Virginia men’s basketball Coach Tony Bennett fully understands that different conferences’ arguments may vary from season to season, but in his mind the discussion on which is the best basketball conference in the nation ended Sunday when the ACC made official its decision to accept Syracuse and Pittsburgh as its newest members.
“We were arguably one of the best basketball conferences, probably the best, at least in an argument as one of the best basketball conferences in America,” Bennett said Sunday night in a telephone interview. “Now we’re probably the best, hands down. You’re adding some excellent teams, so for the fans, they’ll love it. There will be battles. And it makes for unbelievable depth in the league.
“It’s certainly some exciting times. The landscape is changing in college athletics, and it seems like a very sound, smart move for a conference that wants to retain everybody and have people that they want.”
Bennett said the ACC’s move to add Pittsburgh and Syracuse makes sense from just about every angle, and he lauded league officials for being proactive rather than reactive.
“If you wait too long with everything shifting, you can’t find yourself in that position,” Bennett said. “It seems like a smart, sound business decision with quality coming in in a major way, for certain in basketball.”
Syracuse and Pittsburgh perennially are top 25-caliber programs. Syracuse won the national title in 2003 and has advanced to the Sweet 16 in two of the past three seasons.
Pittsburgh has earned an NCAA tournament berth in each of the past 10 seasons. During that stretch, the Panthers were ranked lower than a No. 4 seed twice. They’ve earned one of four No. 1 seeds in two of the past three seasons.
While Virginia has not played Pittsburgh since 1990, Bennett has had more recent interactions with the Panthers’ program. On Nov. 29, 2008 – at the outset of his final season as the head coach at Washington State – Bennett matched up against Pittsburgh Coach Jamie Dixon in an early season tournament at the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J. Pittsburgh beat Washington State, 57-43, that night.
Bennett said he and Dixon are longtime friends. They met through former Pittsburgh coach Ben Howland, who left the Panthers to become the coach at UCLA. But Bennett and Dixon have another tie, as well. Both played professionally in New Zealand during the 1990s – though not at the same time – and have since shared stories about their experiences there. Dixon also coached two of Bennett’s Washington State players in the Pan-Am Games one year.
Virginia, by the way, is 7-3 all-time against Pittsburgh. The Cavaliers are 1-3 all-time against Syracuse. Virginia last played the Orange during the 2008-09 season, the one prior to Bennett’s arrival. The Cavaliers lost at Syracuse, 73-70, on Nov. 28, 2008.
Bennett said he’s played in several golf outings with legendary Syracuse Coach Jim Boeheim, but has never matched up against him as a head coach. Bennett was on the Wisconsin coaching staff under his father, Dick, in 1999-2000 when the Badgers lost to Syracuse, 68-49, in the NABC Classic at Syracuse. Wisconsin went on to make the Final Four that season.
With the addition of Syracuse to the ACC, the possibility has been raised of the conference one day hosting its postseason men’s basketball tournament at Madison Square Garden in New York City.
Though Bennett said he’s been “very impressed” when the conference tournament has been hosted in Greensboro, N.C. – the only city in which it has been hosted since Bennett became Virginia’s coach – it sounds as if he wouldn’t mind if it was held at MSG every once in a while.
“I’ve got fond memories playing in the playoffs there as an NBA player,” said Bennett, who was a point guard on the NBA’s Charlotte Hornets from 1992 to ’95. “That’s a special arena. I’m sure they’re going to try to move it around with those two teams,” referring to Syracuse and Pittsburgh.
“I’m waiting for [the ACC tournament] to come to Charlottesville,” Bennett said with a laugh. “That’s the one I’m waiting for.”