Editor’s note: During the next five weeks, we will reveal the top 50 coaches in college basketball, as decided by our ESPN Forecast panel. Today we unveil No. 14: Virginia’s Tony Bennett. On Wednesday, we release No. 13.
Virginia’s Tony Bennett finally broke free of being restricted by the labels that defined his teams.
Critics can no longer claim his style is too slow to ever win big in the ACC. This past season proved that the Cavaliers shed much of that reputation en route to their first ACC regular-season title since 1981 and their first tournament title since 1976.
Entering his sixth season in Charlottesville, Virginia, the only description that matters for Bennett now is that the Cavs are contenders again.
Virginia will be among the preseason favorites to win the league as it returns seven of the top nine in its rotation from last season.
The Cavs' defense will again likely keep them in any game.
Bennett, who received a seven-year contract earlier this month, long ago attached his coaching brand to defense and the “pack-line” philosophy that his father carefully crafted. Since becoming a head coach in 2006 at Washington State, Bennett has had only two teams that allowed more than 60 points per game.
Virginia led the nation in scoring defense this past season, allowing opponents just 55.7 points per game. That also made it the Cavaliers’ third consecutive season -- in Bennett's five years at the helm -- leading the ACC in scoring defense. In the storied history of the league, such a streak of at least three seasons has been accomplished only twice: Maryland from 1954-59 and Virginia from 1975-78.
Thing is, that stingy defense was partly attributed to an offense that was too deliberate -- some might even say boring -- and had trouble scoring.
During Bennett’s five years at Virginia, his teams have not averaged more than 70 points per game in a season. That’s the longest such streak without cracking 70 since the Cavs became a charter member of the ACC in 1953-54.
Games had to be played in slower tempos and half-court sets for Virginia to win. Early in this past season, it followed the same narrative in losses to VCU (59-56) and Wisconsin (48-38). But as the season progressed, Bennett worked the Cavs out of their scoring doldrums by diversifying their options.
Malcolm Brogdon led the team in scoring with 12.7 points per game, and he wasn’t even regarded as the best player. That distinction belonged to Joe Harris, whom Bennett convinced to take fewer shots in order to make the team that much harder to defend.
It proved to be the right formula in wins over North Carolina (76-61), Syracuse (75-56) and Duke (72-63). It might not seem like much, but the Cavs’ 66.2-point scoring average last season was their highest in Bennett’s tenure. They continue to trend upward as they’ve made incremental scoring increases in each of the last four seasons.
They can run when they want to, and score as they need to with balance on offense that would make Gregg Popovich proud.
Brogdon and London Perrantes will form one of the league’s best backcourts. Brogdon, a rising junior, developed into a go-to scorer after sitting out the 2012-13 season with a foot injury. With the departures of Harris and Akil Mitchell, Brogdon could assume more of the scoring load next season, but the offense will still have many options. Anthony Gill and Justin Anderson have the experience to bring continuity to the starting lineup.
With Virginia’s offense slowly coming around, expectations of another NCAA tournament Sweet 16 appearance could be just the start for the Cavs next season.