Written By Sam Ekstrom (ZoneCoverage.com)
“The Road Ends Here.” That’s what Virginia head coach Tony Bennett was reminded when he was handed a commemorative paddle upon arrival in Minneapolis with the mantra emblazoned on it.
For Bennett, that rang true on many different levels.
Monday will be the culmination of the 2018-19 college basketball season — either Virginia or Texas Tech will be crowned a champion at U.S. Bank Stadium. But for Bennett and Virginia, the journey pre-dates this season. It includes 2018’s embarrassing first-round loss to 16-seed UMBC. Previous failures as 1- and 2-seeds. Bennett’s transformation of the program from an ACC doormat. And his relationship with his father, Dick Bennett, who laid the groundwork for Tony Bennett’s defensive system yet was unable to win a championship despite almost 500 coaching wins.
It was Dick Bennett himself who stepped aside at Washington State back in 2006 to give his son his first crack at being a Division I head coach, having never won the elusive championship.
“What my dad did for me, he took Wisconsin to the Final Four, he retired, and then he decided to come out of retirement,” said Tony Bennett. “We went to Washington State, and I was his assistant or associate head coach, and he took the bullets for three years. It was hard. He lost. He had been at the top, and he did it, and he said, ‘I can’t go any more, but I think you have a chance. I don’t know if you can turn it around.’
“Talk about a father’s love for his son in that regard.”
Tony Bennett was also a Wisconsin assistant when he watched his father lead the Badgers to the Final Four in 2000 as an 8-seed without a player scoring over 12 points per game. They held their opponents to 60 or below in all five NCAA Tournament games, losing eventually to Tom Izzo and Michigan State in the semi-final. The younger Bennett admits that experience helped him create his own “blueprint” for success.
“I think they’d only been to one NCAA Tournament [in about] 40 years,” Bennett said. “I don’t want to misquote it, but it was an amazing stat, and I saw him have to rebuild it in the Big Ten and how he did it, and then the same thing at Washington State.
“So to have that experience to know that defense can be an equalizer and use that is important. I think at all levels not many teams advance without being strong defensively, even in the NBA. That’s what I knew, and I’ve seen it work and be successful, and then you always continue to adjust your offense, but that probably sealed it for me as I watched the success come.”
Bennett took over in 2009, and after two seasons of laying a foundation the Cavaliers have made the NCAA Tournament each of the last eight years, and only once have they finished below second in the nation in opponents’ scoring average, when they were fifth in 2012-13.
But in 2017-18 that defense betrayed Virginia at the worst time, as they allowed a season-high 74 points and got outscored by 20 points after halftime in a 74-54 loss to Maryland-Baltimore County — the first 16-over-1 upset in NCAA Tournament history.
That defeat shone the spotlight even hotter on Bennett and his program. Sure, they were able to grind out regular season wins, but after missing the Final Four with four teams that were 1- or 2-seeds, was there a flaw in Bennett’s system? A decade in, and no Final Fours. Meanwhile, ACC foes Duke, North Carolina and Louisville were claiming titles of their own.
Out of major-conference programs, only Kentucky, Kansas and Duke have better winning percentages than Virginia since 2011-12. Bennett’s .740 winning percentage with the Cavaliers is the program’s best — now he has a chance to punctuate it with a title. It’s a similar situation to Jay Wright at Villanova before winning two of the last three championships. Wright was fruitlessly a top-three seed five times before the Wildcats broke through in 2016. To win their title they needed a dramatic game-winning 3-pointer at the buzzer. Virginia has had its share of drama to reach the championship with two consecutive improbable finishes at the regulation buzzer.
“Karmic payback,” Bennett calls it.
The Virginia coach hasn’t avoided the fact that losses from the past, especially last year’s, helped him grow, brought the team closer together and made the current season all the more important. He admits he’s felt a certain pre-destined quality about this year’s Cavaliers.
“I believe our steps are ordered,” he said. “I think you walk and you do everything you can with the abilities you’ve been given as players, as coaches, and then you trust. I believe that. So the fact that we’re here, yeah, I think there’s been a hand in this. In my life, I’d be foolish not to believe that.”
Dick Bennett, now 75, has followed Virginia every step of the way. In an interview after the Cavaliers won their regional final in overtime over Purdue, he said the victory felt as good as any he’d had in his coaching past. Perhaps that’s because Tony Bennett is an extension of his father, carrying out the dream he had — with the vision he carried.
“There’s some great memories I have with my dad, and I knew his dream was to one day coach in a Final Four and perhaps win it,” said Bennett, “and to be a part of seeing him reach that dream, beating Purdue ironically in the Elite Eight, I stand in awe of that because, when you see others experience a great desire and accomplish it, in a way it’s sweeter.”