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Building A Program

Only a few programs are built to last. It looks like Tony Bennett is doing it now at Virginia.

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NCAA Basketball: Wake Forest at Virginia
Jan 8, 2017; Charlottesville, VA, USA; Virginia Cavaliers head coach Tony Bennett reacts from the bench in the first half during a game against the Wake Forest Demon Deacons at John Paul Jones Arena.
Patrick McDermott-USA TODAY Sports

Bill Foster built a great team at Duke in the late 1970s.

The hyperactive coach carefully put together a powerhouse, usually adding one piece at a time – Jim Spanarkel, followed by Mike Gminski, followed by Gene Banks, followed by Vince Taylor. He filled in the gaps with such solid performers as Kenny Dennard, Bob Bender, Tom Emma, Chip Engelland and (for one season at least) John Harrell.

That team won two ACC championships in three years, added a regular season title in between, played in the 1978 national title game and reached the Elite Eight in 1980 (after beating Kentucky on its own home floor in the Sweet 16).

It was a great team … but that’s all it was – a great team.

Foster left in 1980 for South Carolina, the stars were not replaced as they graduated and new coach Mike Krzyzewski was left with a program devoid of talent.

He had to rebuild from scratch.

Coach K did it a different way. He recruited a great class and nurtured them as they grew up together. By 1986, the combination of Johnny Dawkins, Mark Alarie, David Henderson and Jay Bilas were a great team themselves. They carried the Devils to 37 wins and the final No. 1 AP ranking, an ACC championship and a spot in the national title game.

Then they graduated.

And 1987 was when we found out that Krzyzewski had built more than a great team – he had laid the foundation for a great program … indeed, I would argue that his program has been the best in college basketball in the modern era – better than Kentucky, Kansas, UNC, UCLA or any other so-called blueblood.

Duke did take a small step back in 1987 as the program reloaded. The ’87 Devils “only” finished No. 17 nationally and “only” reached the Sweet 16.

But that was on a young team that was about to embark on the second-greatest NCAA run in history – five straight Final Fours and back-to-back national championships. And that was just a prelude to K’s astonishing success that continues to this day. Since the NCAA expanded its tournament to the modern 64-team format in 1985, no program has as many national titles, as many Final Fours, as many Sweet 16s or as many NCAA wins as Duke.

Clearly, the Duke “program” is a brilliant success.

But Duke is not the only great program out there. In the ACC alone, UNC, Louisville and Syracuse can boast great programs. Maybe not quite at Duke’s level (who is?) but up there with the best of the non-ACC programs.

That puts the rest of the ACC in a difficult position. Every once in a while, one of those teams will come up with a competitive team. But that’s what they have – a team.

Leonard Hamilton won the ACC championship and finished No. 10 in the nation in 2012 with what might have been the best team in the ACC that season. But his ‘Noles have not returned to the NCAA Tournament since – missing four straight years. They are in position to make an NCAA run this season, but going forward, how much longer will the FSU revival last after Dwayne Bacon and Jonathan Isaac (and maybe Xavier Rathan-Mayes) turn pro?

Jim Larranaga’s Miami Hurricanes have been on a similar track. His 2013 team won the ACC title and finished No. 5 in the final AP poll. But his next two Miami teams missed the NCAA Tournament. The ‘Canes had good success last season (No. 10 nationally and Sweet 16), but two good years in a five-year coaching run does not a program make.

That brings us to Virginia.

When Tony Bennett took over the Cavalier program before the 2009-10 season, Virginia basketball was not very impressive – either recently or historically. In fact, of the original ACC members (including 1980 addition Georgia Tech), only Clemson had seen more futility than the Cavaliers.

Virginia had one great run (three top 10 finishes, but no championships) with Ralph Sampson in the early 1980s. Terry Holland won a surprise ACC title in 1976. Holland and Jeff Jones each won an NIT title.

Indeed, Holland post-Sampson had established Virginia as a solid mid-level success story – kind of like Notre Dame today. The Virginia teams in the post-Sampson era usually got in the NCAA Tournament and occasionally did well – between 1981 and 1995, Virginia had two Final Fours and six Sweet 16s.

But the decline of Jones’ program and his firing ripped the underpinning out from under Virginia basketball. Pete Gillen struggled (one NCAA trip in seven seasons) and even though Dave Leitao managed one NCAA trip in his three-year run, he left an ugly legacy of unhappy players and fans.

Bennett struggled his first two seasons, then had two fair years of 22 and 23 wins.

But he didn’t put his first great team together until 2013-14.

That team was led by senior Joe Harris, but it included a hard core of sophomores – Malcolm Brogdon, Anthony Gill, Justin Anderson, Mike Toby, Evan Nolte, plus freshman London Perrantes.

That team not only won the 2014 ACC title, but they were the best team in the ACC over the next three years – 2014-16. They won more ACC games than anybody else and finished in the top 6 nationally each year.

That was a great team – similar to Duke in 1978-80 and 1984-86 (without the Final Four runs).

But I went into this season wondering whether Bennett had put together a great team or whether he was building a great program. Anderson left after his junior year. Brogdon, Gill, Tobey and Nolte all graduated after last season.

Only Perrantes remained from Bennett’s core group.

Even as Virginia struggles with a brutal stretch of the schedule (at rival Virginia Tech, Duke at home, at UNC – followed by Miami at home 48 hours later), it’s obvious that the Cavs are not going to fade away.

Oh, this season might not be as good as the last three – just as Duke’s 1987 season was a dropoff from 1986. But some of that has to do with the unexpected dismissal of center Austin Nichols and some of it has to do with the necessity of teaching some talented young offensive players (Kyle Guy and Ty Jerome) to play Virginia’s defense.

Before this week, Virginia was 18-5 and ranked No. 12 in the nation. The selection committee had them as a No. 3 seed.

They’re going to slip after that double overtime loss to Virginia Tech (already reflected in the drop from No. 12 to No. 14 in this week’s AP poll) and the home loss to Duke … and the likely loss Saturday in Chapel Hill.

But they do finish with three of the final four at home, where they are almost invincible to any ACC team other than Duke (0-2 vs. Duke; 30-1 vs. everybody else over the last four years). The one road trip is to N.C. State -- which today looks like an easier trip than a game at Boston College.

Virginia will be okay as this season finishes out. I doubt that they win the ACC or give Bennett the Final Four run that his resume is lacking, but this will almost certainly be a top 10-15 team with a good chance at the Sweet 16.

That’s this year.

But more importantly, this year has proved that Bennett’s program is in good shape going forward. The core of this team is a bunch of juniors – Shayok, Hall, Wilkins, Darius Thompson. Their return will guarantee that Virginia remains one of the best defenses in college basketball.

Perrantes will be missed, but Ty Jerome seems poised to inherit his point guard role – and Jerome and fellow freshman Kyle Guy represent an offensive upgrade on what the Cavs have this season. Their minutes this season are limited due to defensive concerns, but after a year in Bennett’s system, they should be strong in that regard.

On paper, Virginia will still lack an inside scorer next season, although I think redshirt freshman Mamadi Diakte has a lot of potential as a defender and shot blocker. Maybe freshman Jay Huff, a 6-11 redshirt this season who was a four-star recruit, can provide some inside scoring punch.

I doubt that Bennett will try and bring in a post-grad big man to fill the void created by Nichols’ unexpected departure. His defensive scheme is so intricate, it’s hard to imagine a newcomer getting it in just one season, Maybe Nichols can come back – but I admit that I have no clue whether that’s possible.

No matter – Virginia will remain an ACC contender next season … and almost certainly beyond. Bennett is not going to recruit many five-star prospects, but he’s going to bring in good, solid athletes who can play his system.

He’ll have a number of good teams in the coming seasons.

That’s because he has built a good program.

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