Final Four Notebook: Izzo Cheering For Bennett

By Jerry Ratcliffe


If there’s one name that strikes fear in the heart of every Virginia basketball fan, it’s Michigan State.

Yes, Sparty, the team that crushed the Wahoos’ dreams in the East Regional semifinals at Madison Square Garden in 2014 (61-59), and again the following year in the third round of the East Regionals in Charlotte (60-54).

UVA was a No. 1 seed in ‘14 and Michigan State was a No. 4. In ‘15, the Cavaliers were a No. 2 seed, the Spartans a No. 7.

It was only natural that when Michigan State defeated Duke on Sunday and earned the Spartans their eighth trip to the Final Four under Coach Tom Izzo, it raised a few eyebrows on the Virginia side of the bracket.

Should UVA and State meet, it wouldn’t be until the championship round. Izzo is rooting for Virginia coach Tony Bennett. Not because he feels sorry for ending a pair of Bennett’s chances to advance in the NCAA Tournament, but rather because of respect.

“I don’t know if you cheer for people. I guess you do in certain ways,” Izzo said during the Final Four coaches teleconference. “But Tony’s been one I cheer for. I seem to have known him since he was a little kid.”

Izzo worked Tony’s father’s (Dick Bennett) camps in Wisconsin back in the day. Izzo also watched Tony’s career, coaching against both Bennett’s when they were at Green Bay (Dick as coach, Tony as the NCAA’s all-time 3-point percentage leader). Tony was also a volunteer assistant for his dad at Wisconsin, which did battle against Izzo’s Spartans.

“I have the utmost respect for his dad, and I’ve always had tremendous respect for Tony,” Izzo said. “I got to admit my respect for Tony, if it’s possible to upgrade, was upgraded last year with the way he handled that loss in the [NCAA Tournament]. I’m not sure there was anybody that’s ever done a better job of handling something.

“And in his own way, using that as a motivator to not feel sorry for themselves,” Izzo continued. “It’s part of who we are, and let’s move forward.”

The veteran Spartans coach said he was excited to see Tony Bennett reach the Final Four for the first time and observing Dick Bennett in the stands for the South Regional Finals in Louisville last Saturday night when the Cavaliers defeated Purdue in overtime.

“Watching his dad in the stands when I know him so well was not only fun, but it was a little exhausting because his dad takes those games, I think, harder than Tony and I,” Izzo said.


Bennett impressed with Auburn

Virginia began researching Final Four semifinals opponent Auburn as soon as the Cavaliers saw the Tigers advance to Minneapolis. What Tony Bennett saw from the SEC champions impressed him.

Auburn’s Bruce Pearl was coaching at Milwaukee when Bennett was an assistant at Wisconsin.

“Certainly know him as a coach and the job he did, and seeing the years he’s had at Auburn, you understand their quickness, their ability, just how scrappy they are and just a really good team. We’ll continue to dive into [Auburn research], but obviously we have great respect for what they’ve done.”

Bennett was keenly aware that the Tigers lost star forward Chuma Okeke with a torn ACL during their win over North Carolina last weekend.

“But the way [Auburn] played without him was very impressive against Kentucky, and because of their depth, it seems like they can really absorb different kinds of things — foul trouble or different players [injuries]. They have a wide range of guys.”


Ralph in the House

Legendary Virginia All-American Ralph Sampson, a three-time National Player of the Year and a member of the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame, has been to all of the Cavaliers’ postseason games in Charlotte, Columbia, and Louisville. No doubt he’ll be in Minneapolis, too.

Bennett was asked during the Final Four teleconference how much Sampson has been around the team.

“He’s great,” Bennett said. “He’s been so good to me since I’ve been here. Obviously, he’s a legend, and what he’s done for Virginia basketball and the game, has been terrific.

“Ralph has come around our team,” Bennett said. “He’s related to Braxton Key (the junior forward is his nephew). Whenever Ralph is in Charlottesville, he’ll stop by a practice. He does charity stuff. He’ll come by and say hello to the guys.”

Bennett said he visited with Ralph at the team hotel through the postseason.

“Whenever he’s around and our guys get to talk to him, it’s a real treat because of just who he is, the kind of man he is, and his impact on the game of college basketball, and, of course, specifically Virginia basketball and its history.”

Loss of a Wahoo

Former UVA player William “Bill” Napper, Jr., 64, of Richmond, died on Tuesday, March 26.

Napper, who played for the Cavaliers in 1976-77 after transferring from Anderson Junior College, had a career scoring average of 6.1 points per game, and played on teams with Marc Iavaroni, Mike Owens, Steve Castellan, Billy Langloh, Bobby Stokes, Dave Koesters and Otis Fulton.

Napper was a 6-foot-2 reserve guard.

Perhaps his shining moment as a Cavalier came during an Orange-Blue scrimmage at Richmond’s Benedictine High School. In that game, remembered by team manager Tom Baker, “Nap” scored 38 points.

Baker quoted former Wahoo Jeff Klein about that scrimmage.

“I was probably guarding him,” Klein told Baker. “We asked Nap about it later, and he said, ‘Yep — 45 feet and fadin’ off your ass!”

Rest in Peace, Nap.

Wahoo Nuggets…

# Today, April 2, is former Virginia basketball coach Terry Holland’s 77th birthday.

# During Virginia’s heart-stopping overtime victory over Purdue on Saturday night, the University of Virginia School of Medicine’s Division of Cardiovascular Medicine tweeted out: “This is our Division of Cardiovascular Medicine, for anyone who needs it. #GoHoos #Wahoowa.”

# Virginia’s De’Andre Hunter has been named National Defensive Player of the Year by the National Association of Basketball Coaches. Hunter was also named ACC Defensive Player of the Year.

# Final Four watchers: Michigan State’s Cassius Winston has been established as the odds-on favorite to win the Final Four “Most Outstanding Player” according to @betonline_ag

Here are the odds: Winston 5/2; Kyle Guy 15/4; Jarret Culver 7/1; Ty Jerome 15/2; Xavier Tillman 9/1; De’Andre Hunter 10/1; Bryce Brown 12/1; Jared Harper 12/1; Mamadi Diakite 20/1; Matt Mooney 22/1; David Moretti 28/1.

# Our guy Danny Neckel dug up this nugget. Best records in March/April the past six seasons:

Villanova 40-7; Gonzaga 34-7; Oregon 38-11; Kentucky 41-12; Virginia 32-11; UNC 36-13; Arizona 29-11; Michigan 34-13; Duke 34-13; Wichita State 25-10; Wisconsin 31-13; Michigan State 33-14.

# Virginia coach Tony Bennett receives a $250,000 bonus for getting the Cavaliers to the Final Four. He also received $250,000 for an Elite Eight appearance.

# If you missed our long read story on how former UVA basketball assistant coach Tom Perrin, now a highly successful consultant and sports psychologist has helped Diakite and Jay Huff make great strides, you need to check it out in our archives. It’s called “The Basketball Whisperer,” and if you have a little extra time, I believe you’ll appreciate the story behind this.

# Meanwhile, by the time you read this, Scott and I will be on the road headed toward Minneapolis and will be giving you tons of coverage from the Final Four. We will be doing some “Facebook Live” segments en route and once there and will be joined in Minnesota by Blue Ridge Bank president Gary Shook for some segments as well.

We want to thank Shook and Brian Plum of Blue Ridge Bank for sponsoring our entire postseason coverage, including the ACC and NCAA Tournaments and the Final Four. We are grateful. Oh, and if you haven’t checked out their ad on our website, there’s a $25,000 jackpot there waiting for some lucky Wahoo to take home.

Also, if you’re looking for UVA Final Four apparel, there’s no better place to find it than with Mincer’s, another one of our fine advertisers. Check out their ad on our website as well.


  1. Russell Lohr says:

    Thanks Jerry! It’s you and Scott who truly have the pulse of Wahoo Sports. Whenever the Daily Progress calls and asks why I cancelled my subscription last year, I tell them it’s because you’re not with the Paper anymore, then I hang up!!!

  2. John Cox says:

    Jerry, your coverage of the ‘Hoos has been spectacular. I really enjoy your mix of history, tidbits of interesting facts about the studen athletes, and facts relating to the upcoming games. Keep up the great work!

  3. Clark Grover says:

    Hunter 10/1 is good value

  4. Sam Smith says:

    Beautiful stuff, Hooty — reminds me of “Scattershooting” !

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