That said, a Virginia victory would not surprise me, and the reason is Tony Bennett.
Not to suggest the Cavaliers’ third-year coach will outmaneuver counterpart Billy Donovan. The Gators’ coach is 25-9 in the NCAA tournament and among two men alive who have guided their programs to consecutive national championships — the other is Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski.
But I do believe Bennett and his staff will have their team impeccably prepared for not only Florida but also the NCAA experience, critical for players who have never competed in the event.
It’s just different. The routine, the obligations, the pressure.
Bennett and his assistants know the tournament. They’ve been there, and they’ve won.
“I think we’ll touch on it a little bit,” Bennett said of his NCAA success. “But it really will come down to getting as ready as we can. … Playing in the ACC tournament, preparing for that, playing [in November’s Paradise Jam] in the Virgin Islands … you get a little feel for tournament.
“Now this will be different, and these guys have been waiting for this opportunity. I think sometimes you can make too big a deal of your experiences, and sometimes that’s the last thing guys want to hear about. ‘This is how it was when I played or when I coached.’”
Points well-taken. But Virginia’s coaches need not regale the players about their glory days. The Cavaliers are bright enough to realize the staff’s background, and that knowledge will give the coaches their profession’s most valuable commodity: credibility.
Players listen more intently to coaches with the resumes to support their words. That’s why Kobe and Shaq, for the most part, obeyed Phil Jackson. It’s why the 2008 Olympic team rallied around Krzyzewski.
Neither Bennett nor his assistants have Jackson’s or Krzyzewski’s basketball bling, but they are accustomed to winning in March.
Bennett played in the NCAA tournament for Wisconsin-Green Bay. He was a Wisconsin assistant under his father when the Badgers reached the 2000 Final Four and 2003 Sweet 16. He landed his first head-coaching gig at Washington State in 2006 and in his second season took the Cougars to the Sweet 16, Wazzu’s first regional semifinal since 1941.
Virginia assistant coach Jason Williford worked under Dennis Wolff at Boston University and Jeff Jones at American when those programs earned NCAA bids. But his most valuable perspective is that of a player.
In four seasons at U.Va., Williford competed in three NCAAs. Coached by Jones, the Cavaliers advanced in each of those years, to the regional semifinals in 1993, the second round in ’94, the regional finals in ’95 — the latter team arguably is the program’s most accomplished of the last 25 years, nudging Terry Holland's 1989 Elite Eight squad.
Most notably, the 1995 Cavaliers upset No. 1 seed Kansas in the Midwest Regional semifinals. In Kansas City, Mo., no less, as Williford contributed nine rebounds and two blocked shots against a towering front line that included Raef LaFrentz, Greg Ostertag and Scot Pollard.
None of this guarantees that Mike Scott will have 25 points and 10 rebounds Friday, or that Sammy Zeglinski will rediscover his jump shot. Joe Harris’ left hand won’t magically heal, and Jontel Evans won’t grow to 6-foot-4.
Moreover, there may be jitters. Virginia hasn’t played in the NCAA tournament since 2007, and the only player on the roster with any postseason experience is Scott. A fifth-year senior, he was a freshman in 2008, when the Cavaliers advanced two rounds in the third-tier CBI tournament.
Zeglinski also was on that team but missed the season’s final 24 games with an ankle injury.
As he did at Washington State, Bennett has proven a sharp strategist at Virginia. Little, if anything, Donovan and Florida draw up should befuddle the Cavaliers.
But Bennett and his staff can’t infuse their limited, seven-man rotation with additional talent, size or energy.
“You share the things that maybe are important,” Bennett said of his March credentials. “But we won’t make too big a deal out of it.”
He paused and laughed.
“Jason might,” he said, “I won’t.”
I can be reached at 247-4636 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow me at twitter.com/DavidTeelatDP
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