Tony Bennett finally breaks the door down, gets Virginia to the Elite Eight

CHICAGO — We rush things too much in sports. We expect the biggest results in the fastest manner possible with the most appealing styles en route to near-instant achievement. Sometimes — most often, in fact — dividends don’t show themselves immediately. Sometimes it takes a lot of patience. Sometimes the answers aren’t always obvious. Most times, you need faith and trust.

That’s Tony Bennett, defined. The 46-year-old Virginia coach took a firm step up in his career on Friday night thanks to his top-seeded team’s 84-71 victory against Iowa State at the United Center. It has been a long time coming — or has it? This is Bennett’s 10th season as a head coach, the past seven of them turning Virginia into one of the most reliable, unbreakable regular-season teams in college basketball. His pack line defense and slow-tempo squeezeball style have earned him 165 victories and a .699 winning percentage.

And now, the postseason is no longer a bugaboo. Virginia can become a fixture, instead of a one-liner, in the NCAA Tournament.

On Sunday, Virginia will play in its sixth Elite Eight in program history, and its first one in 21 years. Tony Bennett is not the savior, he is the savant. His style, gleaned from his passionate and fiery father, has transformed the top of the ACC and changed the way people view elite defense in college basketball.

A lot of people who mocked Bennett’s style and system can go ahead and find another unicorn to chase. Anyone in the business will tell you Bennett’s one of the very best. His ability to coach is near the top of the profession. Yes, he needed to earn this kind of victory to garner mainstream favor, but respect? He has always had it where it matters most.

He didn’t need the victory for validation. But damn, did he want it for his players. Check the perspective on a guy who just shut a lot of people up.

“It doesn’t take away these guys,” Bennett said. “To get to a Sweet 16 is no small thing. To get into the NCAA Tournament, our program is still establishing itself. We’re not where Carolina and Duke and some of these are. We’re scratching and clawing and thankful for everything that comes our way, and you just show up and you keep knocking.”

Virginia isn’t Carolina or Duke — but it’s beating those programs as of late in the deepest conference in the country. The door is coming down. Turns out, Bennett has brought a prop along for this NCAA Tournament, something he has actually used all season: a humble door-knocker. Call it cheesy, but then you’ll have another glimpse into Bennett’s effective and affectionate mindset. Bang the knocker, boys. Keep hitting the door: it will open. If you don’t relent, it will come unhinged.

“And I said it before, you can handle the worst that would happen and you can handle the best because they know what matters,” Bennett said.

Virginia turned back a tremendous offensive-minded Iowa State team by shooting 56 percent, only committing eight turnovers and forcing eight steals. UVA had 26 assists on 32 field goals. His guards didn’t turn the ball over once.

Tony Bennett finally got the breakthrough win he desperately needed. (USATSI)

“I think our confidence grows when we look at each other and we know that we’ve done something,” senior Anthony Gill said. “We know that we’re doing what our system is built upon, and when we’re really embracing the five pillars that we go by each and every day. I think that’s where we get our confidence from. If we’re going out there and doing everything that we need to do in order to get wins and play together as a team, I think that’s where our confidence comes from.”

I caught up with Bennett as he walked to the bus, about 40 minutes after the game ended. He was in a hurry to get back to the team hotel, to relish the victory — but really, to watch tape as soon as possible. He’s one of the biggest video junkies in the profession. He was thrilled for Mike Tobey, who had one of the best games of his season on Friday, and proud of how faith always pays off. Really, he looked like a man who knew some weight had been taken off his back.

You won’t find a more complete, confident, sturdy team in this tournament than Virginia. It will not beat itself. Playing a perfect basketball game is impossible, but Bennett strives to get as close to that line as theoretically possible. Friday’s convincing victory wasn’t a Bennett masterpiece, but merely an embodiment of his methodology. The Cavaliers were taken out the past two NCAA Tournaments, as a No. 1 and No. 2 seed, by one of the best coaches in the game, Tom Izzo. Bennett was going to break through; this was inevitable.

“Of course I’m proud of them and I want them to touch what they can touch,” Bennett said of turning goals into the tangible. “I said it in the press conference the other day, we were 2-3 in the ACC, and I said whatever that line is, I want them to get to it where they can reach their full potential, and where that takes us, it takes us. I’ll hold it with open hands, but we’ve got to get to that line and maximize what we have, and that’s what I love about them on the floor is they’re touching it. They’re getting close to it.”

He is now a 9-5 NCAA Tournament record. Bennett is a many of many creeds. One African proverb in particular has put a theme on this season, but really it describes what Virginia basketball is about. The proverb translates to: “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”

“We have some very individually-talented guys, but they know when they’re in concert with each other, that’s their way to touch greatness, and it’s validated because they’ve done it,” Bennett said. “When they share the ball, when they get good shots, they celebrate that. They’re such a unified group that way, and there’s not egos in there, and I think that experience of playing and being in tough settings has made a difference.”

It has. This team is ready to make a Final Four. Bennett is ready to enter into that lofty pantheon of Greatest Coaches in College Basketball — no matter the age. Virginia has taken the slow and steady path to proving its principles. Bennett is a victory away from a third consecutive 30-win season, but much more importantly, the program is one victory away from a Final Four.

This was inevitable. Tony Bennett’s patience and persistence was never going to fail him.

Tony Bennett and the Cavaliers are into the Elite Eight for the first time since ’95. (USATSI)


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