A month short of five years ago, Tony Bennett up and left Washington State to go to Virginia. Saturday, in front of a delirious house in Charlottesville, Bennett’s team rocked Syracuse, 75-56, and – I can’t really believe I’m typing this – won the Atlantic Coast Conference regular-season title.
That’s the ACC, not only with Duke and North Carolina, but Syracuse, which began the season unbeaten at 25-0.
As the last seconds clicked off the clock, you could see a tear leak from Bennett’s eye.
Virginia has but one loss in the ACC, to Duke, and the Blue Devils were a bit lucky to pull that off back in mid-January at home. They needed a late, key three from the corner that bounced up and around the rim before connecting, and then added an unlikely free throw, the one-in-a-hundred kind that wedges between neck and backboard and drops through.
After the Cavaliers had lured Bennett from Washington State with a $1.7-a-year-contract, I recall getting asked on a local radio show whether Bennett-to-Virginia made any sense. This isn’t an I-told-you-so moment — I never would have thought Virginia capable of winning a regular-season title — but indeed, I thought it was a good fit.
Bennett was going to a highly respected academic school and bringing a possession-by-possession game built around sturdy defense to a league noted for getting up and down the floor. Had he coached the same style as they were playing in the ACC, it wouldn’t have made sense. But he was infusing something different, and that was a good thing, much as the defensive-oriented style he and his father Dick brought to WSU, and Ben Howland brought to UCLA, had provided fits for the rest of the Pac-10.
To date, the ride hadn’t been all smooth for Bennett in Virginia. Until this year, they had a pattern of coughing up some leads and failing to deliver down the stretch. They even lost a game to Seattle U. in Charlottesville in his second season.
Entering this season, Bennett’s program was 34-34 in ACC games in four seasons, and he had an NCAA appearance – one and done – plus one NIT. Nothing to write home about.
Then late in December, the Cavaliers got blitzed at Tennessee, 87-52, and you wouldn’t have found a lot of people about then who foresaw what was coming.
On ESPN after the game, Bennett said he had had a message from his father Dick to relay to his team.
“I want to see a great man-to-man team beat a great zone team,” the younger Bennett recalled his dad saying. “They did that.”
Did they ever. The Cavaliers broke open a tight game several minutes into the second half and had things entirely their way from then on. To be fair, Syracuse has been hurt by a back injury to explosive forward Jerami Grant.
On another coast, Cougar fans can only shake their heads and recall what they had. Five years after he left, WSU is short on talent and probably about to make a coaching change. And the school again has to make a case that winning can be accomplished there by mortal men, not only miracle workers.