Why it's OK to trust Virginia in this year's NCAA tournament

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When he forced himself to watch the stomach-turning footage of the worst loss of his career, Virginia coach Tony Bennett scarcely recognized his team.

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There were the famously disciplined, deliberate Cavaliers down double figures and unraveling last March in Charlotte as they desperately tried to avoid becoming the NCAA tournament's first No. 1 seed to lose to a No. 16.

They started hoisting increasingly long, panicky 3-pointers early in the shot clock. They stopped making the extra pass to find higher-percentage opportunities. They even fell apart on defense, their vaunted pack-line falling apart in a flurry of breakdowns and UMBC's torrid outside shooting.

"It's hard to trust what you do when you get behind, your shots aren't falling and you feel the crowd starting to turn," Bennett said. "In that situation, sometimes you play uncharacteristically. All of a sudden you become someone you're not."

One year after Virginia became an easy target for jokes and the answer to a trivia question, the Cavaliers return to the NCAA tournament fueled by the desire to atone for last year's meltdown. They're the most polarizing No. 1 seed in this year's field, a team that still has plenty of naysayers despite their 29-3 record and their fourth ACC title in six years.

Almost 43 percent of Yahoo users believe they'll author a redemption story for the ages and reach the first Final Four of Bennett's otherwise brilliant tenure. More than 10 percent of Yahoo users predict they'll again prove unworthy of their favorable seed and crash out of the NCAA tournament during the opening weekend for the fourth time in five years.

Skepticism is reasonable given Virginia's bleak March track record, but doubters are overlooking one key difference between this year's Cavaliers and previous teams. This is Bennett's finest offense, one that has typically shown the ability to score efficiently and erase deficits even if it still plays at college basketball's most methodical pace.

Fueled by a versatile lineup featuring multiple scoring threats and some clever schematic tweaks tailored to this roster's strengths, Virginia is shooting 41 percent from 3-point range, consistently getting to the rim and limiting turnovers as well as any team in the nation. The Cavaliers are second only to Gonzaga in adjusted offensive efficiency, the high-water mark of the defensive-oriented Bennett era and only the second time they've ranked in the top 20.

"I think this is Tony's best offensive team, which is good because this is far from his best defensive team," said Tony's father, Dick Bennett, the retired coach best known for revitalizing Wisconsin and building Wisconsin-Green Bay into a mid-major power. "Statistically they're still really good defensively, but I know how he lays awake at night worrying if they can close out quickly enough on 3-point shooters and still protect the lane."

Virginia head coach Tony Bennett hasn't made it through the first weekend of the NCAA tournament in four of the past five years. (AP)
Virginia head coach Tony Bennett hasn't made it through the first weekend of the NCAA tournament in four of the past five years. (AP)

The foundation of Tony Bennett's offense is a motion system Dick Bennett developed soon after arriving at Wisconsin-Green Bay in 1985. The blocker-mover offense was Dick's means of compensating for the scarcity of skilled low-post scorers interested in coming to an ice-bound campus and playing for a little-known mid-major.

In the elder Bennett's offense, players are divided into two groups: "movers," who are natural scorers, and "blockers," who excel at setting screens to free the scorers for open looks. The blockers set screens, roll to the rim and attack the offensive glass, while the movers read and react to the defense, cut around the screens and hunt for catch-and-shoot opportunities.

"I knew I wasn't going to be able to find five guys who were really good scorers, but I figured I could find guys who could set screens, get to the glass and run the floor," Dick said. "In Wisconsin, we had a lot of big guys who might have been good high school football players, didn't mind contact and were more than willing to accept that role."

There were a few reasons Dick encouraged his Green Bay teams to patiently pass up so-so shots early in the shot clock in favor of better looks later. It increased their efficiency, made it easier to set Dick's trademark pack-line man-to-man defense and limited possessions in each game, typically an advantage for a lesser-talented team.

A Wisconsin-Green Bay team that went 4-24 the season before Dick arrived became a perennial NCAA tournament contender by the time he left nine years later. The Phoenix earned NCAA bids three times under the elder Bennett, memorably upsetting a Cal team led by Jason Kidd and Lamond Murray in 1994.

Having played under his father at Wisconsin-Green Bay and coached under him at Wisconsin and Washington State, Tony witnessed firsthand how Dick's system could help rebuilding teams overcome a talent deficit. Therefore it was an easy decision for the younger Bennett to keep running his dad's stuff when he inherited the Washington State job in 2006 and when he left for Virginia three years later.

"It's what I was brought up under," Bennett said. "I watched my dad do amazing things when he took over programs that were literally almost winless in conference play or at the bottom. Sure there are limitations to any offense, but it was a way for us to play that worked well and gave us a chance."

If the blocker-mover offense was contemporary during the height of Dick Bennett's career, that no longer was the case by the time his son arrived in Charlottesville.

Motion offenses popularized by Bob Knight were disappearing from the sport. Coaches instead favored simpler Mike D'Antoni-inspired systems that emphasized ball screens in order to create favorable 1-on-1 matchups to attack.

That shift helps explain why it took a few years for Bennett to elevate Virginia after inheriting a program coming off its poorest season in 41 years. He needed time to help returning players adjust to playing within the framework of a throwback system, to teach them to read defenses and make the right cuts, to find big men willing to spend their college years as battering rams for their teammates.

Virginia reached the NCAA tournament for the first time under Bennett in 2012 and emerged as a national power two years later. Elite defense, structured, methodical offense and exceptional player development propelled the Cavaliers to four ACC titles, even though Bennett has landed only one McDonald's All-American during his tenure.

Of course, the one element of success missing from Bennett's Virginia tenure has been a Final Four appearance. Highly seeded Cavaliers teams suffered early round upsets against Michigan State in 2014 and 2015 and squandered a late lead in the Elite Eight against Syracuse in 2016 before last year's debacle cemented Virginia's reputation as a March underachiever.

In the wake of the UMBC loss, Bennett acknowledges spending time reflecting on what he needed to change. He emerged convinced that overhauling how his offense functioned would be a massive overreaction but that it also didn't make sense to blindly stay the course.

The most significant change Bennett made was implementing more action off ball screens to exploit his team's strengths. Point guards Ty Jerome and Kihei Clark are lethal playmakers off the dribble, Virginia has a stable of big men capable of rolling to the basket or popping to the perimeter and defenses can't help off Kyle Guy or De'Andre Hunter spotted up behind the arc.

"The one thing they are doing more of this year is their ball-screen motion," Notre Dame assistant coach Rod Balanis said. "They've had it as part of the arsenal, but they have really gone to it a lot since they have two point guards on the floor often with Jerome and Clark."

Sometimes this season, you'll see Virginia start possessions with a ball screen and then flow into their blocker-mover circle and triangle screening if it doesn't lead to a scoring opportunity. Other times, Bennett will scrap his trademark motion offense for long stretches and give his guards the freedom to use ball screens to create offense.

Bennett also has been creative designing sets specifically to exploit vulnerabilities in certain defenses. Against Syracuse's trademark 2-3 zone for example, Virginia fed Jerome in the high post, then had him dribble out to the perimeter, forcing center Paschal Chukwu out of the paint and creating confusion for the Orange.

Of course, it also helps that Bennett has a future lottery pick capable of bailing out the Cavaliers when their offense breaks down and only a few ticks are left on the shot clock. Hunter can score at all three levels, but his greatest strength is his face-up game from the elbow, where he can drive or jab step, rise and fire.

Virginia eclipsed 80 points four times in ACC play this year after not doing that once any of the previous three seasons. The Cavaliers climbed out of a 12-point second-half hole to win at Louisville last month and buried Syracuse under an avalanche of 18 threes two weeks ago.

Asked if this is the best offensive team he has had, Bennett says only, "Maybe numbers-wise we are, but it's so hard to compare." The most he'll concede is that Hunter's ability to play either forward spot makes this his most versatile offense.

The real barometer for Virginia's offensive proficiency arrives Friday when the Cavaliers begin play in the NCAA tournament. They'll open against 16th-seeded Gardner-Webb before potentially facing either eighth-seeded Ole Miss or ninth-seeded Oklahoma in the round of 32.

So can you trust Virginia this year? Will their low-possession style and the memory of failures past make the Cavaliers vulnerable to an early upset against a lesser team? Or will their revamped offense and the desire to avenge last year's historic early exit fuel a redemptive Final Four run?

Bennett makes no promises, but he's cautiously optimistic this team is built for NCAA tournament success.

"I sure hope so," he said. "Versatility is always key to being successful. If you can do some different things, that's important. This year's team is more versatile than last year's team. That doesn't mean it's better, but that's what this year's team has when it's healthy and playing the right way."

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