Tony Bennett Is Bringing The Glory Days Back To Virginia Basketball


It is the age-old question for basketball coaches, players and fans: At the end of the game, would you rather your team be down one point with the ball, or would you rather they be on defense with a one-point lead?

In a world where offense sells tickets and dominates the headlines, the majority of those in the basketball community would take the ball in a heartbeat.

University of Virginia head coach Tony Bennett begs to differ.

On January 14, 2015, Bennett’s second-ranked Cavaliers found themselves on the ropes against underdog Wake Forest. The Demon Deacons methodically chipped away at a 13-point deficit and made things very interesting with time winding down.

Trailing by two with 17 seconds remaining, Wake’s Codi Miller-Mcintyre knocked down one of two free throws and secured his own rebound, which prompted head coach Danny Manning to call a timeout and set up the winning play.

While the near-capacity crowd at Virginia's John Paul Jones Arena was uneasy about what had just transpired on the court, Bennett had the Deacs right where he wanted them.

The timeout allowed Bennett to set up his defense. The reigning ACC Coach of the Year instructed junior guard Malcolm Brogdon to stay in front of Miller-Mcintyre and not give him any room to breathe.

Brogdon did just that.

The All-ACC guard used his 6'5'' frame to hound his Demon Deacon counterpart and Miller-Mcintyre failed to even get a shot off before the buzzer sounded.

There was nothing fancy or noteworthy about Brogdon’s defensive stance; the junior simply kept his man in front of him, and Miller-McIntire eventually faltered.

Fast-forward 11 days to last Wednesday night and the Demon Deacons would get another shot at a Virginia team suddenly down two starters.

This time around, however, the Cavaliers held on to that vice-grip defense for the entire 40 minutes.

Virginia managed just nine more points than it did in round one with Wake, but the Deacs were held to 26 fewer.

Behind its relentless defense, UVA left Lawrence Joel Memorial Coliseum with a 70-34 romp, tying its best 27-game start in school history in the process.

Yes, Virginia, you do have a basketball team, and a darn good one at that.

The Wahoos currently sit at 15-1 in the Atlantic Coast Conference, and 27-1 overall for the first time since the 1981-82 season.

These are fun times in Charlottesville, and Wahoo Nation is partying like it’s 1982 all over again.

Virginia is, once again, the toast of the town -- only this time, the program took a much different route to get there.

In the 1980s, UVA was at the center of the college basketball universe, thanks to the incomparable Ralph Sampson.

With great fanfare, the 7'4'' center signed with Virginia in 1979 and led the Cavaliers to 112 wins throughout the next four years, including a run to the 1981 Final Four.

Sampson was the most talked about colligate athlete in the early 1980s, appearing on the cover of Sports Illustrated six times. The towering big man grabbed all the headlines, and along with Jeff Lamp, put UVA basketball on the map.

Virginia’s recent re-ascension to the nation’s elite was a much slower climb, and that is exactly how Bennett wanted it.

On the day he was hired in March 2009, Bennett exclaimed he wanted to build a program that lasts. Bennett later elaborated that he needed his team to learn how to lose together before they could win together.

The Cavaliers endured growing pains in Bennett’s first two years in Charlottesville, including 15-16 season, followed by a 16-15 campaign.

Despite the early struggles, it became clear toward the end of year number two that Bennett was on to something.

The 2010-11 version of the Virginia Cavaliers included a career reserve in Mustapha Farrakhan and former walk-on Will Sherrill, along with a quintet of newcomers.

Despite being outmatched in nearly every ACC contest, the scrappy Wahoos stayed in just about every game with their stifling defense.

As the years progressed and Bennett was able to incorporate more of his recruits into the program, wins followed. The Cavaliers won 22 games in 2012 and followed it up with a 23-win season in 2013.

The 2013-14 season represented the first time in the Bennett era that the Cavaliers included only Bennett’s players, and it is no accident that UVA walked away with the regular season and conference tournament titles.

Coming off of a 30-win season and a Sweet 16 appearance, many questioned whether Virginia’s exhilarating run in 2014 was a flash in the pan. Many wondered whether the Cavaliers could surpass, or even equal the success, without two key departing seniors.

They could and they did.

The Cavaliers have picked up right where they left off last March, and they have been doing it with — you guessed it — defense.

UVA leads the country in scoring defense, giving up an average of just 49.8 points per contest. As the competition has picked up, so, too, has Virginia's defense.

The Cavaliers have taken their potent pack-line defense to the next level, even holding three different teams to less than 30 (yes, 30) points in a game.

Furthermore, UVA has limited 13 opponents to fewer 50 points, including eight of its last 13 ACC foes.

The hallmark of the 2015 Virginia Cavaliers has been the team’s ability to keep the ball rolling, even without the services of key players.

In December, starting forward Darion Atkins was sidelined for Virginia’s game against VCU with a lower back injury, but that did not stop the Wahoos from going into Richmond and pounding the fast-paced Rams by 17 points.

At the beginning of February, leading scorer and arguably top defender Justin Anderson suffered a broken pinkie on his shooting hand, which will likely keep him from playing for the remainder of the regular season.

While Anderson is a huge loss, reserve wings Evan Nolte and Marial Shayok have picked up the slack defensively.

As if that weren’t enough, starting point guard London Perrantes suffered a concussion in a win over Florida State.

Perrantes is the engine that makes UVA go, but the Cavaliers were still able to improve to 26-1 without him against Wake Forest last week, before his winning return against Virginia Tech this past Saturday.

Virginia may not be winning with style points, but they are winning, and that is the beauty of Bennett’s system. No matter who is on the floor, the defensive mindset stays the same and the entire roster knows the principals in their sleep.

Defense travels. You want proof? Virginia is currently in possession of the nation’s longest road-winning streak, with four of those victories coming against ranked opponents.

With a game at Syracuse (ACC rival) Monday night, the Wahoos are currently one win away from clinching the conference's regular season crown for a second consecutive year.

Virginia ascended to the top of the polls without a single McDonald's All-American, or even a five-star recruit.

Whether the 'Hoos are making the extra pass on offense or rotating for a post-trap on defense, this group has mastered all of the little things that add up to a championship-caliber squad.

Bennett has improved his win total in each of his previous five years in Charlottesville and is four victories from accomplishing it, once again, in 2015.

Regardless of what happens in the month of March, the blueprint has been laid for success for many years to come at UVA.