Tony Bennett had just become Virginia’s men’s basketball coach in 2009 when he visited guard Jontel Evans at his Hampton, Va., home and laid out his blueprint for the program. Evans had committed to Virginia’s previous coaching staff, so Bennett now had to re-recruit him.
His eyes lit up when he told Evans about the defense the Cavaliers would play. Evans said Bennett talked about recruiting under-the-radar players and developing them. The Cavaliers wouldn’t win because they were the most talented, but because they played as a team.
Bennett said one more thing to Evans as he was in the doorway and about to leave: “Live by faith, and not by sight.”
“Me and my mother looked at each other, and I was just like, ‘That’s really kind of deep, I’ve never heard it before,’ ” Evans said. “That’s what sold me. After that, I was like, ‘I want to play for this guy.’ ”
Bennett didn’t take shortcuts as he guided the Cavaliers to the top of college basketball, and he’s stayed true to his system as he tries to keep them there. He prefers blue-collar players over blue-chip recruits, with a style of play to match. The lack of flash has worked: The Cavaliers (29-3) have won consecutive Atlantic Coast Conference regular season titles. When the NCAA tournament field was announced Sunday, they were given the No. 2 seed in the East Region, and will play Belmont in Charlotte on Friday.
“There’s a reference in the Bible that if you’re faithful to the little things, then there’ll be more, and you’ll be faithful with more,” Bennett said, alluding to Luke 16:10. “I think it’s really that mind-set of when it wasn’t going so well, were the young men in our program and were we as a coaching staff staying faithful and staying true to what we thought would give us success, even when you didn’t see it?
“It was just being faithful to the things that matter to our program. . . . When you’re fortunate enough — and some of it’s validated when you have some success — and things start happening, it’s still the same mind-set. Will you still be faithful to the things that have gotten you there? It doesn’t change.”
Had Bennett been less experienced by the time he arrived at Virginia, he said he might have tried to recruit more junior college players when the wins didn’t come quickly. Maybe he would’ve changed his deliberately slower style of play when it was criticized for being boring.
But Bennett had played for his father, Dick Bennett, at Wisconsin-Green Bay and witnessed the same system work there and again later at a power-conference school, Wisconsin. When Tony Bennett got his first head coaching job, at Washington State, that system resulted in the most wins over any three-year period in program history. He figured patience would eventually produce the same results at Virginia even after the Cavaliers missed the NCAA tournament in his first two seasons.
“When you come in and you’re trying to establish a new program and a new system, you have to get the right kind of guys, but then it’s not quick-fix stuff,” Bennett said. “There’s kind of a process you have to go through, and you can’t short cut certain things. If you try to, it may give you a little bit of a spike or a blip on the radar, but it usually ends up hurting you.”
Some teams get those instant results by recruiting stars or “one-and-done” players who leave school for the NBA after one college season, but Bennett would’ve struggled luring a player of that caliber to Charlottesville early in his tenure. When he approached Ritchie McKay about joining his staff as associate head coach at Virginia, Bennett had a different vision, telling McKay he wanted to build a program that could compete at the highest level with high-character players.
Bennett put the program’s biblically-derived five pillars — humility, passion, unity, servanthood and thankfulness — on the wall of the locker room. The pillars were a creation of Dick Bennett, who once told McKay, a longtime friend, that he would “recruit to the pillars, hire from the pillars, make decisions and try to model his life after the pillars,” McKay said. Virginia players said the pillars are discussed and applied for basketball every day.
Bennett’s vision hit a speed bump when four of the six members of his first six-man recruiting class transferred. The Cavaliers were 31-31 after Bennett’s first two seasons, and Evans remembers Bennett telling the team that “a house divided cannot stand,” a reference to Mark 3:25, as a way to stress the importance of uniting.
“You’ve got to get a group of guys you can lose with first before you win,” Bennett said. “You’re going to go through tough losses, and it’s going to be hard, so you want the guys that will stay together and stay with it when it’s rocky and there’s some hard things. You learn from all that, and then as they mature, boy, there’s a chance for you to turn it around and taste success.”
It’s not that Virginia didn’t want McDonald’s all-Americans, if the staff thought they were good fits for the program. The coaching staff recruited James Michael McAdoo and Justin Jackson in years past, but both ultimately chose North Carolina.
Kentucky has a whopping nine McDonald’s all-Americans, and Duke has eight. Virginia has been ranked alongside them in the top five of the Associated Press poll for most of the season. Since the start of last year, Virginia has won 50 of 56 games, with only five losses in ACC play. Unlike Kentucky and Duke, the Cavaliers will return the bulk of their starting lineup next season because their players are unlikely to leave early for the NBA.
“Some of the guys may have chips on their shoulder from that, not being a McDonald’s all-American and things of that nature,” forward Anthony Gill said. “All we want to do is go out there and be the best U-Va. team we can be regardless of who we have on this team.”
McKay said he doesn’t look at prospects’ national rankings when recruiting, but rather he evaluates them based on whether they would be a good fit for Bennett’s system, from an athletic standpoint and a willingness to be coached. Prioritizing defense is ingrained in early conversations with recruits.
Bennett can been turned off by a highly rated player if he senses entitlement. While some coaches promise playing time during the recruiting process, Bennett instead paints a bleak picture, as he only guarantees players an opportunity to earn minutes and candidly outlines their role on the team. Bennett said he looks for “blue-collar” players because the Cavaliers are that kind of program. Just one player who has committed to Virginia’s 2016 recruiting class, shooting guard Kyle Guy, is rated in ESPN’s top 50 for the class.
“We’re not a team that can go out and just get one and dones like Kentucky,” Bennett said. “Even if you can get those, it doesn’t mean I wouldn’t take one, but you better be able to back it up with another one and another one because all of those things create gaps in your program.”
Gill said Bennett frequently references 1 Corinthians 9:24: “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize.”
Gill said the Cavaliers have embraced that verse from a basketball standpoint, doing what’s necessary for the prize at the end of the season. But for Bennett, it’s an ongoing marathon.
“If we were fortunate enough to keep having success and all of a sudden we changed totally the kind of young men we brought in or went in a different direction, that would be a big mistake,” he said. “Maybe we’ll get more and more fortunate and find talented guys who have all of those attributes and are willing to keep building it, but it should definitely not change as long as I’m at the helm.”