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Tony Bennett’s flexibility and experimentation key to UVA basketball’s resurgence

Tony Bennett’s willingness to give bench players a shot sparked Virginia’s three-game winning streak.

NC State v Virginia Photo by Ryan M. Kelly/Getty Images

In many ways, Tony Bennett is a traditionalist coach. Virginia’s offensive system, sides, has been consistently deployed throughout his tenure with brief occasional detours to account for exceptionally talented rosters. Bennett’s defensive scheme, the pack line, has been his system since he took over at Washington State during the Bush administration — and was his father’s system at Green Bay during the other Bush administration. As the game has changed (when Dick Bennett first implemented the pack line in Division I at Green Bay, the NBA hadn’t even adopted the three-point shot), Tony Bennett’s system remains mostly the same. He doesn’t intentionally foul up three at the end of close games, he doesn’t leave players in with two fouls in the first half unless they’re named Reece Beekman and he has a reputation for consistency.

In 2023-24, though, his personnel decisions have been anything but set in stone. The Cavaliers deployed their fifth starting lineup of the season against Virginia Tech, inserting graduate transfer Jordan Minor in the frontcourt alongside Ryan Dunn and jump-starting a three-game winning streak which has the Cavaliers tied for fourth in the ACC at 5-3 following a dismal start. In 2022-23, UVA used just four starting lineups all year. In 2021-22, they used three.

Bennett’s flexibility this season has been partially motivated by his roster. Virginia’s minutes continuity from last season ranks just 229th in the NCAA per KenPom; the ‘Hoos returned only two players who played at least 15 minutes per game last season in Reece Beekman and Isaac McKneely. Beyond Beekman, McKneely and Ryan Dunn, the core three who have started every game they’ve been available for, Bennett’s options include untested freshmen, unknown transfers, and previously unreliable players. He’s been forced to ride the hot hand — especially in a frontcourt left bare by the graduation of Ben Vander Plas and Jayden Gardner and the transfers of Kadin Shedrick, Francisco Caffaro and Isaac Traudt — and count on unproven players to step up.

But in another sense, this has always been who Tony Bennett is. In his greatest season to date, the 2018-19 NCAA-championship-winning campaign, the Cavaliers deployed a new starting lineup in the second round of the NCAA tournament. After a young big man named Mamadi Diakite helped rescue the ‘Hoos from an early 30-16 deficit against 16-seed Gardner Webb, Bennett benched Jack Salt and opted for a small but versatile lineup of Kihei Clark, Ty Jerome, Kyle Guy, De’Andre Hunter, and Diakite. That lineup didn’t start a game until the round of 32 against Oregon, but never lost as a starting five and eventually cut down the nets in Minneapolis.

This season, his rotation adjustments might not push Virginia over the top for a national title; at this point, most fans would be content with a single NCAA tournament win, a result which has eluded Virginia for the 1,759 days since their 85-77 title-clinching OT victory over Texas Tech. Even qualifying for the tournament would be a success at this point — the ‘Hoos weren’t even in the “Next Four Out” of Joe Lunardi’s latest bracketology, and Bart Torvik gives UVA a dismal 14% chance of making it into the field of 68.

However, they’ve had an unquestionably positive effect on the outlook for this iteration of the ‘Hoos. The insertion of Jordan Minor into the starting five has been a revelation: after taking a few months to get up to speed in the pack line Minor has re-anchored the UVA defense. The home-and-away series with NC State embodied his impact: the Wolfpack scored 76 points on the ‘Hoos three weeks ago as DJ Burns picked apart double teams and found open jump shooters, but needed OT to get to 53 points in yesterday’s loss as Minor guarded Burns one-on-one and the Cavaliers took away NC State’s perimeter attack.

It’s not just Minor, either. As Andrew Rohde continues to struggle as a scorer (five points in his last 68 minutes, and an underwhelming 25% from three on the year), Bennett pivoted to Taine Murray. The third-year wing from New Zealand hasn’t played much yet in 2023-24, but he’s been efficient while on the floor (56% from two, 50% from three) and supplied a much-needed 12 points off the bench on 3-4 shooting to propel UVA to an OT win over the Wolfpack. After playing 19 minutes to just 12 for Rohde, it appears the Cavaliers may be headed for yet another starting lineup change if Murray supplants the St. Thomas transfer on the wing Saturday against Louisville.

Virginia’s KenPom Minutes Matrix. Starters for each game are highlighted with boxes.

Other, smaller rotation tweaks haven’t turned heads to the extent of Minor and Murray, but have still helped the ‘Hoos win tight games. Without Blake Buchanan’s 18-point performance in his second career game against Florida, UVA probably loses instead of squeaking out a three-point win. Without Elijah Gertrude burning his redshirt and providing a burst off the bench two weeks later against Northeastern, UVA drops a Quad 4 home game and tanks their NCAA tournament case instead of surviving with a 56-54 win.

Virginia still faces an uphill battle to achieve their typical goals: a top-four finish in the ACC, a solid ACC Tournament performance and an NCAA tournament berth. And their success will still come down to the performance of their best players: Reece Beekman’s scoring and playmaking, Ryan Dunn’s defense, Isaac McKneely’s knockdown shooting. However, Tony Bennett’s experimentation and willingness to tweak the rotation around his core has kept the Cavaliers afloat — and, if this winning streak is a sign of things to come, turned UVA basketball’s season around.