- Tony Bennett, the AP coach of the year, has to deal with the aftermath of Virginia's NCAA tournament loss to UMBC as the No. 1 overall seed. Villanova's Jay Wright dealt with bad losses, too, and came out of it OK.
SAN ANTONIO – Jay Wright used to be Tony Bennett. Not literally, though that would be a hell of a story. But Wright’s story then was Bennett’s story now. Wright won a lot of games, made NCAA tournaments, and made Final Fours in Most Handsome Coach brackets but not in the real thing. Nobody looked better shaking the opponent’s hand after losing in March.
Villanova lost in the second round as a No. 2 seed —twice. The Wildcats also lost in the second round as a No. 1 seed. They made one Final Four, in 2009, but for a solid decade, one of the first rules of bracket-picking was: Stay away from Villanova.
Then a Final Four happened, and Kris Jenkins’s shot happened, and another Final Four happened, and now Wright is here at that second Final Four in three years—his third overall. And now everything he says sounds like The Way Things Should Be Done.
He says he can’t give a good answer on college basketball’s transfer epidemic because Villanova is not active in the transfer market. He says his staff spends more time helping players develop academically and socially than on the court, and he says they convince players that they will never be the best basketball players they can be if they are lousy people or lazy students. And none of it sounds like a distraction or an excuse because Jay Wright does not need distractions or excuses. He is at his second Final Four in three years. He has won a national championship. He can just be himself.
Tony Bennett is here, too, at Jay Wright’s second Final Four in three years. Bennett, of course, just suffered the humiliation of coaching the first No. 1 seed to lose to a No. 16 seed—his Virginia Cavaliers were blown out (blown out!) by Maryland-Baltimore County. But Bennett was just named National Coach of the Year by the Associated Press. He had to pick up the award and take another round of tough questions and probably six more rounds of UMBC jokes.
The whole press conference was basically about UMBC. Well, it had to be. That is the story of Virginia basketball right now.
“I got a great text from one of my players, Ty Jerome,” Bennett said. “And he said, ‘Coach, this is now part of our story, and we get to respond to it the way we want.’”
Bennett now is Jay Wright then, and that means two things. One, he is doing a heck of a job. Wright revived Villanova basketball when people weren’t sure it could be revived. He took over from Steve Lappas and made the Wildcats a perennial tournament team.
Bennett has done an even better job. He coaches in a league with Mike Krzyzewski, Roy Williams, Jim Boeheim and, until this year, Rick Pitino … and he wins it as often as he doesn’t. Here is how you know Bennett has done one of the great jobs in the last generation of college basketball: How much thought did you even give Virginia basketball before he started winning? Can you even name the coach he replaced?
It was Dave Leitao. I had to look it up.
Wright’s early success, like Bennett’s, was real. But his tourney problem was real, too. He solved it with patience, and by owning it instead of running it, and also by making subtle adjustments to his program. He didn’t tear it down. That would have been dumb. But Wright started recruiting more for fit and less on the raw talent that became available to him after the 2009 Final Four. He know has that rarest of college basketball teams: efficient, low-maintenance and good enough to win it all.
Bennett can keep doing what he has always done and make a Final Four eventually. At some point, if you’re that good, a run just happens. The bracket collapses around you. You win some tight games. You make a Final Four.
But Bennett would also be wise to adjust his program. Not a lot. Just enough. Virginia would not have risen this high if he coached like everybody else—Virginia’s methodical, slow-ball approach, built on his Pack Line Defense and relentless toughness and effort, was exactly what the program needed.
But now? Now Bennett can improve upon what he has already built. Virginia should be good enough now to win in multiple ways – fast and slow, big and small, against various defensive schemes. Doing it that way may mean a few more regular-season losses. It will mean consciously scheduling nonconference games against teams that play a variety of styles, just to prepare for March. It may mean recruiting one player every year that Bennett would not have otherwise recruited. Virginia basketball is far from broken, or fraudulent, or whatever people want to say about it. But it can be better. And then Tony Bennett can go to more Final Fours, and he can bring his team.