CHARLOTTESVILLE — Tony Bennett is clearly a different basketball coach this season.
For starters, he no longer wears a tie during games. “It’s my 10th year,” he said with a laugh Sunday afternoon. “I have a new athletic director. I figured now was the time.” He pulled the orange pocket square poking out of the breast pocket of his gray suit jacket. “I wear the pocket square to keep the U-Va. crowd happy.”
Ten years into his reign at Virginia , Bennett could probably show up in one of Bob Knight’s old sweaters and still be loved by the Charlottesville crowd. The Cavaliers are 143-33 the past five seasons and, after Sunday’s 57-49 victory over VCU, they are 9-0 and ranked No. 4 in the country.
Of course, the one game people bring up to Bennett all the time is a loss: the Cavaliers’ stunning 74-54 first-round upset to UMBC in the NCAA tournament — the first time in 136 games that a No. 16 seed beat a No. 1 seed.
“We’ve owned it,” Bennett said, standing in the hallway outside his locker room. “I wish it hadn’t happened, but I know I can handle it. I still love the game and [the loss] made me want to work harder to be a better coach and make a run at doing something great, like getting to a Final Four or winning a national championship.”
He paused. “But the thing I know now is that if it never happens, I’ll be okay. I want it to happen, but if it doesn’t, I’ve still got a lot to be thankful for. “
Bennett’s team this season is different than the group that finished 31-3 a year ago after winning the ACC regular season and the ACC tournament and went into the NCAA’s as the No. 1 overall seed.
Isaiah Wilkins and Devon Hall have both graduated, leaving center Jack Salt as the lone senior. Freshman point guard Kihei Clark, who claims to be 5-9 and 155 pounds but looks smaller, has become a key player already — even though he’s been playing with an injured left wrist that will require surgery Monday.
On Sunday, with the weather outside John Paul Jones Arena frightful — snow pelting the area all afternoon — neither offense was delightful: both teams shot 29.5 percent for the game. Virginia won the way it often wins — by shutting down the opposition just when it looked as if it might be in trouble. VCU freshman Vince Williams had hit a runner in the lane with 6:48 to play to put the Rams up, 43-38, and the crowd — less than the usual sellout because of the snow — was getting nervous.
It didn’t last long. The Cavaliers produced a five-point trip — Ty Jerome (14 points) made a three-pointer as a VCU foul was called away from the ball, and Kyle Guy (15 points) made both free throws to put the Cavaliers up 49-45 with 4:16 remaining.
That, as it turned out, was the ballgame. The run swelled to 15-2, giving Virginia a 53-45 lead and the Cavaliers cruised from there.
“Not sure that was the right call,” Jerome admitted when the five-point sequence came up — the three-pointer appeared to have come after the whistle.
Regardless, Virginia took control when it had to take control — which is what it does. Especially at home.
As good as Guy and Jerome and De’Andre Hunter are, the key to this team’s long-term success might be Clark.
Bennett saw him play in an AAU game in Oakland two summers ago while he was scouting James Akinjo, who is now at Georgetown.
“I told my staff I really liked him,” Bennett said. “They told me he was committed to Cal-Davis. Then, in the fall, I heard he had de-committed. I called [Cal-Davis coach] Jim Les and asked what was going on. He said he had de-committed and it was fine with him if we went after him. No one else was really recruiting him.
“I asked Jim if I was nuts thinking he could play in the ACC. He said I wasn’t nuts.” He smiled. “Sometimes when you know, you know.”
Clark has been playing with a soft cast on his left wrist that sometimes makes it tough for him to dribble with his left hand. There’s no timetable for his recovery, but Bennett is hopeful Clark won’t miss too much time.
Years ago, Bennett played in the NBA with Muggsy Bogues, the 5-foot-3 inch guard who made a career of being — as Bennett put it — “a constant pest,” on defense. He sees some of Bogues in Clark.
When Clark forced VCU’s Marcus Evans into a 10-second violation guarding him one-on-one, Bennett leaped into the air. “Almost came out of my shoes,” he said. “My assistants said to me, ‘You ever see someone do that one-on-one?’ I said, ‘Yeah, Muggsy Bogues did it.’ ”
This is a Virginia team that looks capable of playing with anyone. Its defense will allow it to play with anyone although that style of play also keeps games close.
And, as the Cavaliers learned in March, the NCAA tournament is a crap shoot no matter how many games you win in the regular season.
“I saw a quote,” Bennett said, reciting it from heart: “’If you learn to use adversity right, it can take you to a place you couldn’t have gone any other way.’
“I think that’s true. I watched my dad coach and my sister coach and I love being a coach. Losing that game hurt a lot, but I’m really okay.
“We’ve all taken it head-on. I’d rather have trembling courage over trembling cowardice.”
He headed down the hallway to brave the snow.