Nearly 20 years ago, when Bruce Pearl was men’s basketball coach at Wisconsin Milwaukee, some of the tactics he used to teach defense to his players stemmed from one of the first instructional videos he purchased upon entering the profession.
“Pressure Defense: A System” was the title, and the instructor was Dick Bennett, who had become a legendary coach in the state with Wisconsin Stevens Point as well as at Green Bay before directing the Wisconsin Badgers to the Final Four in 2000.
“I adopted his first tape and in many ways still keep some of those same principles,” Pearl said Monday during a teleconference. “I would say Dick Bennett taught me, through clinics and tapes, a lot of how we try to guard even still to this day.”
Pearl since has changed jobs, taking No. 5 seed Auburn to its first Final Four this year. The Tigers’ opponent Saturday night in Minneapolis is top-seeded Virginia, which has another first-time coach in the Final Four: Tony Bennett, the son of Dick Bennett.
“I was like, ‘Why did you have to do these instructional videos back then?’ ” Tony Bennett said with a chuckle about his father. “His influence on the game, maybe a lot of people don’t know about it, but in the coaching circles has been huge. He just wants to help the game because the game’s been so good to him.
“I have said before, ‘You don’t have to share everything.’ ”
The oddity of the Auburn-Virginia matchup, though, is that Pearl will face a far different defensive alignment than what he gleaned from Dick Bennett’s guidance. In those early years, Dick Bennett used man-to-man concepts, Pearl said, dissimilar from the famed pack-line scheme his son installed with the Cavaliers.
“He completely turned that around and created the pack-line defense, getting into gaps, not extending catches quite as much,” Pearl said of Dick Bennett. “It was a complete and total reversal.”
So it was fitting late Saturday night, shortly after Virginia defeated No. 3 seed Purdue in overtime, 80-75, to advance to its first Final Four since 1984, that Tony Bennett and his dad shared an embrace. They had become the second father-son duo to reach the national semifinals.
Dick had flown to Louisville to watch his son coach and was sitting behind the Cavaliers’ bench for the most thrilling moment in this NCAA tournament: when Virginia’s Mamadi Diakite sank a jumper as the horn sounded in regulation to force overtime in the South Region final.
Virginia limited the Boilermakers to 33.3 percent shooting in overtime, helping send Bennett to his first Final Four as a head coach one season after Virginia infamously lost in the round of 64 to a No. 16 seed.
Bennett was a volunteer manager on his father’s Final Four team, so he has some experience with the hectic schedule leading to college basketball’s final weekend.
“I think obviously I’ll visit with my dad,” he said. “When I’ve either read some things or heard things coaches said, whether first time or often, it seems like it’s the balance of you do have to enjoy it, but you do have to remain focused and prepare well because you can be pulled into so many different obligations.”
Bennett and his players used Sunday to recharge and continue celebrating, if only modestly. They participated in a welcome-home event at Davenport Field in Charlottesville, where players displayed the South Region trophy to appreciative and vocal Cavaliers supporters.
Virginia got back to practice Monday and is set to depart for Minneapolis on Wednesday.
“When you have a thankful heart with things, and you have a strong desire to do well, that’s a good combination, so I believe that’s the mind-set of our young men,” Bennett said. “They’re of course excited. They’re thankful for this, but they’re passionate to be as good as they can in this setting.”
Also new to the demands of Final Four week, Pearl indicated he doesn’t plan to change much, if any, of the Tigers’ routine. He gave players Monday off, the day after they returned to campus after toppling No. 2 seed Kentucky in overtime, 77-71, to win the Midwest Region in Kansas City, Mo.
Pearl said he was going to ease into disseminating strategy for the matchup with Virginia because of the nature of NCAA tournament play, when there’s nearly a week between games followed by, for the teams that advance, only a day to prepare for the next matchup.
The winner will draw No. 2 seed Michigan State or third-seeded Texas Tech in the national championship game Monday night.
“When you’re in tournament play, these turnarounds are quick, so they’re processing information in a short period of time,” Pearl said. “I’m afraid if I told them anything about Virginia [on Monday], it would be lost by Saturday. So, yeah, just try to do what we always do, and I’d say that’s the best way for players to handle it.”