There’s no real secret to how Virginia has taken over the ACC.
At least, not the way Terry Holland sees it. To Holland, the former Virginia coach and athletic director, there’s a pretty straight-forward explanation for the Cavaliers’ remarkable success the past two seasons under coach Tony Bennett.
“They just play so well together,” said Holland, who coached the Cavaliers from 1975 until 1990. “I’ve never seen a team that plays that well together. They’re so unselfish and it’s every night.”
Virginia, ranked No. 2 in the country, has been about as consistent as you can get in ACC play the past two seasons. The Cavaliers have posted back-to-back 16-2 conference records and enter this week’s ACC tournament as the No. 1 seed.
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The Cavaliers (28-3) finished first last season and won their first ACC title since Holland’s second team did in 1976.
Virginia is the first team from outside the state of North Carolina to finish first in the ACC in two straight seasons. The ACC recognizes only one champion, the team that wins the tournament, but in increasingly popular parlance Bennett has won the ACC “regular-season” championship twice.
No matter the semantics, going 16-2 against a conference with four hall of fame coaches and two of the best traditional programs in college basketball history is an accomplishment.
“You have to be impressed,” Holland said.
If you look at the national rankings, you almost have to do a double take: No. 1 Kentucky, No. 2 Virginia, No. 3 Duke.
It’s like a Sesame Street song: “One of these things is not like the other.”
And that’s perfectly fine for Bennett, who has built a winner on defense and experience.
Bennett, who’s in his sixth season, has done well on the recruiting trail, but he hasn’t tried to beat Duke or Kentucky at their own game of accumulating talent.
Of the nine players in Kentucky’s regular rotation, eight were ranked in the top 25 of their respective recruiting classes by ESPN and eight were McDonald’s All-American. The ninth player is perhaps Kentucky’s most valuable, junior forward Willie Cauley-Stein who was ranked 40th in his prep class by ESPN.
At Duke, all eight of its rotation players were McDonald’s All-Americans and five ranked in the top 25 of their respective recruiting classes.
Virginia doesn’t have anyone in its regular rotation that was ranked in the top 25 and Bennett has signed only one top 50 player in his six seasons (junior guard Justin Anderson was ranked No. 49 in the 2012 class by ESPN).
Bennett, a former NBA guard and son of a legendary coach, has gotten the best of the bluebloods by building a better mousetrap.
“No offense to Virginia but at Virginia, you’re not going to go out and out-recruit everybody,” said CBS analyst Dan Bonner, himself a former Virginia basketball player in the 1970s.
“What Tony has done is not only build a system but find the right players for that system.”
A winning system
Ah, the “system.” Critics bluntly refer to Virginia’s defense-first style as boring. Bennett prefers effective.
The Cavaliers don’t score a lot of points (65.5 per game), but they don’t give up many either. In the past four seasons, the Cavaliers have ranked in the top 5 in the country in scoring defense. This year’s team allows an average of 50.3 points per game, the best mark in the country.
Bennett’s father, Dick, created the “Pack line” defense, which at its essence makes the opponent earn every point they get.
The Cavaliers double team the post and switch often, but the success in the defensive system is understanding it.
The only way to understand it is to have experienced players.
One advantage Bennett has over a program like Duke or Kentucky is the ability to keep and develop players. It’s similar to the way Brad Stevens was able to take Butler to the Final Four in 2010 and again in ’11.
While the traditional powers reload with one-and-done stars, Virginia develops players and a team.
Juniors Malcolm Brogdon, Mike Tobey and Anthony Gill all played significant roles in Virginia’s 72-63 win against Duke in last year’s ACC title game, so did sophomore London Perrantes. All four will be on the floor for the Cavaliers when they open tournament play Thursday.
It’s like Holland said, there’s something about the way they play together. The only way to play together is to stay together.
Next year, Brogdon, Tobey, Gill, Perrantes will all likely be back. How many other programs will be able to say the same?