Tom Izzo is Mr. March. Sticking to script, his Michigan State Spartans advanced to the Elite Eight for the eighth time in his tenure. But behind head coach Tony Bennett, Virginia took Michigan State to the absolute brink at Madison Square Garden.
The Cavaliers battled back from an early, double digit-point deficit to turn the second half into a classic, back-and-forth Sweet 16 showdown. Expect to see them in more of these meaningful March contests so long as Bennett is in Charlottesville, and take it from someone who knows the tournament well.
“Tony Bennett has done an incredible job in a few years there,” Izzo said in postgame press conference via ASAPSports.com.
Indeed, taking Virginia to its first Sweet 16 since 1995 was a landmark accomplishment. It was also Bennett’s second Sweet 16 appearance in the last six years as head coach of a program not known for its basketball prowess. He coached the 2007-’08 Washington State Cougars to 26 wins, a spot in the Associated Press Top 25 and the tournament’s second weekend.
Bennett’s success at Washington State transcended anything preceding him on the Palouse. Kelvin Sampson had success there in the 1990s, but nothing quite approaching the Cougar teams of the mid-to-late 2000s. He won there with an innovative recruiting approach, circumventing the lack of a local talent pool by combining foreign talent like center Aron Baynes with under-the-radar talent from around the West, including Kyle Weaver.
Those players fit the hard-nosed philosophy he inherited from his father, former Wisconsin head coach Dick Bennett. At Virginia, he’s able to combine an old-school mentality that emphasizes defensive tenacity with a deep recruiting pool past Cavaliers head coaches have been unable to tap.
The manner in which Bennett is building Virginia is very much like how Izzo restored Michigan State to its glory after the retirement of longtime head coach Jud Heathcote.
“His team played so hard and physical and tough,” Izzo said of Bennett. “As he said to me, and I agree with him, it’s the way the game should be played.”
The way in which the game is played was a common theme in the postgame discussion. Touting his team’s success, Bennett too offered an assessment of what this Cavaliers bunch has meant per ASAPSports.com.
It’s a team you don’t want the season to end because you don’t want to stop coaching them, but I thank God for the opportunity to work with these guys, and they should hold their head high, and they are what’s right about the game of college basketball.
They fell short of a Final Four, but the 2013-’14 season cannot be considered anything other than a success for the Cavaliers.
Virginia used that style to win the ACC regular season and conference tournaments, and its late-season surge earned the Cavaliers a No. 1 seed. Seemingly, there is little room for upward mobility beyond such an impressive season, but Bennett can achieve more. Much more.
Joe Harris and Akil Mitchell leave, but sophomores Anthony Gill and Malcolm Brogdon provide a solid foundation for next season. Freshman London Perrantes was a surprise breakthrough player whose star will continue to rise.
Tony Bennett has Virginia building for the long haul. Perhaps in a few years, he’ll be ready to take over as the game’s new Mr. March.