Bennett approaches ACC milestone as UVA hosts Pitt

By Jerry Ratcliffe

Photo by Josie Drumheller, Virginia Athletics

While there have been many great college basketball coaches in the ACC over generations, most would point to North Carolina’s Dean Smith and Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski at the pinnacle of the list.

Get ready to add one more: Virginia’s Tony Bennett. A future shoo-in for the Naismith Hall of Fame, Bennett, in only his 15th year in Charlottesville, has taken the Cavaliers to higher ground.

Should UVA defeat Pittsburgh on Tuesday night (7 p.m., ACC Network; the Cavaliers are a 5-point favorite by Sportsline), it would mark 13 consecutive winning seasons in the ACC by Bennett’s teams. Only Smith and Krzyzewski accomplished that feat. A win would also give Virginia 12 consecutive 20-win seasons under Bennett.

If anyone in college basketball today could truly appreciate the 13 consecutive winning seasons in the brutal ACC, it’s Tuesday night’s guest, Pitt coach Jeff Capel, who played and coached at Duke alongside Krzyzewski, and was keenly aware of what rival UNC’s Smith had done in Chapel Hill.

“I don’t care what conference you’re in, it’s really, really hard, but especially in this league,” Capel said of Bennett’s string of winning seasons in the ACC. “When you look at the teams, the programs over those 13 years that he’s had to compete against. You look at what [Virginia’s program] looked like when he took over the job, where it was and what he has built that program into.

“They have been the most consistent program in this conference, especially over the past 10 years. I didn’t know it was 13, but what [Bennett] has done is truly remarkable.”

Bennett was lured to Virginia from Washington State because he wanted to measure his coaching abilities against the likes of the ACC’s hall of famers. He took over a program that had become irrelevant in college basketball and it took him two years to get things turned around, but has had winning seasons in the conference every year since.

“You know, [Bennett] has done it different ways,” Capel said. “He’s had teams that he’s had groups that have been together for a while. He’s had guys that have transferred, so he’s had guys come in one year and been able to pick up their defensive and offensive stuff. They’ve been able to pick that up pretty quickly, and so it’s a testament to him and his staff.

“Just the consistency of excellence that they’ve een able to have. It’s the reason why it’s only two of the greatest coaches ever, Coach K and Coach Smith, and he’s joining that company. Tony has proven during his time in Washington State and Virginia that he’s one of the premiere coaches that this game has seen.”

With that said, Capel will try his best to end Virginia’s current 8-game winning streak overall and the nation’s longest active home winning streak of 23 in a row, in tonight’s contest.

UVA (19-5, 10-3 ACC) broke into the AP’s national rankings on Monday at No. 21. The Cavaliers are presently tied with Duke for second place in the ACC standings (the Blue Devils defeated Wake Forest on Monday night). Both Virginia and Duke trail North Carolina by a full game.

Pitt (15-8, 6-6) is tied for seventh in the league and has won its last three games and five of its last six. The Panthers beat Virginia last season.

Bennett believes the ACC has been undervalued as a league this season by the pundits, and believes Pitt is a strong team.

“All the major leagues have talent, and Jeff’s done a great job,” Bennett said. “There’s good players on every team and there’s fine coaching, and I think what Jeff has done is unique. He’s taken his returning players, then meshed some really good transfers and young players coming out of high school and found a blend.

“They can score in the halfcourt and they can get down the floor, inside-outside. They’re a complete team and they make you earn.”

Capel knows it will take a supreme effort by his Panthers to upset the Cavaliers in this game.

“Virginia is playing as well as anyone in college basketball right now,” Capel said. “It’s amazing, year in and year out, what Tony and their staff and their program are able to do. Obviously, they’re elite defensively. They’re physical. They’re strong. They communicate at a high level and they have elite individual defenders in [Reece] Beekman and [Ryan] Dunn.

“But then, they’re shooting the heck out of the basketball from the 3-point line. Beekman is really having an outstanding season. He’s scoring it. He’s leading our league in assists, while still being an elite defender. So they present a lot of challenges, but we’ll be excited about the opportunity to play them and see where we stack up against one of the better teams in college basketball.”