Virginia basketball is out of whack, and only Tony Bennett can fix it

By Jerry Ratcliffe

Photo: UVA Athletics

Something’s out of whack with Virginia basketball.

It’s not the amount of losses, mind you, but rather the way the Cavaliers have lost, particularly in their disturbing, almost inexplicable postseason flops of late.

Whether it’s philosophic, schematic, recruiting, NIL, or a combination of all of the above, Tony Bennett must now take on the role of a mad scientist, locking himself away in his laboratory of vast hoops knowledge and discovering some way out of this mess.

Late night Tuesday in Dayton at the NCAA’s “First Four,” there was more March Sadness for Virginia basketball, which hasn’t won an NCAA Tournament game since claiming the National Championship in 2019. In essentially a play-in game between a pair of No. 10 seeds, UVA was obliterated, humiliated, 67-42, on national television by 2.5-point favorite Colorado State.

It was a mortifying way to end Reece Beekman’s career at Virginia, four years of ever-improving basketball without once being allowed to taste the fruit of NCAA victory. While most believed the Cavaliers unworthy of an NCAA ticket, even skeptics had to expect UVA to show up with a chip-on-its-shoulder, something-to-prove attitude.

What we got was an uninspired team that never learned how to take a punch and get up off the canvas, a team with a glass jaw that never learned how to land a haymaker to the opponent. This was a team that peaked way too early and then imploded.

After seemingly finding itself and some offense in late January and early February, the Cavaliers reeled off eight-straight wins, were the hottest team in college basketball. They went into Tallahassee and rolled up 80 points in a win over Florida State.

From that point onward, this team got lost in college basketball’s wilderness, losing six of its last 10 and failing to score 50 points in half those games, including Tuesday night’s debacle in Dayton.

Could it be that, as one former rival coach suggested, that people have figured Virginia out? Maybe Bennett needs to tinker with his offense to find more production.

Me? I think he just needs to recruit a boatload of high-percentage shooters. If anything betrayed the Cavaliers this season, and the last couple of seasons, it was a lack of firepower, particularly in clutch situations. Even Bennett mentioned last week when we were discussing 3-point shooting, that “good shooting covers up a multitude of sins.”

Against Colorado State, a sticky and physical defensive foe, Virginia shooters couldn’t have hit water if they fell out of a boat. UVA’s 25-percent field-goal shooting was the lowest ever by a Virginia team in the NCAA Tournament. The Cavaliers were 5 for 29 in the first half (17 percent), missed 19 shots in a row at one point and went 9 minutes, 20 seconds without scoring a point.

Wahoo fans realized most of the season that shooting might be a problem, much as it was the year before. It didn’t take long for opposing coaches to figure that out and gameplan around it.

This was the fourth time time in the last five tournaments with Virginia leaving its fan base as emotional wrecks, reaching for the Pepto at every timeout:

2024 – #16 Colorado State 67, #16 Virginia 42

2023 – #13 Furman 68, #4 Virginia 67

2022 – NIT

2021 – #13 Ohio 62, #4 Virginia 58

2020 – Covid

2019 – National Champions

2018 – You don’t really want to go there, do you?

Somebody figured out to beat Virginia, and that strategy has been picked up on by coaches from Boston to Miami, and beyond.

“I think teams started really off, gapping up on some guys and just making it so hard for Reece and Isaac (McKneely),” Bennett said of UVA’s scoring woes down the homestretch of the season. “They kind of face-guarded, zoned off. And I want to say they got a little bit of a blueprint on how to bother us.”

Bennett said he and his staff tried to come up with some offensive options, which helped Virginia against NC State, Boston College and Georgia Tech, but a lot of it was predicated on making shots and free throws.

“We had to hit some shots just to give us a chance,” the coach said.

Goes back to my point about recruiting quality shooters. You can’t have enough of them, and it’s not like Bennett hasn’t tried. Blue Cain went to Georgia. Kon Kneuppel signed with Duke. We could go on, but you get the picture.

Same thing goes for big men. Virginia hasn’t had a dominant guy in the middle in a long, long time. Even with this year’s flaws, can you imagine the Cavaliers with Armando Bacot (from Richmond), Quinten Post? Bacot said he lost interest in Virginia because the coaches talked about a redshirt year, plus he wasn’t enthralled about all that talk about defense.

I used to think that defense wins championships. Not in today’s world.

“It was hard because of how [opponents] jammed the lane, zoned off of guys and really face-guarded to make it difficult on the others,” Bennett spoke about how things changed. “And I kind of started happening as people saw, well, here’s a way to maybe make it real challenging on us.”

Have the early NCAA exits been caused by a systemic issue or each their own entities?

Bennett doesn’t seem to believe its his system and that he must “fix” things.

“No, it’s frustrating because before (the series of first-round losses), we’ve been to a couple of Sweet 16s and an Elite Eight and a national championship,” the coach pointed out. “But there have been some hard losses in the first round and that’s frustrating.

“Some are unique — a Covid pause, key players getting injured, and I think, absolutely, I always have to examine our ability to advance. We’ve raised the bar really high here. We’ve qualified for this tournament, which is not an easy thing. We’ve done well.

“But it’s stung to get to this point and not advance. So, of course, we’ve got to keep adding quality players. We’ve got to look at things, certainly, from a system standpoint, absolutely.”

Bennett said that he will always look in the mirror at the end of the season and ask, what adjustments, that the right pieces have to be in place.

“I think it’s probably both, to be honest,” he said.

This morning’s look in the mirror might be an extended one.