The plans were first hatched on the recruiting trail in the summer of 2009 after Virginia hired Coach Tony Bennett and Virginia Commonwealth hired Coach Shaka Smart — both Wisconsin natives — within three days of each other.
Bennett never forgot how badly he wanted to test his mettle against Wisconsin or Marquette during his days as a point guard at Wisconsin-Green Bay. But the two power-conference schools would never agree to play even a home game against the Phoenix, who won 24 games three years in a row (1989-1992) with Bennett.
But once he began working under his father, Dick, as an assistant at Wisconsin, those in-state games became annual affairs, and Tony Bennett continued the practice when he became head coach at Washington State by scheduling Gonzaga. At Virginia, he has already faced George Mason in a home-and-home series.
“You can’t play every team in the state every year, but I think it’s good for the game, good for the program and I think it challenges you,” Bennett said as the 25th-ranked Cavaliers prepared to play No. 14 VCU in the first game of a home-and-home series Tuesday at John Paul Jones Arena. “To not play, that’s not the way I’m wired.”
That Virginia will return this game and play at the Siegel Center next year is a welcome change of pace for Smart. Ever since the Rams burst onto the national college basketball landscape with their Final Four run in 2011, persuading major-conference teams to come to Richmond has been a challenge.
Smart noted Tuesday he had a conversation with Gonzaga Coach Mark Few after the VCU’s initial success and Few told him that scheduling, not recruiting or fan support, “will be the last thing to come around.”
“We’ve talked to a lot of people about playing home and home, and at the end of the day most don’t do it. They have some reason: ‘It didn’t work with our schedule,’ or ‘we need a road game this year or a home game that year,’ ” Smart said Monday during his weekly news conference. “The scheduling game can be very frustrating and it’s a very long and winding road. Some people can take you for a ride for a long time, but [Virginia] was great in that they agreed to play.
“I think it’s good for both teams. It’s easy to look at it like they’re doing us this huge favor, and I’m very appreciative that they’re playing. But whoever wins the game, it’s gonna be a high-quality win and the same thing could be said when they come here.”
Smart is convinced VCU’s frenetic pace and full-court pressure enters into the equation as to why, in many recent cases, the Rams have been forced to schedule neutral-court games in order to face top competition.
“A lot of people just don’t want to come here and play against us with that animal out there [pointing toward the Siegel Center court] and our style of play,” Smart said. “Not saying that we’re any better than anyone else, but when you add all those things together, and you’re a high-major team, you just say why? Why would I do that?”
Bennett appears to be the exception, and his willingness to face the Rams has set up an intriguing matchup of ranked teams with contrasting styles. Virginia’s pack-line defense and methodical motion offense will go against “Havoc,” the nickname for VCU’s full-court press.
Both teams feature deep rotations, particularly in the paint where Virginia’s Akil Mitchell, Anthony Gill and Mike Tobey will battle VCU’s Jevonte Reddic and Florida State transfer Terrance Shannon. How Cavaliers point guards Malcolm Brogdon and London Perrantes handle full-court pressure for the first time will be a huge factor.
The two teams haven’t met in the regular season since 1998, and the Cavaliers haven’t played a ranked in-state team since a game against Virginia Tech in 1995. But Virginia and VCU faced each other last fall in a closed scrimmage, and Smart noted it’s “a tape they’re watching closely and one we are as well.” Pace could determine the outcome this time.
“I think the reality is we’re at our best when the game is going faster and they’re certainly at their best defensively when they can defend you in the half-court and slow you down,” Smart said.
Bennett and Smart got to know each other better this summer when both were assistant coaches on the United States under-19 world championships team. As assistants, they were in charge of scouting the other countries and spent most of their time in Prague watching games together.
“We talked a lot of basketball,” Bennett said. “I think he’s one of the best young minds in the game.”
Rarely, though, did Tuesday’s matchup come up, other than the fact that the two coaches realized they’d be facing each other in the second game of the season. But count Smart among those excited about the possibilities of this in state clash.
“I think it’s a great opportunity for both teams and also for all the fans of basketball in this area,” he said. “There’s a lot of great basketball that goes on throughout the year in Virginia, in the mid-Atlantic region, but for this early in the year, for two teams that are in the top 25, to play one another, I heard it’s sold out so it’ll be a great crowd, a great atmosphere. I think that’s what it’s all about.”