On Sunday evening, the Virginia Cavaliers found out they’d be hosting the third seeded Mississippi State in the first round of the NIT Tournament. Despite having failed to qualify for the NCAA Tournament, Tony Bennett still sees the value and excitement in this opportunity for additional postseason play.
When watching the NIT selection show and seeing Virginia’s name appear on the screen, Bennett says that “I was very excited to — with this team — go on,” noting how he views the NIT bid to be a reward for a decent season for the entire Wahoo squad.
With that in mind, Bennett is very clear regarding the team’s goals for the NIT, admitting that the ‘Hoos “want tournament experience, playing experience, and to play as well as [we] can.”
That said, Bennett plans to stick with the horses who brung him as he hopes tp make a serious run at the NIT title. He emphasizes how Virginia is going to “play to win it,” and that they want to “give [ourselves] the best chance to play.” For UVA, that means playing the tight, seven to eight man rotation it used throughout ACC play that doesn’t include underclassmen Carson McCorkle, Taine Murray, nor Igor Milicic Jr.
Bennett admits that “I know this sounds strange [when] you look at our last game [because] we struggled,” but “I think this team has won however many games with this group and you stick with this group.” Of course, he says that there are “still open opportunities,” if the coaching staff sees something in practice that indicates that “maybe someone else can give [us] a lift.”
But, at the end of the day, Bennett says that “we’re not that kind of team to use [the NIT] to play [the young guys].” Instead, he points to how “we’re in it to try and win and advance and that’s my mindset.”
Back in 2013 — the only other season that the Wahoos played in the NIT under Bennett — guys like Justin Anderson, Mike Tobey, Joe Harris, and Akil Mitchel all acquired tournament experience in Virginia’s run to the NIT quarterfinals. That group formed part of the core that put UVA basketball on the national stage the following year with an ACC regular season title, an ACC Championship, and a run to the Sweet Sixteen.
For sure-fire returners including Armaan Franklin, Reece Beekman, Kadin Shedrick, and Francisco Caffaro, the NIT — while not the NCAA Tournament — will still prove to be an opportunity in a win-or-go-home setting. In fact — assuming Jayden Gardner does return for a fifth season next year — three of UVA’s projected starting five for next season are still yet to play in a national tournament with Beekman the fourth who only played in the first round of March Madness against Ohio last year.
“All experience is good experience,” says Bennett, adding that “for guys in our program who haven’t played in a tournament, guys who are going to be back, it’s valuable.”
As for the message to his group heading into tournament play on Wednesday at 7:00 PM in JPJ, Bennett acknowledges how inconsistent UVA has been this season. He points to how some games the ‘Hoos are capable of beating some of the best teams in the country, yet in others struggle to compete with far worse competition.
Bennett says that he’s told his squad that “the reality is you’re both of those teams,” but that “you just got to find and try to be the team that has shown that [high ceiling].” He says that the NIT is the perfect setting to test that as “you get an opportunity in a one and done situation against a good team to try and grow in these experiences and try to win and advance.”
Bennett goes on, adding how “it’s important for our guys to have this experience and to be ready,” while also “to move past not getting an NCAA bid and getting beat in the ACC Tournament in the way we did.”
All in all, the head Wahoo summarizes that the NIT “is a good opportunity and it still is a privilege to be invited to this tournament.”