It’s been a few years since the Virginia Cavaliers have made any noise on the hardwood, but Tony Bennett, who’s in his third year as head coach in Charlottesville, has the Wahoos in the Big Dance and heading in the right direction. This year will mark just the fourth time in the last sixteen years that Virginia will be Dancing. The Cavaliers (22-9) were second in the country in scoring defense (53.2 ppg) and 20th nationally in field goal percentage defense (39.1 percent). For their efforts, they’ll be the No. 10 seed in the West Region. Their opponent in the first round will be the seventh seeded Florida Gators, who proved their mettle by hanging tough with Kentucky twice this year. The two play in Omaha, Nebraska on Friday.
Bennett joined 106.7 The Fan in Washington D.C. with the Sports Junkies to talk about all the contrasting styles of the teams in the NCAA Tournament, how his Cavaliers match up with Florida’s style of play, being happy for his fifth year seniors who are making their first ever March Madness appearance, the high volume of three-point shots Florida takes, whether there’s a team UVA has played that resembles Florida’s style, and what his message to his team is as they make their first ever trip to the Big Dance.
On the contrast of styles in the NCAA Tournament:
“Well the regular season we certainly had small numbers, but that made it almost more rewarding and enjoyable for our players. As a coach, when you can sit back and none of our players have ever been to an NCAA Tournament. I told our fifth year seniors, they’ve been through a lot and not had a lot of success, and that was significant to them. And I know for all of us, but especially them, I’m excited they get to play. I’m biased, but I think the NCAA Tournament is the greatest sporting event going as far as the whole thing happens. But to see their eyes and excitement when our name was put on the board…. We thought we were in, of course, but you know how that goes, until you see it, you don’t know for sure. And boy they were excited. A lot of emotion. So they had to finish our season strong, we knew we had to play solid basketball. We weren’t perfect, but they gutted out enough victories to put us in this position.”
Whether his enthusiasm of making the tournament was tempered when he learned that they’d be facing a tough opening round opponent in Florida:
“It’s like alright, then it’s like okay. It’s a reality check. But when you get into this tournament, and knowing what we were probably be seeded if we got in, you know you’re going to play a very good team. And that certainly is the case. Put it this way, I don’t think our guys will overlook anybody or be overconfident. They know they’re playing a team that’s been there and has guys with experience. But that’s the beauty of this tournament. You want this chance and this opportunity, and now we’ve got to do everything in our power to make the most of it and advance.”
Whether he checked things like Bracketology to see what the analysts thought of Virginia’s Tournament chances:
“I didn’t do it until we were beat. Then I told my wife, ‘it’s like if you’re a politician running for office and you’re checking the polls, if that’s how it is here.’ Every little thing that you see, are you in, are you out, where are we at at this state. But I looked at it quite a few times in the last couple days, just to see. And I never saw us in the Last Four In or on the bubble, so that made me a little bit better. But again, you don’t know what they’re going to take into consideration because we had some injuries and all that. Like I said, I felt good and then someone told me right before the Selection Show that Andy Katz had made a comment that he didn’t know if Virginia would be in because they had some injuries. So I need to straighten that out with Andy. That put me a little bit on edge, but otherwise I felt pretty confident about it.”
On the high volume of threes that Florida shoots and whether there’s any team they played that resembles Florida:
“Yeah, they’re unique with their athleticism. In the non-conference though, we played Michigan. They really space the floor and they have four guys that will stretch you and shoot the three. We also went out to Oregon and played them. In the conference, you mentioned Duke, and that would probably be….Also Boston College. They’re not at the same level right now, but they’ll spread you with the Princeton style offense and shoot a lot. But I think again with the combination of the athleticism and the spacing — they run a lot of ball screens and space well — to have that many guys who can shoot it, they’re probably the most. But Michigan might be the closest, and then you know, you mentioned Duke. But that’s the test, to get your defense back. We say we’re not going to overpower you, but you have to make them earn those 3’s and contest their shots. The percentages are usually pretty true, if you can bother shooters, usually the percentages do down. But if they start getting rhythm shots and get going, when you’re shooting the ball well, that’s a great challenge.”