Indeed, Tony Bennett saw both good and bad at Washington State, where he took over in 2006-07. Winning - and reaching the Sweet 16 in 2008 - only further validated the methodical process of constructing a program in the proper fashion.
Bennett scoured the globe for players, eventually emerging as a known quantity for both style of play and performance - a reputation that should help Virginia emerge as a destination.
“I think the best thing Virginia and Tony Bennett have going for them is they have an established brand and a head coach with a specific style of play,” said Dave Telep, the national basketball recruiting director for Scout.com. “It is very difficult to recruit until you establish your identity. What Virginia got was an immediate identity of who they are and guys they’ll recruit and the way they’ll play and what they’ll do on the floor.”
The Cavaliers also added a coach unlikely to panic at the prospect of taking over a bunch that scuffled to a 10-18 record last season, posting Virginia’s worst winning percentage (.357) since 1967.
It was and still is a young roster, with only one of the top nine scorers (Mamadi Diane) departing. Both members of the recruiting class (Jontel Evans and Tristan Spurlock) remain en route despite Leitao’s departure. It isn’t the most ideal short-term scenario, yet Bennett’s calm and analytical approach could prove a solid fit.
“He has a softer side to him,” Dick Bennett said. “He doesn’t overact. That has really I think enabled him to deal with difficult circumstances wherever they might be. That has impressed me. He was that way as an athlete. There’s a quiet fire to him.”
Quality over quantity
As impressive as Bennett is, he inherits a program mired in a sustained run of mediocrity - one others with solid credentials couldn’t shake.
Jeff Jones, now at American, endured losing seasons in two of his last three years. The energetic Gillen quickly revitalized the Cavaliers, but the program crept back toward .500, and Gillen left after seven seasons.
Leitao exceeded expectations for two seasons before the loss of guards J.R. Reynolds and later Sean Singletary - not to mention dwindling crowds at John Paul Jones, which averaged more than 4,000 below capacity last season - led to diminishing fortunes and another coaching change.
A single season doesn’t stand out, but Virginia has a basketball image to replenish after going 222-200 (and 88-136 in the ACC) the past 14 years. Virginia earned three NCAA invitations since an Elite Eight run in 1995, fewer than every ACC school besides Florida State and Virginia Tech.
“It is shocking and unacceptable,” said new assistant Jason Williford, a member of the 1995 team. “We’re hoping to correct that.”
It will take time and an extended recruiting push. The Cavaliers earned a commitment from Buffalo, N.Y., forward Will Regan this past weekend, but that’s only the start for Bennett - who assembled an interesting blend of assistants for his first East Coast job.
Williford, previously an assistant at American, is well-connected locally. Ron Sanchez, one of Bennett’s assistants at Washington State, began his career in New York. Ritchie McKay, a veteran head coach, spent the past two years at Liberty and recruited Seth Curry to the Lynchburg, Va., school.
But Virginia doesn’t exist in a vacuum and has not distinguished itself in recent years.