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With No. 1 ranking, Tony Bennett’s Cavaliers achieve another milestone

Coach Bennett taking the Hoos to heights not seen since 1982.

NCAA Basketball: Clemson at Virginia Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

March 31, 2009, Tony Bennett was named the head coach of the Virginia Men’s Basketball team, taking over for Dave Leitao.

I’ll be 100% honest. My first reaction was, “What? Who? Why?”

In the eight plus years since, Tony Bennett has proven that he wasn’t just a good choice for the Hoos - he was the BEST choice.

Bennett took over a program that had struggled mightily. From 1998 to 2009, the Cavaliers made the NCAA Tournament just twice (2000-01, 2006-07) and never made it past the second round. In that 11-season span, Virginia had a losing record in the ACC eight times. Dave Leitao’s 2006-07 squad, led by Sean Singletary, tied for first in the league with an 11-5 record in conference. Twice Pete Gillen finished third in the league, both times with a record of 9-7. The duo combined to go 285-153 (65%) overall and 72-104 (41%) in conference over their respective tenures in Charlottesville.

Virginia had just one All American from 1998-2009: Sean Singletary in 2008. Curtis Staples (only one year under Gillen), Roger Mason, and Singletary spent time in the NBA, with Mason having the longest career.

Enter Bennett. The Cavaliers improved to 15-16 in 2009-10, up from 10-18 in the previous season. It only took him until his second season (2010-11) to achieve a winning record on the year (16-15 overall) and his third season (2011-12) to go over .500 in the ACC (9-7). That was also the last time Virginia won fewer than 10 games in conference play. The Hoos made the NCAA tournament under Bennett for the first time in 2011-12, but injuries left them undermanned and outmatched against Florida in the first round.

Virginia missed out on the NCAA tournament in 2012-13, making the NIT Quarterfinals before falling to Iowa.

Since then? The Hoos have made the big dance every year, getting out of the Round of 64 each time and making one Sweet 16 and Virginia’s first Elite 8 since 1994-95. Bennett has a record of 211-85 (71.3%) overall and an ACC record of 100-51 (66.2%) in his eight plus years at the helm in Charlottesville. Since 2013-14, Virginia has the most wins the ACC, and it’s not particularly close as the Hoos sit at 68-17, followed by North Carolina at 61-25 and Duke at 58-26.

In 2013-14, the Cavaliers knocked off Duke in the ACC Championship, earning their first ACC tournament title since - you guessed it - the Ralph Sampson days.

And while the team success is the ultimate goal, Bennett’s squads weren’t without individual stars. He’s had players reach All-American status four times (Mike Scott - 2012, Justin Anderson - 2015, Malcolm Brogdon - 2015 and 2016). Twice, Virginia has had the ACC Defensive Player of the Year in Darion Atkins (2015) and Brogdon (2015, 2016). Five different players have been named to the ACC All-Defensive team, and five times Virginia has had representation on the All-ACC first team (Scott - 2012, Joe Harris - 2013, Brogdon - 2014, 2015, and 2016). Brogdon, in addition to being Defensive POY, was the ACC Player of the Year in 2016, making him the first Cavalier to earn the honor since (shocker!) Ralph Sampson in 1983.

Four players (Scott, Harris, Anderson, and Brogdon) are regulars in the NBA. Brogdon was the 2017 NBA Rookie of the Year. Two more players, Mike Tobey and London Perrantes, have played in the league this season or last. Akil Mitchell, Atkins, and Anthony Gill have played NBA Summer League and play overseas.

Even Bennett himself has earned accolades as he was named the ACC Coach of the Year in 2014 and 2015 (and is well on his way to another this season).

Now, Bennett and the Cavaliers have ticked off another long-time coming box: becoming the No. 1 team in the country. Monday’s AP Poll putting the Hoos on top was Virginia’s first time there since December 21, 1982.

That’s over 35 years for those of you counting at home.

While rankings don’t really matter, I’d be lying if I told you that little one next to Virginia’s name this week hasn’t brought a smile to my face. And yes, it’s the rankings at the end of the year that matter, but this year’s squad broke the Chaminade curse when it seemed the least likely. The 2014-15 squad got the closest, climbing all the way to No. 2, but never broke through.

This leaves just one hurdle for Tony Bennett and the Hoos, and it’s the biggest by far: The Final Four. Look, getting to the Final Four is hard. If it wasn’t, it wouldn’t be such a big deal. The NCAA tournament is a fickle beast that relies on matchups and hot streaks. But, the truth remains that some won’t consider Virginia an elite program without crossing that threshold.

Is it fair? Maybe. Do I understand? Absolutely. Until Virginia makes the Final Four, the “yeah but can they do it in March” questions will be not only annoying, but legitimate as well.

But I know this: Tony Bennett has tackled every obstacle in his way and raised Virginia basketball back to national prominence. The Final Four is only a matter of time.