During his college playing days at Green Bay more than 20 years ago, Tony Bennett craved games against state basketball heavyweights Wisconsin and Marquette. After all, what better way for a so-called mid-major program to measure itself than against neighbors with pedigree, resources and talent?
Such contests never transpired, a disappointment that informs Bennett's scheduling philosophy as a coach to this day.
That is why he eagerly agreed to test his Virginia team against VCU this season and next in a compelling series that begins Tuesday night in Charlottesville.
Bennett and Rams coach Shaka Smart began discussing a home-and-home in April 2009 when each landed in the commonwealth. The specifics took years to finalize, but safe to say it was worth the wait.
After comfortable season-opening victories Friday, Virginia over James Madison, and VCU over Illinois State, the teams enter their first clash since 1998 rightfully ambitious and nationally ranked.
The No. 25 Cavaliers hail from the more prestigious conference (ACC versus Atlantic 10), play in an arena that's almost twice as large as the Rams' (14,563-7,500) and generated nearly 40 percent more basketball revenue in 2012-13 ($6.99 million to $5.05 million, according to the U.S. Department of Education).
But No. 14 VCU has been the superior program during the past decade. The Rams have reached six of the past 10 NCAA tournaments, advancing in four, including the last three under Smart. They made the 2011 Final Four.
Virginia has played in two of last 10 NCAA tournaments, advancing in one.
The last time a ranked Cavaliers squad faced a top-25 opponent from in-state: In December 1995, No. 21 Virginia Tech defeated No. 22 Virginia in Roanoke.
"I think it's a great opportunity for both teams and also for all the fans of basketball in this area," Smart said Monday. "There's a lot of great basketball that goes on throughout the year in Virginia, in the Mid-Atlantic region, but for this early in the year, for two teams that are in the top 25 to play one another — I've heard it's sold out, so it will be a great crowd, a great atmosphere — and I think that's what it's all about."
Both teams are deep, skilled, experienced and coached by defensive wonks. The irresistible contrast is how they defend, VCU from end line to end line, Virginia packed in just inside the 3-point arc.
Can the Rams, led by ballhawks such as Briante Weber, Treveon Graham and Rob Brandenberg, harass the Cavaliers into turnovers and bait them into playing too fast? Can Virginia wings like Joe Harris and Justin Anderson contest the 3-pointers that VCU trio figures to launch?
And who controls the interior? The Rams with Juvonte Reddic and Florida State transfer Terrance Shannon, or the Cavaliers with Akil Mitchell, Darion Atkins and South Carolina transfer Anthony Gill?
Weber is the player to watch. A junior from Chesapeake's Great Bridge High, he ranked fifth nationally last season with 98 steals and had five in only 25 minutes against Illinois State on Friday.
Though Weber is 6-foot-2, Bennett compared him to Muggsy Bogues, the famously short (5-foot-3) defensive menace who played at Wake Forest and with Bennett for the NBA's Charlotte Hornets.
"He's really gifted," Bennett said of Weber. "I remember watching him in high school and then … when you watch him play (now), he's one of the best at stealing the ball, either off the ball, or on the ball taking your passes away. Some guys have that gift, he's just got such quick reflexes and reaction. …
"Those hands and anticipation, and how he's wired, are such an asset to them. You have to be worried. You might think you're by him, where, OK, he's out of the play. … The next thing you know, he's zipping in from behind. …
"I can remember watching Muggsy Bogues do that. He'd go for steals in the backcourt, and this is against really good NBA guards, and they'd think they were by him, and next thing you know he's running behind them, they don't know where he is, and he's shooting in from behind, backtipping it or stealing it. There's just certain players that have that ability and quickness."
Bennett and Smart bonded this past summer when they served as assistant coaches for the United States' gold-medal team at the under-19 world championships. Though polar opposites in temperament and playing style, they're smart to enough to appreciate the other.
"I don't think there's a coach in the country that teaches (defense) better than Tony Bennett," Smart said.
"I think he's one of the best young minds in the game," Bennett said.
As Washington State's head coach, Bennett scheduled state rival Gonzaga. At Virginia, he played George Mason the past two seasons.
"This one," Bennett said, "obviously is a natural."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun