Commentary

Bennett out to debunk stereotypes

Virginia will play defense, but new coach insists system isn't a one-trick pony

Originally Published: May 4, 2009
By Andy Katz | ESPN.com

Tony Bennett wants quality shots, whether they come early in the shot clock or late.

He doesn't want to slow the game down, play at a boring pace and completely lull the crowd at Virginia's John Paul Jones Arena to sleep.

Got that?

The misconception about Bennett is that he wants to bore you to death with basketball. Yes, sometimes it can occur if the defenses are locked in and both teams make the basket look sealed. And then, on other occasions, a Bennett-coached team can make the game look as free-flowing as any perceived up-tempo affair.

Tony Bennett
AP Photo/Ted S. WarrenTony Bennett no doubt stresses defense, but the new UVa coach insists his style isn't to always slow it down.

Remember Washington State's 82-81 win at UCLA last season? Was that a dull game?

Not one bit.

Yet the perception Bennett had to change almost immediately when he made the move from Pullman to Charlottesville -- the most surprising move of any in the coaching carousel -- is that he's the kind of person you don't want to invite to a party because he'll just stand there with a deadpan expression and say nothing.

When Bennett met with signee Tristan Spurlock soon after accepting the UVa job, Bennett had to pull out a video to show Spurlock he's not trapped coaching in a time warp before the introduction of the shot clock.

"There is a stereotype," Bennett said. "I had to show him that it's not like what he had heard. I had to ease his mind."

The Cougars could score with Kyle Weaver, Derrick Low and Robbie Cowgill as the core of the school's back-to-back NCAA tournament appearances. Taylor Rochestie and Aron Baynes, complemented by freshman Klay Thompson, ensured the Cougs stayed competitive at a postseason level after that trio graduated.

Wazzu led the nation in scoring defense last season and was third the year before that, but the goal wasn't just to get to 50 points and call it a night.

"I still hear it, from time to time, about how fun it was to walk it up all the time," said Rochestie, an outgoing senior point guard. "[Bennett] tells you to push it, but to get good shots, and on defense to make the offense take tough shots. Each game can call for a different situation, and that's what happened in that UCLA game."

Rochestie said the Cougars did have a tendency to rest a bit on offense when they were drained from a gritty, exhausting defensive possession.

Through a few weeks in individual workouts, Virginia's ACC Freshman of the Year guard Sylven Landesberg already saw the importance of defense.

"We've been playing fast, but we've been really working on fundamentals," Landesberg said. "He just wants your dribbling and your jump shot to be efficient. I've already seen how big he is on defense and playing one-on-one. He's big on getting that stop on the defensive end. I've learned so much already."

Landesberg, who scored a team-best 16.6 ppg last season, disputes any notion that Bennett will slow the game down no matter what. He said Bennett saw them scrimmage, and there was no indication he was going to force the Cavaliers to walk if they have the opportunity to run.

Breaking the myths of style and substance is only one part of Bennett's charge. He has to get to know the UVa players as much as possible. His strength in Pullman was his people skills.

Under Bennett's father, Dick, the Cougars lost their share of games early on. Losing taught them how to win. Tony Bennett was the benefactor of the early, sparse years of the aforementioned Low-Weaver-Cowgill crew, and when he took over for his dad, the Cougars were an NCAA tournament team because they were ready to win.

None of Virginia's top six players were seniors. They now have the experience of losing together, finishing at 4-12 in the ACC, 10-18 overall.

Landesberg didn't rip former UVa coach Dave Leitao. Rather, he said Leitao's method of coaching was "intense," and his approach was to push until the player was mad enough to perform at a higher level.

Rochestie said Bennett's door was literally always open. Not being too far removed from playing in the NBA helped, too. Bennett played three seasons for the Charlotte Hornets after being drafted in the second round in 1992.

"He really made us believe in him, made us believe in something bigger than ourselves," Rochestie said. "He's the type of coach where you can walk into his office and say 'This isn't working.' But he's willing to change. In the ACC, it may call for more running. But he always focuses on defense."

Bennett can be the heavy. But he still knows how to get the players to trust him and consider that he has their best interests in mind.

Tony Bennett
AP Photo/Dean HareBennett led WSU to its first NCAA tourney in 13 years in his first season, and then to its first Sweet 16 ever in his second.

"That allows you to push them out of their comfort zone and toughen them up," said the 39-year-old Bennett. "I don't know any other way. I build a relationship and I challenge."

Bennett was the national coach of the year in his first season at Washington State. He took the Cougars to two NCAA tournaments and one NIT during his three-year tenure. Washington State had been to only four NCAA tournaments before Bennett's arrival. By year No. 2, he had the school in its first-ever Sweet 16.

Virginia has had its droughts, too. The Cavaliers have made only 16 NCAA appearances, and only two in the past dozen seasons: in 2001 under Pete Gillen and in 2007 under Leitao. UVa has exactly one tournament win since advancing to the 1995 Elite Eight.

And make no mistake: Climbing up the ladder in the ACC is no joke. There are no dysfunctional programs.

To build his staff, Bennett hired as his top assistant the head coach of nearby Liberty University, Ritchie McKay. In addition to having ties to the state of Virginia -- Bennett, keep in mind, was raised in the Midwest and coached only at Wisconsin and Washington State -- McKay has extensive head-coaching experience. He's been in charge at Portland State, Colorado State, Oregon State, New Mexico and Liberty.

Bennett said he met with the local area AAU coaches to show his face, and to make sure everyone knows he wants to keep key players home. But he's not going to alter his approach.

If he could pick a model program, he said it would probably be the Mike Montgomery-led Stanford, where the Cardinal were able to win for nearly 20 years by bringing in low-maintenance but NBA-level players to an elite academic institution, the latter an apt description of the University of Virginia.

"I'm going to build this the right way so it lasts," Bennett said. "[The slow-down perception] never bothered me. I just want these kids to find a way to play to be competitive and successful."

Andy Katz is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Andy Katz | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com