CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (AP) — Virginia men’s basketball coach Tony Bennett has built the Cavaliers into one of the nation’s elite programs.
The Cavaliers are enjoying arguably the most successful stretch in school history. Their No. 1 ranking is the program’s first since the Ralph Sampson era ended 35 years ago.
They are also the top overall seed in the NCAA Tournament and have won 30 or more games three of the last five years.
Virginia’s style of play receives the majority of headlines — the Cavaliers are essentially a slow-down team, committed to the idea that they can not only find a high-percentage shot before the shot clock runs out, but prevent less-disciplined teams from doing so. Their Pack-Line defense has routinely been ranked among the most effective in the nation.
One of the main reasons the system works so well is Bennett’s roster usually features upperclassmen with NBA talent, from Joe Harris to Malcolm Brogdon to London Perrantes. Bennett, the 2018 ACC coach of the year, has been able to find — and recruit — players committed to not only buying into his system, but staying in school.
“There are certain programs that are upperclassmen programs where the guys improve. Unless you can recruit all the top 10, top 20 players, you need guys … that will be patient, see a little success and get better and better,” Bennett said, listing Brogdon, Harris, Perrantes, Mike Tobey and Devon Hall as examples.
The Cavaliers’ outright Atlantic Coast Conference title this season was their third in five years, something even Sampson, a three-time national player of the year, didn’t achieve. They rolled through the ACC’s regular season, including victories at home against North Carolina and on the road at Duke — Virginia’s first win in Durham in 23 years. Then they captured the ACC Tournament title in New York , finishing 20-1 against league competition.
Bennett, who is 219-85 in nine seasons at Virginia, credits experience with making that success possible.
Perrantes, a four-year starter at Virginia, has a two-way contract with the Cleveland Cavaliers. He has appeared in only three games with Cleveland and has spent most of his time with the Canton Charge of the NBA G League.
Part of what has made Virginia successful, Perrantes said, is that Bennett knows the kind of player he wants.
“Yeah, he’s definitely trying to find the guys who are going to fit in,” Perrantes said. “Obviously, he wants to get good recruits, high-level players, but he wants to make sure that they fit into his program and he has built his program on that, and for him to kind of go outside of that and try to get someone who doesn’t fit would mess it up.”
Harris, with the Brooklyn Nets, followed Bennett to Virginia when the school hired him away from Washington State. He’s the first of Bennett’s recruits that stayed at least four years and then made it to the NBA.
Harris also helped set a leadership tone for upperclassmen that has carried on since his departure.
“They’ve seen it, they’ve been through it, they know what matters,” Bennett said. “It takes a while and I don’t want to say it’s recreated itself, but … Malcolm watched Joe, and then those guys watched Malcolm.”
Brogdon, the ACC player of the year and defensive player of the year as a senior, was drafted in the second round by the Milwaukee Bucks in 2016 and was named the NBA’s Rookie of the Year.
Tobey was undrafted, but signed a couple of 10-day contracts with the Charlotte Hornets after signing with their G-League affiliate. And Mike Scott, currently with the Washington Wizards, is a player that was already on the roster when Bennett was hired. He’s a six-year NBA veteran who spent five years at Virginia after a medical redshirt.
Hall, a second team All-ACC selection this year , is one of the leaders this season at Virginia, along with fellow senior Isaiah Wilkins, the ACC’s defensive player of the year . Wilkins is the Cavaliers’ best defensive player and rebounder, and said leadership is something he’s learned as he’s gone along.
“You pick up little things from every single person,” he said.
Hall is something of a poster child for the patience Bennett looks for in players. Hall opted to redshirt his first season when it seemed playing time would be scarce and has developed steadily ever since. He said at the time redshirting was disappointing, but now, he appreciates what an extra year has given him.
“I think it’s a matter of growing and that year really helped me do that,” he said. “I learned and I got better just working on my game. In this program, everybody wants the instant success and it’s hard to find that.
“I was humbled once I got here but I was able to learn and learn and learn and grow and grow.”
Hall’s route is the same one De’Andre Hunter, the ACC’s sixth man of the year , has followed. He’s averaging 9.2 points on 48.8 percent shooting and has led the team in scoring six times with a high of 23.
Advice from Hall helped Hunter come to terms with his disappointment over spending his first season practicing with the team, but having to watch from the bench during games.
“He just told me to be confident and work on my game. That’s what he did,” Hunter said. “He worked on his game and got better for the next season and as you can see, he just gets better and better every year.”
Just like the rest of the Cavaliers.
AP Sports Writers Brian Mahoney in New York and Tom Withers in Cleveland contributed.
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