Tony Bennett: There’s no quick fixes to what ails Virginia; it’s all about heart and defense

By Jerry Ratcliffe


Tony Bennett talks with his team. Photo by Andrew Shurtleff/courtesy Atlantic Coast Conference.

Longtime CBS basketball analyst Bill Raftery made an astute observation during Virginia’s landslide loss to No. 1 Gonzaga during Saturday’s broadcast. “Raf,” as he’s known to colleagues said he wanted to see Tony Bennett’s team a month from now once the UVA coach has figured out his personnel, chemistry, deep bench and that some of the newer faces have learned Bennett’s system.

Wahoo fans should take that approach when it comes to judging their favorite team. By no means should anyone reach for the panic button.

I informed Bennett of Raftery’s comment in the postgame interview and asked him what kind of improvement can this team make in a month’s time.

“We’re going to have to [improve],” Bennett said after watching his defense surrender the second-most points (98) that any of his UVA teams have during his era. “You always have a choice: stay the same, which won’t be good enough; or, you can go the other direction.

“There’s no guarantee what you do with a reality check or being exposed like that. I hope we’ll get better. We’re still shuffling a little bit with personnel and things like that, but that’s the hope, that this game will show us what we needed to see, as uncomfortable as that is and now you really go to work. Until something like this happens to you, it’s reality. We must improve. If we don’t, it will be a very, very hard year.”

The most disappointing aspect of the 98-75 loss _ the final score was not an accurate indication of how Gonzaga dominated _ was Virginia’s transition defense. If anything hurt Bennett’s pride, it was how poorly the Cavaliers performed defensively, the very mantra of his coaching philosphy.

Gonzaga, which produces 25 percent of its offense off transition baskets, scored 27 points off 10 UVA turnovers.

It was obvious after the first five games that this batch of Cavaliers were not as talented defensively as they have grown accustomed to following. Nor were they as athletically gifted. Perhaps those facts were overlooked in preseason rankings, but now a cold fact that Bennett and his staff are trying to improve.

The coaches worked hard leading up to the Michigan State and Villanova games, both eventually canceled because of Virginia’s COVID issues, on transition defense.

“We worked so hard on transition defense and it just didn’t show up [Saturday],” Bennett said. “We got overwhelmed. We couldn’t figure out a way to collectively get it stopped.”

As shocked as Bennet was at his defense, Gonzaga coach Mark Few, who goes back many years with the Virginia coach, was equally surprised.

“I didn’t see it going this way,” Few said. “I foresaw some kind of grinder, but our guys did a great job of asserting their will.”

And, taking away Virginia’s.

“I definitely think a couple of us were scared,” said junior point guard Kihei Clark, the Cavaliers’ leading scorer in the game with 19 points. “I dont know if it was because we were playing Gonzaga or the moment.”

There was plenty to fear from the Zags, who have now won four games over Top 20 teams in their first seven games, something that has never been accomplished according to ESPN Stats and Info.

Gonzaga easily jumped from the No. 2 to No. 1 slot in’s offensive efficiency rating after the game, while Virginia dropped from No. 4 to No. 11 in defensive efficiency.

Bennett said afterward that going forward, there’s no quick fixes for his defense.

“It’s a mindset,” the UVA coach said. “Defense is so much about your heart and your mind. There’s know how, there’s feel to an extent, but you have to decide as a collective group we’re gonna fight or die trying, so to speak, on possessions. It’s going to matter than much.”

Some of it is athleticism, particularly down in the paint where Mamadi Diakite, one of the most athletic defenders Virginia has ever boasted down in the post, and Braxton Key, graduated after last season.

“Last year’s team, we knew we had to win with our defense,” Bennett said. “This year’s team, we might not be quite as gifted defensively in certain positions but it has to come to that reality or it’ll be hard, because if you can’t get stops, it puts too much pressure on you.”

Clark, who took some of the blame for the loss because of his six turnovers, said the Cavaliers definitely let down on defense against the Zags.

“I think we were kind of playing selfishly on the defensive end, not helping each other,” Clark said. “We didn’t do what we practiced. It’s a collective thing, helping each other, but also I think it comes down to individual defense, which is something we work on. When somebody gets beat, we always have to help each other and cover for each other.”

As Bennett said, scheduling the game against Gonzaga was important but painful because all of Virginia’s warts were exposed.

“Will we grow from it? Will we stay unified and come back?” the coach said.

Clark put it this way:

“We can’t hang our heads too much. We play a good team at Notre Dame. We watch film, learn from it.”

Virginia plays the Irish in South Bend on Wednesday to begin ACC play, then hosts rival Virginia Tech on Jan. 2 and Wake Forest on Jan. 6.

Time to get back to work.


  1. BillNCville says:

    The wing defense was terrible. And, if you watch the replays, too many of the breakdowns are by Sam. He looks lost and slow and sometimes uninterested on defense. Everybody has been blaming Kihei, but the biggest improvement needs to come from Sam. I also think the team has missed Kody, who brings some energy at that spot.

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