CHARLOTTESVILLE — Tony Bennett is about as buttoned-down as any college basketball coach in America. He stays on message in victory or defeat and rarely — if ever — lets anyone see him sweat.
And yet, on Saturday afternoon when he met with reporters after his Virginia team had annihilated Notre Dame, 70-49, thanks to a stunning 25-0 second-half run, he loosened his orange tie — literally and figuratively — for a moment.
“Hey Bach,” he said. “You know, in other places they have water for the coaches.”
He was talking to Erich Bacher, his sports information director, someone he has known since the two went to elementary school together in Stevens Point, Wis., almost 40 years ago.
The lack of water was about the only thing Bennett could complain about after the Cavaliers, ranked 14th nationally (with a bullet), had raised their record to 14-1 in the ACC and 23-5 overall . Playing in front of a rare packed house at John Paul Jones Arena, U-Va. shot 76 percent in the second half, turning a 41-38 deficit with 13 minutes 37 seconds left into a 68-43 lead with 3:01 to go. In the midst of that 30-2 spurt was the 25-0 run that began with a Joe Harris three-pointer that broke what had been a 43-43 tie.
“They’re so physical, really physical,” Notre Dame Coach Mike Brey said when the carnage was over. “More than any team in the league they really know who they are at both ends of the floor. I just think they’re a really confident group.”
Where the Cavaliers are right now — in first place in the ACC with an NCAA tournament bid all but wrapped up — is a long way from where they were on the night of Dec. 30, when they were humiliated, 87-52 , at Tennessee. The loss dropped their record to 9-4 but more importantly it forced everyone in the program to re-assess where they were, were they were going and, perhaps just as important, where they had been.
Much has been made of the meeting between Bennett and Harris, a senior co-captain, that took place at Bennett’s house on New Year’s Eve. It’s a nice story: Best player goes to the coach’s house to say, “What can we do to get better?” and the team does a 180 after that and goes on one of the greatest runs in school history.
But there’s more to it than that.
“Joe coming to the house was a great thing for him to do,” Bennett said. “A friend of mine talked to him and to Akil [Mitchell] right around that time and said to them, ‘It’s your team, it’s your responsibility, it’s your time.’ I think they both took that to heart.
“But we had to sit down as a coaching staff and take a hard look at things after that game. Coach [Ron] Sanchez suggested we go look at some tape of our offense from a couple years ago [when the Cavaliers made the NCAA tournament]. We did that. We simplified some things. We told the guys to freelance less. We wanted to pound it inside more. We also shortened our rotation at that point and guys accepted their roles — whatever they were.
“What I told the team was pretty simple: We have to stop beating ourselves, and if we do we’ll eliminate losing.”
Simple perhaps, but certainly effective. Virginia’s only loss since then was at Duke when a Rasheed Suliamon three-point shot from the corner hit the rim, bounded high into the air and miraculously dropped through the hoop in the final seconds. The Cavaliers had come back from 11 down in the last three minutes to lead 65-64 before Suliamon’s shot. If Sulaimon’s shot hadn’t gone in, U-Va. would be 15-0 in ACC play.
Even so, Virginia is 14-1, the school’s best conference record since Ralph Sampson’s sophomore season (1981), when they finished 13-1. When Syracuse comes to town next Saturday, it will be the biggest game seen here since Sampson’s teams played against North Carolina teams led by Michael Jordan, Sam Perkins and James Worthy in the early 1980s.
That game will be so big that the pregame buzz Saturday wasn’t about whether Virginia could beat Notre Dame or Miami on Wednesday but about the fact that Dick Vitale would be coming here in a week.
For a while, it looked as if the Irish might put a big T.O. into all those gaudy plans. The Irish turned an early 19-7 deficit into a 30-30 halftime tie and probably would have led if the officials hadn’t missed an obvious foul against Eric Atkins on a drive to the basket in the final second. The normally placid Brey went briefly ballistic over that non-call, not knowing that the worst part of his day was yet to come.
After Harris’s three-pointer made it 46-43, sophomore Anthony Gill scored from inside to make it 48-43. Brey called timeout to try to stanch the bleeding. No such luck. Justin Anderson, who once upon a time committed to play for Gary Williams at Maryland, blocked an attempted dunk by Zach Auguste from behind and the Cavaliers, America’s favorite walk-it-up team, sprinted the other way. Gill finished the play with a dunk at the other end.
Brey called timeout again. He might as well have asked for a running clock. At least he would have escaped from the scene sooner.
Of course Bennett — puckish demands for water aside — isn’t going to get carried away at this point. It has been 19 seasons since the Cavaliers tied for first place in the ACC and reached the Elite Eight under Jeff Jones. Since then, the school has been to three NCAA tournaments and won one tournament game — in 2007 against Albany.
No one here wants to say it out loud, but this team has a real chance to do damage in March. Mitchell and Harris have taken on the leadership role they were asked to take on in late December. London Perrantes has emerged as a very solid point guard and Malcolm Brogdon’s confidence seems to grow with each game.
Thirty-three years ago, Bennett’s father, Dick, who took Wisconsin to the 2000 Final Four, wrote down what he considered to be the five pillars to build a basketball program around. A man of deep faith, Dick Bennett went to the Bible to find his pillars: humility, passion, unity, servanthood and thankfulness. His son still relies on those pillars, coming back to them constantly. He also goes back to this father for advice frequently.
“He’s not afraid to reprimand me every once in a while,” Tony Bennett said, smiling. “It’s more about reminding me of things, not to get too far ahead of myself. He likes to say a wound from a friend is better than a kiss from an enemy. His version of a wound is really to warn me to keep moving ahead.”
Bennett’s team has come a long way in the 54 days since the loss at Tennessee. It may still have a long way to go, but there’s no reason not to smile right now.
Or to demand some water.
For more by John Feinstein, go to washingtonpost.com/feinstein.