Tony Bennett

Virginia is for Leavers. But why?

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I live in Charlottesville, VA, so I hear all the questions and concerns about Tony Bennett’s program on a daily basis. When one of those questions begins to creep into the national college hoops conversation, you know something strange is going on.

Following the news that Taylor Barnette will transfer from UVA, announced very late in the offseason just last week, the question has been widely asked: What’s up with all those transfers, Tony? Bennett has been on the job in Charlottesville for four years, and he’s had eight transfers make the headlines. For a program that seems to be on the cusp of the NCAA tournament every season, that’s an alarming trend.

I hit up a friend who has worked in a few AD’s offices in the state, and he came up with the same answers that Jim Young of ACCSports did in the article I linked above. It’s a combination of four factors, which I’ll quote from my source while maintaining his anonymity:

Short answer: playing time/homesickness/reaches/system. Pick at least one

Homesick: Regan/Johnson/Jesperson
Playing time: Harrell/Baron/Barnette
Reaches (were they really ACC players?): Regan/Baron/Barnette
System: Spurlock

In a way, I’d have to nudge Billy Baron – who played the 2010-11 season with the Cavaliers – into the homesick camp as well. Baron chose UVA over his father Jim’s program at Rhode Island. With his dad on the perennial hot seat, Baron must have wondered why he threw over his pops to average 11 minutes and three points per game, even at an ACC school. Billy rejoined his dad for one season at Rhode Island before Jim was fired, and the two moved on to Canisius together.

If you look at the list of transfer reasons, the first two are kind of understandable and universal, though. Every program deals with transfers that fall into the homesickness/playing time category. The ones that seem specific to Bennett and UVA are the last two.

The system, at this point, is a well-known commodity. Bennett used it to revive Washington State before he came to Virginia. The upshot: If you want to run, don’t play for Bennett. There’s no mystery there, and Bennett’s assistants, who have been with him for years, are not misleading anyone on that score. It’s a testament to Bennett’s charisma that Tristan Spurlock – a Virginia native who transferred to Central Florida – stayed on for one season of Bennett ball after being originally recruited by Dave Leitao. By this point, no player should pretend to be shocked when he’s asked to crash the boards, play interior defense, and walk the ball up the floor more often than not. The system is what makes Virginia a dangerous team against programs that can out-recruit them at every turn. Unless a truly elite player plans to come to Charlottesville, the system has to be paramount.

So, that brings us to the reaches. To contend in the ACC, you have to be in a position where you’re not reaching very often. Bennett’s been building a program from the ground up, so he’s had to extend his grasp from time to time. In fact, despite the potential shown by each player who transferred out, you’ll note that only one of them has latched on with a power-conference program so far. Will Regan shuffled off to Buffalo. Baron followed his dad down the conference ladder to the A-10, then the MAAC. Jeff Jones became a contributor at Rider, and Spurlock is growing into his role at UCF. James Johnson moved closer to home, landing on a quality San Diego State roster, but he’s still warming the bench. We don’t know yet where Jesperson or Barnette will end up. That leaves K.T. Harrell, who will start the next phase of his career at Auburn next season. Not exactly a step up in the current college hoops pecking order. We’ll never know if Bennett could have shaped those guys into ACC-caliber players, but right now, it sure looks like he didn’t lose anything he can’t live without.

As the ACC gets tougher, with the addition of Pitt and Syracuse, Bennett will find his program being pushed closer to the NIT or worse every season. It’s unlikely that the days of a Ralph Sampson coming to UVA will ever return, so we’ll expect the Cavaliers to be forced to reach from time to time. That’s fine, as long as those kids aren’t the core of the starting five.

Local fans will fondly remember when this team was paced by the wonderful backcourt duo of Sean Singletary and J.R. Reynolds. I believe Tony Bennett can find that kind of chemistry on his own roster, possibly very soon. If a few flyers and projects don’t work out in the interim, perhaps that’s not the worst thing in the world.

Eric Angevine is the editor of Storming the Floor. He tweets @stfhoops.

No. 1 Kentucky survives without Tyler Ulis in lineup

Tyler Ulis
AP Photo/Chuck Burton
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Less than a week after giving No. 2 Maryland all they could handle, Illinois State went into Lexington and gave No. 1 Kentucky fits.

The Redbirds never really threatened UK in the second half, but they went into the break tied and were within single digits down the stretch, eventually losing 75-63.

Kentucky was flustered. They turned the ball over 15 times compared to just eight assists, they shot 2-for-12 from three and just 29-for-46 (63 percent) from the charity stripe. They simply did not handle Illinois State’s pressure all that well.

And there was a reason for that.

Tyler Ulis didn’t play.

Sometimes it’s difficult to appreciate just what a player brings to a team until that player is not in the lineup, and that was precisely the case with Ulis on Monday night. It was crystal clear what he provides Kentucky. Beyond leadership and the ability to break a press without throwing the ball to the other team, he’s a calming presence. He doesn’t get rattled when a defender is harassing him and he doesn’t get overwhelmed by a situation like a mid-major threatening the No. 1 team in the country in their own gym.

He’s everything you look for in a pure point guard, and for as good as Jamal Murray and Isaiah Briscoe have looked at times this season, it should be crystal clear who the most important player on this Kentucky team is.

LSU loses to Charleston, eliminates at-large bid margin for error

Ben Simmons
AP Photo/Kathy Willens
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Ben Simmons scored 15 points and grabbed 18 rebounds, the second time in his six-game career that the LSU freshman has collected that many caroms, but that wasn’t enough for the Tigers to avoid dropping a game on the road to the College of Charleston, 70-58. It was the third straight loss for Simmons’ crew, as they fell to Marquette and N.C. State at the Legends Classic last week.

But here’s the thing: LSU didn’t just lose.

The game really wasn’t close.

LSU was down by as many as 23 points. It was 39-17 at the half, and that was after Charleston had a shot at the buzzer called off upon review. They made a bit of a run in the second half but never got closer than seven. When LSU would cut into the lead, the Cougars would respond with a run of their own, killing LSU’s spirit while keeping them at arm’s length.

[RELATED: Ben Simmons’ one college year a waste?]

Now, there are quite a few things here to discuss. For starters, LSU’s effort was, at best, apathetic, and, at worst, regular old pathetic. The team has a serious lack of leadership that was plainly evident on Monday night; would Fred VanVleet let his team fold against a program picked to finish at the bottom of the SoCon? Would Tyler Ulis? For that matter, would Tom Izzo or Mike Krzyzewski or John Calipari?

Perhaps more importantly, does any of that change when Keith Hornsby and Craig Victor get back?

Simmons did show off his potential — 18 boards, four assists, he even made his first three of the year — but he also showed precisely why there are scouts that are trying to curtail the LeBron James comparisons. Simmons was 4-for-15 from the floor with seven turnovers against a mediocre mid-major team. There are so many things that Simmons does well, but scoring efficiently — particularly in half court setting — and shooting the ball consistently are not on that list.

But here’s the biggest issue: LSU may have put themselves in a situation where they aren’t a tournament team. As of today, they’re 3-3 on the season with losses to a pair of teams that, at best, seem destined to be in the bubble conversation on Selection Sunday in addition to this loss to Charleston. The rest of their non-conference schedule is ugly. The only game worth noting is at home against No. 6 Oklahoma at the end of January.

The NCAA factors in non-conference schedule strength when determining at-large teams. You need to at least try, and LSU didn’t try; they have one of the worst non-conference schedules in the country.

The great thing about being in the SEC — as opposed to, say, the Missouri Valley — is that the Tigers will have plenty of chances to earn marquee wins. Six, by my court: Kentucky twice, Texas A&M twice, Vanderbilt on the road and Oklahoma at home. They probably need to win at least two or three of those games to have a real chance, and that’s assuming they can avoid anymore horrid losses in the process.

The season isn’t over six games in, not by any stretch of the imagination.

But LSU has done a hell of a job eliminating their margin for error.