The look on Tony Bennett’s face gave nothing away, not satisfaction, not delight, not even a coach’s pessimistic concern when all is going well.
As his team was in the middle of an 18-2 run to open the second half Sunday night, as North Carolina coach Roy Williams yanked five new players off his bench and argued with official Brian Dorsey so vehemently his tie flipped up and wrapped itself around his neck, Bennett watched impassively, hands in his pockets in front of the Virginia bench, seemingly without a care in the world at that moment.
The Virginia job was, for Bennett’s predecessors, a constant source of stress, misery and heartburn, pushing Pete Gillen’s face to new shades of crimson and driving Dave Leitao to desperation. After Sunday’s 75-60 blowout of the Tar Heels, Bennett is making it look easy.
Bennett has taken the collection of talent Leitao left him, one that finished second-to-last in the ACC last season, and turned it into a team capable of finishing in the top half of the league, one capable of winning at the Smith Center for the first time in more than eight years.
Virginia won four ACC games last season. Bennett won that many this month.
“I really didn’t have expectations in terms of wins and losses, Bennett said. “I wanted it to be about quality, and I wanted these guys to get a feel for when they play defensively the right way, they have a chance to be in games, and to come together a little more offensively. That has happened at moments. At times, we’ve looked pretty poor, I’ll be honest.”
The conference may be down this year -- that much, at this point, is abundantly clear -- but Bennett’s new peers haven’t capitalized the way he has.
He has done it with some impressive in-season coaching: working freshman point guard Jontel Evans into the lineup; getting valuable minutes (and points) out of heretofore role players like Sammy Zeglinski and Jerome Meyenisse; asking, and getting, a lot from stars Sylven Landesberg and Mike Scott. (Landesberg hung 29 on the Tar Heels on Sunday.)
The early results were not impressive, and losses to South Florida, Stanford, Penn State and Auburn certainly didn’t bode well, but that 3-0 start to ACC play proved Sunday to be no mirage.
The Cavaliers bounced back from losses to Wake Forest and Virginia Tech -- blowing a late double-digit lead in the latter -- with a complete performance in Chapel Hill against a North Carolina team that has quite clearly lost its way, able to summon one night’s energy to defeat a rival but unequipped to do it under normal circumstances.
While the Tar Heels stagger through the season, the Cavaliers continue to exceed expectations in Bennett’s first season in Charlottesville.
They have bought into his concepts on both sides of the ball, challenging everything on defense, waiting patiently to find the open man on offense, cutting to the basket with purpose. And if Bennett doesn’t have the athletes and talent to do everything he would like right now, it’s easy to see how well it’s all going to work soon.
Bennett watched as his father Dick built winning programs at Wisconsin-Green Bay and Wisconsin, then finished the job at Washington State. This progression is nothing new to him or his family.
But the Cavaliers have come so far, so fast, even by those standards.
“It validates it when you have a performance or two like this,” Bennett said, before walking out of the Smith Center in a way so few coaches have in their first visit: with a win.