Barry’s chart on Tuesday looked at youthful ACC coaches, and there is an interesting history there.
Vic Bubas took over at Duke in 1960 at 30. Dean Smith took over Frank McGuire’s UNC program at 30. Mike Krzyzewski took over Duke at 33.
All three of those guys, partly because of immense ability and partly because of timing, were ultimately able to become the dominant ACC coach in their respective eras.
Tony Bennett is not as young as the three afore-mentioned maestros were, but he’s in a similar position. When Coach K steps down next spring, he’s got a chance to seize control of the conference. And this season, he may have a really good team too.
And it’s not like Virginia didn’t have losses. They had some major losses.
Trey Murphy was drafted by the Grizzlies at #17 and traded to the Pelicans. Jay Huff and Sam Hauser graduated. UNC slayer Tomas Woldetensae did too.
Jabri Abdur-Rahim transferred to Georgia, Justin McKoy left for UNC and Casey Morsell decamped for NC State.
But Bennett also has some pretty good players back:
- Kihei Clark Sr. 5-9 Senior
- Kody Stattmann - 6-7 Senior
- Jayden Nixon 6-3 Senior
- Francisco Caffaro 7-0 Junior
- Chase Coleman - 5-9 Junior
- Reece Beekman - 6-3 Sophomore
- Carson McCorkle - 6-3 Sophomore
- Kadin Shedrick - 6-11 Sophomore
We’ve raved about Clark before. Some Virginia fans got frustrated because he realized at times his team needed help and at 5-9, he wasn’t always able to give it, but he was always willing to try.
And hse’s not really 5-9 either. He’s certainly not 5-10 unless he’s grown, but that’s what UVa is listing him at this year. They owe him a lot but come on.
Clark has immense heart and he’s whip-smart. We love him.
Beekman is a classic Bennett defense-first guy and he’s only going to get better. That’s a superb backcourt.
Shedrick, a native of Holly Springs, has been in Virginia’s program three seasons now (he redshirted his first year) and has only gained two pounds. But he’s still likely to start ahead of the much thicker Caffaro. However, he’s had time to mature so we’ll see how he does. And Bennett has a bruiser now when he needs one, who we’ll get to presently.
Aussie Cody Stattman missed a lot of last season with Covid-related heart issues (15 games) and while people have had some high expectations for him, last season aside, he hasn't gotten there yet. He still could of course, and everyone gets a pass on the Covid season. It’s just that he hasn’t.
McCorkle and Coleman barely played last year but Coleman’s brother, Matt, had a solid career at Texas. Coleman could still be helpful.
Virginia brings in four new players.
- Aarman Franklin - Indiana, 6-4 Junior
- Jayden Gardner - ECU, 6-6 Senior (and designated bruiser).
Franklin is a tough defender so he’s a strong candidate to start. He left IU as arguably its best guard and his offense, not nearly as important but not inconsequential, ain’t bad.
UVA fans will love the 6-6, 246 lb. Gardner. Bennett is bringing him in specifically to be physical. He apparently felt like his team was missing some toughness last year and that’s going to be Gardner’s job. Yes, he’s the bruiser. ECU has come up with some talent lately. It’s too bad they haven’t been able to keep it. Gardner is the second major ECU transfer to the ACC after Elijah Hughes turned up at Syracuse and became a major factor for the Orange.
- Taine Murray, 6-4
- Igor Milicic Jr, 6-10
It’s sort of gone under the radar but Bennett has developed two nice recruiting patches: North Carolina, especially the Triangle, and Down Under.
Stattman is an Aussie, former Cav Jack Salt was from New Zealand and so is Murray. He’s said to be an outstanding shooter. That never hurts obviously but we’d expect he’s a bench player for a year or two. It’s hard to know much about most international players though.
Now that’s an interesting guy.
He came to Virginia’s attention via former Cav Isaiah Wilkins who really liked his game and so, apparently did Bennett.
But this is what intrigues us: Virginia lists him as a guard/forward. His father was a player and trained him as a guard, then he shot up to 6-10.
If you look up video, you’ll see he’s really, really fluid. He might be one of those guys Bennett brings along slowly, but he might be really good out of the chute. He also has a beautiful stroke. We’re really excited to see him.
But that leads us to something else that has changed for Virginia. Like Notre Dame’s Mike Brey, Bennett likes to season most of his guys and to bring them along slowly. Only now, that’s not working as well.
Last year, he had three transfers and all of them were promising - are promising, but just not at Virginia. Turnover could be disruptive to Virginia’s system. Keep an eye on it.
For now though, Bennett probably has what he needs. And even last year, in what seemed like an off-year, it was hard to knock Virginia out of the top spot in the regular season conference race.
And with eternal ACC powers Duke and UNC, who, with a few dips, have dominated the league since the 1960s both in coaching transitions, Virginia has a chance to really seize control.
Post-season is another question, 2019 aside.
That was a magnificent team but it won by the skin of its teeth in almost every game. Virginia beat #12 seed Oregon by four, 53-49, just barely survived Purdue, thanks to freshman Clark’s preternaturally smart pass to Mamadi Diakite that put the game in overtime, beat Auburn by one in the semifinals and then Texas Tech by eight in the title game, which was also an overtime game.
Make no mistake: that was a superb and deserving championship team. They walked the edge a lot but never fell over.
Bennett has been in Charlottesville for 12 seasons. We can toss out the first two because he was building and (all together now) everyone gets a pass on last season. If you remember, Virginia got hit with a Covid wave immediately before the post season. They weren’t going anywhere and we all knew it. They didn’t have a chance.
In the other nine seasons though, Bennett has one Elite Eight trip that ended in a memorable collapse to Syracuse and one Sweet Sixteen trip. Virginia lost in the opening round in 2012 and, infamously, 2018, and lost in the round of 32 in 2015 and 2017.
People understandably tend to focus on the loss to UMBC because the #16 seed just killed the # 1 Cavs. It remains the only win by a #16 seed and it wasn’t like it was a buzzer beater.
But the year before, Florida beat them by 26 and held the ‘Hoos to 39. We can’t remember the game or year, but we think there was at least one collapse in the ACC Tournament too and of course the Elite Eight loss to Syracuse was also ugly.
Bennett’s system is incredibly tenacious and while it may look boring on TV, in person it’s riveting. You have to work hard to beat them, and it’s draining. He’s had several complete post-season collapses though and you can’t look past that just because he had one brilliant team that could live on a knife’s edge. It’s going to be harder to build continuity, as we said, and that could be a problem for Virginia, particularly in the post-season, where Bennett has failed a lot and at times spectacularly so.
Still, with Williams gone and Krzyzewski about to follow, it’s entirely possible that power in the ACC swings north. Bennett is still a younger coach and his system has brought one championship and dominated regular season ACC play. He’s already one of the best coaches in ACC history. If he can sort out his post-season issues, he might join the elite trio we started the article with.