Tony Bennett, Mamadi Diakite, Braxton Key at ACC Operation Basketball

uva basketballQ. Tony, you came here last year and you were very much at peace with the way the 2018 season had ended, at peace with life, at peace with what life held for you. Can you be any more at peace now considering how the 2019 season ended?
TONY BENNETT: I’m very thankful for what transpired, and I think it’s been a process, and just like after the 2018 season, it was an amazing year and obviously a hardening from a basketball stabbed point, but we grew from it. We didn’t hide from it. We addressed it. But we didn’t obsess about it, and I think the same holds true with this last year.

We’re very thankful for it. We’ll grow from it. We celebrated it and have enjoyed it, but we won’t obsess about it, nor will we just sweep it under the rug and say that was then. I think you don’t overdo either of them, and you learn from them and you’re thankful for what both extremes teach you.

And to get to go through it with these guys, I’m just glad that they have this memory, as our staff does, of winning a championship from last year, but I think because of how we lost the year before, it made us value it even more.

Q. Coach, you’ve got so much height on this team, experienced and newcomers. How will that change your philosophy on offense?
TONY BENNETT: I think, yeah, with obviously our experience this year is more in the front court with Mamadi and Braxton kind of playing some more of the 4 and the 3 this year. He’ll do both. And Jay Huff, who got some limited experience. There is quality experience. The only other really guy with experience that’s returning is Kihei, and he doesn’t have a lot of height.

So there’s a lot of newness to this team, so we’ll certainly have to rely on these guys, and that’s our job as a staff and even as a team to see what gives us the best chance both offensively and defensively to be at our best.

I think when you have size, you want to be good on the glass. You want to at times use their strengths, and defensively be good in all areas.

So yeah, it’s — I think the physicality and the size factor is definitely one of our strengths, and our front court. And when I say “front court,” kind of the forward spots.

Q. Coach, just what you can say about handling the job with humility, with appreciation? It never seems to be about you. You turned down the bonus and wanted to reinvest in the program. What you can say about how you handle your job, and you always seem to pay the buck forward instead of keeping it for yourself?
TONY BENNETT: Well, first, I’ve been given a ton, and I understand that. And I think — I tell these guys all the time: It’s a gift to be able to coach. I think they have gifts to be able to play the game, and our job with whenever you’re given a gift is to be grateful for it and to maximize the gift you’ve been given.

And for me right now at this point in my life, it’s about coaching these guys and being part of that. For them it’s about being as good as they can as a team and individually.

You know, when you’ve been blessed in ways beyond, I think it gives you a different perspective. Been through great successes and hard failures, professionally speaking, and just used those to grow.

But like I said, I’m just grateful to be in this spot. And I’m starting my 11th year, and I didn’t know how it would go when I took the job. I hoped I knew how it would go and I had a vision, but to see some of the things come to fruition, it really is — and I don’t use the word lightly, it is humbling, and you’re excited about it and grateful for it, and you just — now you start another cycle again, and that’s what we’re doing with these guys.

Q. You’ve been very successful with slowing the game down and keeping the score low, but it’s worked out well for you. What is your philosophy that you drill into the guys to keep the score low? Is it a matter of passing the ball a lot for a certain period of time before you look for the shot, or do you go first available best shot?
TONY BENNETT: I think with each team, it’s different. This last year I think we were the No. 2 team in the country for offensive efficiency. And I think that word “efficiency” is most important. Some teams can score a little easier, and I think you have to look at that.

But we always try to play as good a defense as we can, and when we’re playing our best defense, it can take the opponents a little longer to break us down, so that might lower the possessions.

But again, you look at your team and say what gives us the best chance. That’s always what it comes down to, and trying to be as efficient as you can. You know, that’s sort of been how we’ve played, and guys have been able to develop their games and go on and play professionally after, so I don’t think it’s hurt their professional careers.

But it is — looking at this is our way. And it varies from team to team. I guess it’s a combination of all those things.

Q. I wanted to get your thoughts, and the players as well, about the 20-game schedule, opening up the season inside the Carrier Dome and how exciting of a challenge that is to have that now in the league with some extra conference games.
TONY BENNETT: Sure, these guys — do you want them to answer?

BRAXTON KEY: Yeah, it’s exciting. 20 games for the conference, I think it’s big. It’s great for the fans, great for the players. We love the competition in the conference. Syracuse is a great team, great coach, has had a lot of great success.

And opening up at the Carrier Dome, it’s one of my favorite places to play. It’s massive. Last year we played there, and we got really hot, so hopefully we can keep that streak, and it’ll be a great match-up November 6.

MAMADI DIAKITE: Yeah, it’s definitely going to be a great match-up for us. It’s going to test us in a many ways, and we’ll find out what we’re — what we’re doing at practice.

TONY BENNETT: Yeah, I think it’s 20 games, I remember when it was 16 and probably some of the coaches remember when it was 14. I don’t know what the lowest it was.

But I was here when it was 16, and then it went to 18, and boy, that’s two more quality games. Now we’re at 20. You play in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge, you play in these tournaments. So every game is a test. There’s such parity in college basketball.

And then to start, because I said, we have a lot of new guys, there’s newness to this team, the experienced players will have to really rely on that because that’s the different kind of game in terms of that zone, that venue, and being ready for it.

Again, whatever the outcome, you just grow from it and learn from it, but you get as ready as you can because you’re starting in conference play, and you want to, to the best of your abilities, get off to a good start.

Q. I have a question. I think a lot last season was made of you altering your offense, more ball screens, something that Mamadi had a lot of success in, maybe more isolation for De’Andre and less motion move for blocker. How do you expect the offense to flow this year, looking more like from two years ago or new adjustments? What’s the move?
TONY BENNETT: It’s a different team. Obviously with the changeover, we’ll see. But I think guys like Braxton, Mamadi, Jay, they certainly are very good when they can either roll on the rim or catch it in the high post and on the move. That’s I think offensively some of their strengths. Kihei is good off the ball screens. So certainly there will be an element of that.

Last year I think ironically we probably ran, if you call it blocker mover or some of our sides, maybe 60 percent, and then some of our ball screen continuity was 35, 30 percent, and we did some other stuff. So it’ll be a mix for sure. I think it will be. And you have to space the floor, but you’ve got to be good on the glass, and again, trying to find ways to put these guys in the best positions possible offensively, and then obviously being able to go to the other end and work like crazy, that’s sort of the — it’s both and.

Q. Braxton, about a year ago this time, you didn’t even know if you were going to be able to play last season. Now you have the whole season under your belt, national champion, come back as one of the senior leaders for this team. What has that experience been like and what was the focus for you in the off-season?
BRAXTON KEY: Just being a better leader. Like you said, I wasn’t sure if I was going to play last year, and I remember Coach called me right after class and I got the news that I was eligible, and it was exciting and great news. It was an up-and-down season, of course, playing some games and not. But you learn a lot from the bench.

And this year just leading the young guys, leading them to try to catch up to speed with like returners with me, Mamadi, Jay and Kihei. It’s challenging, but we’re looking forward to it.

TONY BENNETT: I’m really glad he got that waiver, too. He was significant in the championship game, obviously. But yeah, when you said that, that did make it real. You didn’t know at this time if he was going to be able to play, so he was a huge part of it.

Q. Tony, have you ever had a rebuilding challenge like this? I don’t know if you’ve ever had three draft picks in the same year.
TONY BENNETT: I think we’ve been successful at Virginia because guys have grown and they’ve gotten into their upperclassmen years, and now we rely on the upperclassmen that are in our program.

But there is a lot being lost. You can’t deny how good Dre and Ty and Kyle were, and Jack Salt. He was significant. So rebuilding, starting a new cycle, however, the beauty of college basketball is you can be good with inexperienced guys and enough experience, and that’s the challenge before us.

We’ve just got to keep trying to figure out how we can be at our best with how we play offensively, defensively. There will be some growing pains. I know that. We’ve already experienced that in practice, and I’ve been on these guys pretty hard and pushing them. But I’m grateful for them because they got a lot on their plate. We do.

But I think we’ve been through a lot. So we’ll just — we’ll be as good as we can, and we know not to worry about it. We talked about it last year, let’s get as ready as we can and run not to the finish line, to the starting line. Let’s be as good as we can at the start and be process oriented. That’s the way for our program and for players and I think team. So that’s what we’ll do.

And yeah, there is a bit of a newness and rebuild to it, but that brings some new excitement, and it means that those three guys that left early had phenomenal careers, and I think we’d all take, hey, you can win a National Championship and lose those three guys, will you take that and maybe be newer and have to start over in some ways? I think we’d all agree and take that, and that’s where we’re at right now.

Q. For the players, Mamadi and Braxton, returning as upperclassmen, how has your mentality been different going into this year being the veteran upperclassmen versus last year?
MAMADI DIAKITE: For me it’s the same thing. I think everything started when we lost against UMBC, and I’m carrying that and hopefully all the other guys are still carrying it. I’m carrying that underneath my skin, and it drives me every time. I’ve been having it since two years ago, so I’m just carrying that through this year.

BRAXTON KEY: And for me you go from being A player to kind of the player, and not in a selfish way, but you just — the coaches expect a lot more of the older guys, and within this program, I don’t know how it is in other programs, but here, leadership is on the older guys.

So me, Mamadi, Jay, Kihei, a lot of leadership is on us, so we have to lead the younger guys and mold them and get them ready for, like Coach said, the start line.



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