Bennett: ‘When it comes to recruiting, I don’t sell a lot of fluff’

By Jerry Ratcliffe

Photo: UVA Athletics

CHARLOTTE — When it comes to recruiting, Tony Bennett goes by an old Howard Cosell mantra. He tells it like it is.

Prospects seem to like Bennett’s honest approach. Even the ones that got away talk about how the Virgina coach is a straight shooter.

“I’m not a guy that sells a lot of fluff,” Bennett said this week during the ACC Tip Off event in Charlotte. “Sometimes that has affected us negatively, or sometimes it has been positive. I’m going to say who we are, this is what we stand for. Here are the facts, here’s what’s happened.”

UVA has been aggressive on the recruiting front this year, offering lots of 4-star prospects from across the country. While many of those chose to commit elsewhere, Bennett is happy with the two players the Cavaliers landed — shooting guard Elijah Gertrude from New Jersey and center Blake Buchanan from Idaho — for the recruiting class of 2023.

Those two players fit in nicely with the four, 4-stars he signed for the present 2022 freshman class. In fact, Gertrude is the highest-ranked player (No. 36 overall nationally) that Bennett has landed in his 14 years at UVA (Gertrude is also the No. 3 shooting guard in the country), and Blake Buchanan is No. 67 overall in the nation and the No. 9 center.

Depending on which recruiting service you tend to follow, Virginia’s class may not blow fans away on a national scale. Rivals has the Cavaliers’ class ranked No. 37 nationally, On3 has UVA No. 34 and 247Sports rates the class No. 31.

Certainly, the Wahoos’ ranking would have jumped much higher with any one or possibly two of these other recruits who had strong flirtations, many of who visited and had Virginia in their list of finalists: TJ Power (Duke), Milan Momcilovic (Iowa State), Trey Green (Xavier), Jamie Kaiser (Maryland), Davin Cosby (Alabama), Elmarko Jackson (Kansas), Freddie Dillione (Tennessee), London Johnson (G-League), Andrej Stojakovic (uncommitted).

If Bennett were a shady soul, he could have fed a line of bullfeathers to some of those prospects, but he doesn’t operate that way. He wouldn’t be able to look at himself in the mirror.

“The easy way is to promise everything and not deliver, but I don’t believe in that,” Bennett said. “So when we recruit, we try to find the right fit. We tell them, this is what our program is about, here’s your opportunities. Look at what’s happened [at Virginia] before (over the past decade), and if that’s for you, it’s for you. If it’s not, then we’ve got to move forward.

“They’ve got to decide what matters to them, if it’s about going somewhere they can get paid the most or get the biggest NIL deal, or if it’s about being guaranteed they’ll get this amount of playing time, or if it’s about the best academics. Whatever it is, that player has to decide.”

Bennett believes players can check a lot of items off of their wish lists by coming to Virginia, through academics, student lifestyle, competing at the highest level, moving on to professional basketball (see related story about Wahoos in the pros).

Of course, recruiting is a cut-throat business, and while the NCAA has failed to punish some of the most unscrupulous culprits, there’s also negative recruiting that continues to flourish.

“There’s always going to be negative recruiting,” Bennett said. “The longer I coach and recruit, the more I say make decisions with what you see and on facts, not what you hear.

“It’s easy [for someone] to say, ‘Oh, this is how it’s going to be,’ so don’t get confused. If guys would just do that, I think more sound decisions would be made. It’s so easy to tell people what they want to hear, then you check it out two years later … I’ve seen that story play out over and over.”

Some of those negative recruiters are running out of ammo to use against Bennett. Some used to say, if you go to Virginia, you’ll never win an ACC championship, which has been disproven, or you’ll never get to the Final Four (see 2019 national championship). Or, you’ll never get to the NBA if you go to UVA. Bennett has multiple players on present NBA rosters and several others playing professionally around the globe.

Or, if you go to Virginia, Bennett won’t be there when you graduate. Bennett has been pursued by numerous college programs and some NBA teams, but is starting his 14th year in Charlottesville. He’s not planning on going anywhere.

“What guys usually want from a basketball standpoint is, ‘I want to win and I want to be developed and then have a chance to play in the NBA or have a long, professional career,’” Bennett said. “And if you can do that, you’ve got to take a good look [at Virginia], and then there’s other things involved that represent the school that’s hard to pass up, unless you’re looking for something different.”

Some prefer a faster pace or a system where defense isn’t stressed like it is at UVA, and that’s fine with Bennett. He’s not going to sacrifice his style and blueprint to success either on or off the court.

He just tells it like it is.