One night back in December, as the Virginia men’s basketball team was stumbling to a disappointing 9-4 record in nonconference play, associate head coach Ritchie McKay could tell his boss’s approach wasn’t working.

Some of the talented Cavaliers seemed more concerned with individual playing time than team goals, and Coach Tony Bennett’s instinctive response was to push harder, demand more. McKay suggested a different tactic.

“They gotta know that you’re with them, that you care,” he told Bennett.

“There’s been some moments where I just felt like he can’t see it because he’s driving hard to make the team better,” McKay said recently. “At this level, there’s not many people that will tell you you’re doing it wrong.”

McKay, 48, is the only person on Virginia’s staff who will say as much; he’s also the only one who has more than 200 wins as a head coach.

Together, these two friends have built Virginia into a No. 1 seed in this year’s NCAA tournament and led the Cavaliers to their first round-of-16 appearance since 1995.

“He always says, ‘Tony, trust me. I learned from making this mistake when I was a head coach. I know how it is. This is a road I went down that I shouldn’t have,’ ” Bennett said. “You can’t put a price tag on the kind of insight that he’s offered.”

Explained assistant coach Jason Williford, “Ritchie’s role is the other head coach.”

‘Toughest decision’

McKay met Dick Bennett before he ever knew his son, Tony.

Back in 1992, he was an assistant coach at Bradley when Coach Jim Molinari asked him to spend part of his offseason figuring out why Bennett’s teams at Wisconsin-Green Bay were so good. As chance would have it, McKay’s brother, Orlando, had just been drafted by the Green Bay Packers.

So McKay went up to see his brother in training camp that August, and asked for a short visit with Bennett. Fifteen minutes turned into two hours. McKay left impressed and soon got to know Tony, then playing for his father’s team.

While Tony Bennett carved out a five-year playing career in the NBA and Australia, McKay quickly rose up the coaching ladder and became one of the nation’s youngest head coaches in 1996. He went from Portland State to Colorado State to Oregon State to New Mexico to Liberty, never spending more than five years in one place.

McKay compiled a 204-186 overall record and qualified for one NCAA tournament, in 2005 with New Mexico.

“I have an eyesore on my résumé,” McKay admitted. “Why does this guy have five jobs in 13 years?”

After Bennett’s playing days were over, McKay even offered him his first college coaching job: a $16,000 assistant’s position. He couldn’t convince Bennett to take a pay cut, but a friendship was born. Over the years, the two bonded over their Christian faith, and their belief in Dick Bennett’s five pillars for building a college basketball program.

In 2009, when Tony Bennett considered whether to leave Washington State and come to Charlottesville, he sought out McKay, then the head coach at Liberty, to get the lay of the land on the other side of the country. As the two talked, Bennett began to realize if he came to Virginia, he would need someone like McKay on his staff.

“I threw it out not expecting him to say yes because he was a head coach,” Bennett said.

McKay liked it at Liberty, where the school’s Christian mission matched his own religious background. But he was still intrigued at the opportunity to win in the ACC with a boss who shared his spirituality.

He still calls it “the toughest career decision I’ve ever made.”

“I just thought, for some reason, that being able to do what most people think can’t be done the right way, without buying players, without cussing this way and that way, we have a chance to make a huge difference,” McKay said. “And five years later, it’s been one of the best decisions, but one of the hardest decisions, at the same time. It’s not easy going from calling the timeouts, practicing when you want to.”

‘It’s like a big brother’

Watch a Virginia basketball game and it’s often hard to tell who’s in charge. McKay stands up as much as Bennett, who “you can tell always looks to Coach McKay first when we’re in the huddle,” forward Darion Atkins said.

McKay’s job is to the fill in the gaps, his duties shifting from day to day depending on what Bennett needs. He’s the one who handles the advanced statistics and nonconference scheduling, and he often draws the scouting assignments for Virginia’s biggest games.

His experiences and salary — McKay earns $300,000 per year — give him Bennett’s ear in a way his other assistants simply can’t replicate.

“It’s like a big brother, really,” Williford said. “Tony leans on him a lot for the X’s and O’s offensively: What did you run when certain teams ran something defensively? What works? Tony’s locked in defensively. It’s his defense. That’s his baby. Make no mistake, Tony runs the ship.”

As McKay put it: “He’ll listen. He doesn’t always agree.”

Added Bennett: “He’s not like my father. But he’s not afraid to say to me — and you need this on your staff — I just want to challenge you with this. He has a tremendous pulse for what to do. He thinks like, ‘When I was a head coach, what did I need most?’ He finds where he can help and takes it on.”

Senior Joe Harris said McKay is good cop to Bennett’s bad cop during practices. When Bennett yells at someone, McKay provides encouragement on the side.

McKay doles out wisdom on everything from ball screens to girlfriends, and his upside-down career path is not lost on this year’s team, which also has learned to swallow its collective ego over the course of this memorable season.

“He’s the ultimate servant,” said forward Anthony Gill, citing one of Bennett’s pillars. “Coach McKay’s just been through a lot more wars than the other coaches. It took a lot for him to not be a head coach anymore and just be an assistant coach.”

Now, though, with the Cavaliers on the cusp of achieving the dream he and Bennett discussed five years ago, isn’t the time to talk about the future. That, after all, wouldn’t be looking out for boss’s best interests.

“I’m partnering with Tony in this and, I hope, serving him faithfully,” McKay said.