An article in The Athletic casts doubt on Tony Bennett’s ability to adapt to the changing college basketball landscape, echoing thoughts I’ve had since the beginning of the silly season two months ago.
Namely, is Bennett, whose program is built on getting guys in, training them up as freshmen and sophomores, eventually getting production out of them as upperclassmen, long for this new day of rosters turning over seemingly each spring?
Bennett addressed this to his interlocutors from The Athletic, who can’t know how fortunate they are to get to talk with him out of season, or in season, or anytime outside of a press conference with a couple dozen other scribes hanging on his every word.
I’m so far out of the circle of people who can rightfully think they can get the chance to do this that I don’t even ask.
“Can we do everything in our power to keep these guys together for two or three years? I think everyone is in experimental mode right now, and I’m not saying 100 percent that it can be done. But you have to do things that are aligned with your university, aligned with how you want to do things, and then run your program the way you want it to run,” Bennett told The Athletic guys.
Interesting that he talked there about keeping guys together for “two or three years.”
These aren’t the days of yore, when Bennett could count on having Joe Harris, Anthony Gill and London Perrantes for four years, Malcolm Brogdon, Jay Huff, Devon Hall and Mamadi Diakite for five.
Even De’Andre Hunter, the #4 pick in the 2019 NBA Draft, hung around for three, and one of those was a redshirt year.
The shelf life in the transfer portal era is down from four or five to two or three, but Bennett was able to work around that this past season, riding a team anchored by 2021 transfers Armaan Franklin and Jayden Gardner and 2022 transfer Ben Vander Plas to the program’s sixth ACC regular-season championship since 2014.
It took this most recent group a year, though, to play at a championship level. The 2021-2022 ‘Hoos missed the NCAA Tournament, a sign of the growing pains that comes with having to rely on newcomers to learn Bennett’s intricate Packline defense.
The makeshift rotations the past two years didn’t play up to Bennett-era standards – ranking 59th and 25th, respectively, in adjusted defensive efficiency the past two seasons, according to KenPom.com.
It takes time not only for individual players to pick up the nuances of the defense, but then for groups to be able to gel.
Bennett’s best teams – the 2014 Sweet Sixteen group, the 2016 Elight Eight team, the 2019 national-title heroes – all were anchored by guys who had been around for a while, individually and collectively.
That may be a thing of the past, with Bennett, two years after having to restock with Franklin and Gardner, having to raid the transfer portal again this spring.
One longtime ACC assistant coach told us that he thinks Bennett might have a better rotation to work with next year than he had on his way to this year’s ACC regular-season title – with the addition of big-time scorers Jordan Minor and Andrew Rohde, point guard Dante Harris and 6’9” perimeter marksman Jake Groves.
If, and this is a big “if,” Reece Beekman, who is testing the NBA Draft waters, decides to return for one more go at it, Virginia could have, talent-wise, anyway, a Final Four ceiling next season.
That’s assuming Bennett and his staff can get a rotation with five new guys to pick up the Packline, so, another big “if” there.
The column from The Athletic guys comes at a time when I’ve been hearing rumblings from people on the periphery of the program who wonder if Bennett is in this for the long haul.
I’d point to the restocking of the cupboard that he was able to pull off the past few weeks as evidence that his head and his heart are both there.
There may need to be some tweaks to the X’s and O’s, but everything else about Bennett’s program – the emphasis on character in recruiting, his Five Pillars as the foundation – works whether the germination period is four or five years, or two or three years.
“A lot of people will count us out and say they lost all this experience, but it excites me to be able to work with these new guys that I think have the same vision as I do,” Bennett said. “I’m not pretending to have all the answers, but I believe we’re headed in a good direction.”