Virginia Men’s Basketball Coach Tony Bennett wasn’t surprised by anything he experienced during his first stint coaching for USA Basketball. Bennett had participated in the organization as a player in 1989 at the U.S. Olympic Festival and in 1991 as a member of the USA Pan-American Games squad.
But as one of three court coaches charged with helping form the 12-player U.S. roster for the 2011 World University Games, Bennett said several of the messages he preaches to the Cavaliers were re-enforced during the training camp held in Colorado Springs, Colo. from July 29-Aug. 7.
“I told this to our team when I got back: If you have a flaw in your game, if there’s a weakness you have, it’s going to be exposed in that setting,” Bennett said Tuesday. “If you’re a little shaky handling the ball, that was going to show up because guys are getting after you. If you have a little trouble getting by people off the dribble or if you couldn’t spread out and slide to keep up … it gets exposed pretty quickly. You’ve got to figure out a way to play with (your weakness).”
Bennett, Arizona Coach Sean Miller and Virginia Commonwealth Coach Shaka Smart were the three court coaches that helped Purdue Coach Matt Painter, who is the head coach of the U.S. squad for the World University Games, and his assistants, Cuonzo Martin (head coach at Tennessee) and Brad Stevens (head coach at Butler), run the training camp and decide on the team’s final roster composition.
Mostly, Bennett said, the court coaches were asked to run the players through certain drills and coach certain teams during scrimmages. The most interesting part of the experience occurred after the workout sessions ended and the coaching staff retreated to the meeting room with the giant white dry-erase board on the wall.
“It’s very similar” to how he and his staff at Virginia analyze their own team’s roster, Bennett said. “You sit there in front of the white board and it’s, ‘Okay, we have a couple point guards here. We’ve got to balance out the depth here. Do we want to play this way? … You’re putting names in groups and then switching them around to reflect different lineups. What if this guy gets hurt? What if there’s foul trouble? Do we have enough depth in these key positions?”
For the most part, Bennett said, he listened and kept quiet. After all, he was a court coach – a position that “gets your foot in the door” at USA Basketball – surrounded by Painter and members of the USA Basketball Men’s Junior National Team Committee, such as Washington Coach Lorenzo Romar and North Carolina Coach Roy Williams. Their voices carried much more weight in this particular circumstance.
But when it came to certain points, Bennett made his voice heard.
“There are some things that I feel strongly about from my experiences of having played internationally,” Bennett said. International play is “a different game. You’re going against men. Sometimes in a training camp there’s such extreme pressure and quickness. You get over there, not that that’s not going to be there, but it’s a different kind of game and athleticism that they’re going to see.
“So there are some things that you, from experience, can say, ‘This will be important, though it may not show as important in 20 elite athletes going at it.’ When you get over there and you’re playing against the Russians, they’re going to have 7-foot big guys, and you’re going to need guys who can (shoot). Maybe they can’t get by certain guys in camp, but over there it’s going to be different.”
The two things Bennett said he tried to stress to the group were the importance of solid point guard play and strong outside shooting.
And if a player – no matter how young he is or what conference his college team competes in – is performing well, play him.
“I remember being in that spot,” Bennett said. “I was just sitting there during some of those discussions and imagining, ‘Bennett? He played at (Wisconsin-)Green Bay. He’s off the board.’ So I just envisioned myself as who those coaches were talking about. It doesn’t matter if you’re from a mid-major or whatever.”
Bennett said that within the first two sessions of the training camp, it was clear which players knew how to play to their strengths – and hide their weaknesses – and which did not.
“There were a couple guys who maybe weren’t the quickest, but they knew how to play and they played to their strengths,” Bennett said. “They almost camouflaged those (weaknesses) and they could fit in.”
Bennett – who is entering his third year with the Cavaliers – had been approached previously in recent years about coaching for USA Basketball, but said he declined because he was new to the job at Virginia and wanted to make sure he and his staff established a foundation there first.
Now, though, he’d like to continue to climb the ladder at USA Basketball and said he wouldn’t mind being in Painter’s position one day.
The U.S. team, by the way, is 3-0 in pool play thus far at the World University Games in Shenzhen, China. The Americans will play Finland on Wednesday before wrapping up pool play with a game against Israel on Thursday.