fodder and then surges to a 7-9ish record in the ACC. It really isn’t much of a stretch.

Best guess? Virginia will endure some ugly nights when it can’t shoot, but there will be progress as well. JPJ will remain a difficult place to visit, and the Cavaliers will poach one or two ranked teams on the way to a season somewhere a little north of .500.

One other bonus prediction: Virginia will not finish last in the ACC. Here’s guessing Bennett coaxes at least six conference wins from the Cavaliers, with the team looking substantially more promising in February than it does in November.

Patrick Stevens

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