What Got You Here Won’t Get You There: The inside story of how UMBC changed Virginia

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This story has been updated to reflect Virginia winning the national championship over Texas Tech.

MINNEAPOLIS — Tony Bennett knew he needed to change something.

For years, since the very beginnings of his coaching career, the Virginia head coach and future Hall of Famer had been steadfast in his basketball beliefs. He was going to defend a certain way. He was going to run a certain offense. He was going to play at a certain pace, and it hadn’t failed him yet. He had won at Washington State, more than seems feasible at a program like Washington State. He has turned Virginia into a powerhouse that has won four of the last six ACC regular season titles. The Cavaliers are, currently, arguably the best basketball program in a conference that includes Duke, North Carolina, Louisville, Syracuse and N.C. State.

Think about that.

Even with all the criticism and all the jokes and even all the past tournament burnouts, there was never a reason to change what he did, not until that Virginia powerhouse suffered what may forever be known as the most embarrassing loss in college basketball history.

No. 16 UMBC 74, No. 1 Virginia 54.

“That situation made me take a look at a lot of things,” Bennett said. “From a basketball standpoint, that was such a pivotal moment.”

And it was that moment, that loss, that sparked the change in Virginia basketball, a change that has altered the narrative of the program and the legacy of the coach that built it.

“What we learned,” said assistant coach Brad Soderberg, “is that you need multiple weapons to go to depending on what teams can do.”

Without that loss, Bennett and Virginia might not have been willing to make the changes they needed to become a national champion.


(Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

Three days after The Loss, Bennett called his point guard and his leader, Ty Jerome.

“I know we are supposed to be taking a break,” he said, “but can we meet for lunch?”

He had Zazu’s, a spot in Charlottesville now known as Pico Wrap, in mind, and over potato, egg and cheese wraps, Jerome and Bennett laid the groundwork for the changes that would ultimately alter everything you thought you knew about Virginia.

“He told me, ‘I want to find ways where we can spread the floor more,” Jerome recalled, “to touch the paint more, and give you the opportunity to create for each other.”

It wasn’t all that difficult to figure out how the UMBC disaster happened. The Retrievers played a four-out offense. They put skilled guards and perimeter players all over the court, they spread things out and they make it hard to guard them without going small. De’Andre Hunter, the best and most versatile player on the Virginia roster, was out with a broken wrist, and it left Virginia limited. Hunter is the piece that makes the Wahoos matchup proof. He’s the best, most versatile defender in all of college basketball. When Virginia won at North Carolina earlier this year, Hunter was matched up on all of Coby White, Cameron Johnson and Luke Maye at different points in the game. It would not have been an issue to throw him on one of UMBC’s guards, especially since he is good enough to be able to take complete advantage of that matchup on the other end of the floor.

It was, however, an issue putting Jack Salt, Isaiah Wilkins and Mamadi Diakite out there.

They couldn’t stay with those little UMBC guys. They also weren’t good enough offensively to take advantage of the mismatch on the offensive end of the floor.

“Isaiah Wilkins is as good of a defender as you’re ever going to see,” Brad Soderberg, an assistant coach with Virginia that has been a part of Tony Bennett’s staff for a long, long time. “But offensively he’s not as big of a weapon.”

“To Tony’s credit, after that painful loss, he reevaluated a lot of things. How can we defend better? How can we score better? What are we missing?”

The answer was 8,600 miles and a quick 24 hour flight away.

Because, as fate would have it, the savior of Virginia basketball is a Kiwi.

His name is Kirk Penney, and he’s a legend in the tight-knit New Zealand basketball community. He had two stints playing in the NBA. He bounced all around Europe. He won titles and MVPs playing for the New Zealand Breakers. Outside of Steven Adams, there may not be a more famous basketball player from that country.

And his connection to Virginia isn’t that hard to figure out.

Tony Bennett coached the North Harbour Kings for two seasons after his playing career in New Zealand came to an end. The Kings had a 17-year old phenom on the roster that Bennett was able to lure to Wisconsin when he accepted a job on his father’s staff in Madison. That phenom was Penney, who would go on to score 1,454 career points for the Badgers.

“He’s like a little brother to me,” Bennett said.

Penney has played everywhere. He’s seen every style of basketball that there is, and Bennett knew that. So he reached out.

“In all your experiences,” he asked, “did you run any stuff that opens up the court more?”

Penney had, so he flew to Charlottesville to see if he couldn’t help Bennett and his staff come up with something. He was there for a few days, and the answer they eventually arrived at was a ball-screen continuity offense – “our flow continuity,” as Jerome put it – that is not all that different from the base offense that half of the teams in America run.

The concept of it is exceedingly simple: They run a ball-screen on one side of the floor with three shooters on the other side of the floor. The actions in the offense, assuming Virginia cannot get a clean look from the initial ball-screen, lead them directly into another ball-screen on the opposite side of the floor. And so on and so forth.

“Tony typically does experimental stuff in our summer sessions, just to try things out, but this is the first year we’ve implemented the stuff that Kirk helped us with,” Soderberg said. “If has significantly helped our offense.”

“He talked to me about how many options there were in our flow continuity offense,” Jerome said. “He tried to give us as much input as possible.”

“He helped me with the empty-side ball-screen,” Mamadi Diakite said.

“It’s been great for me,” said Kyle Guy. “I can come off ball-screens. And when there’s a ball-screen, someone has to tag the roller, which means I’m open. And if they don’t tag off me, then that means Mamadi or Jack’s open.”

The Virginia players aren’t the only ones that have noticed the difference.

“It creates a different look for them than in the past, when they had big guys like Anthony Gill,” said one ACC coach. “They’re going to run it hard and put you in multiple actions because of their ability to stretch the floor, especially when Hunter is at the four. Then when Jay Huff is in there at the five, they’ll have four or five guys that can make a three.”

Would they be national champions if they hadn’t made this change?

“No way.”


(Tom Pennington/Getty Images)

Maybe the offense doesn’t matter.

Maybe Virginia would be here, in Minneapolis, celebrating a national championship, regardless of the way they play. After all, Virginia didn’t really run their ball screen stuff against Auburn. They were up by 10 with five minutes left on Saturday night because the Tigers were helpless against Virginia’s throwback blocker-mover offense.

Virginia’s defense is what makes them dominant. There are at least two, if not three or four, NBA players on this roster. And if we’re going to be perfectly honest, the reason Virginia won the national title is because of the clutch play of Kihei Clark last weekend and the six points Kyle Guy scored in the final 7.6 seconds on Saturday night. It took another resilient effort in a memorable overtime win over Texas Tech in the title game.

But it would be foolish to ignore the changes that Virginia made if only because there were actual changes made.

“He told us he was going to change things up,” an initially skeptical Hunter said, “it was just crazy to see it.”

And it’s fair to wonder: If Virginia doesn’t lose to UMBC, if they had just done what they normally do, winning two or three games before fizzling out of the tournament, would Bennett have made the effort to reinvent his team, to install a second entire offense, to reach out to an old friend on the other side of the planet.

There’s a saying in the business world: What got you here won’t get you there.

At some point, you need to change, or adjust, or adapt.

All it took Tony Bennett to realize it was the most embarrassing loss in NCAA tournament history, and it resulted in Virginia capturing the first national title in program history.

Houston reaches No. 1 in AP poll for first time since 1983

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Make some room, Phi Slama Jama. Another Houston team has reached the top of men’s college basketball.

Nearly four decades after Clyde Drexler and Akeem Olajuwon took the Cougars to No. 1, the latest bunch led by Marcus Sasser and star freshman Jarace Walker took over the top spot in the AP Top 25. They received 45 of 63 first-place votes from the national media panel, easily outdistancing second-place Texas and third-place Virginia.

“It’s not like we went online and applied for it and waited for a response back. We’ve been working for this,” said Houston coach Kelvin Sampson, whose team is coming off a Final Four and Elite Eight trip the past two seasons. “But remember, it’s a rental. You don’t own it. You’re just renting it because someday somebody else is going to be No. 1.”

North Carolina had been No. 1 all season, but the Tar Heels lost to Iowa State and in a four-overtime thriller to Alabama at the Phil Knight Invitational to cede the top spot to Houston, which beat Kent State in its only game last week.

The last time the Cougars ascended to No. 1 was the final poll of the 1982-83 season, when “The Glide” and “The Dream” along with coach Guy Lewis were the favorites to win it all. They rolled through the NCAA Tournament before falling to Jim Valvano and North Carolina State in an iconic championship game in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

“I’ve never been ranked No. 1,” said Sampson, now in his 34th season as a college basketball coach. “We were ranked all 12 years at Oklahoma. I’m sure we were ranked at Indiana. Then we’ve been ranked five or six straight years. We’re used to having a high level of success.”

Texas received eight first-place votes and Virginia received two. Arizona climbed from 14th to fourth after emerging from a stacked field to win the Maui Invitational. Purdue jumped from 24th all the way to fifth and scooped up eight first-place votes after beating West Virginia, Gonzaga and Duke at the Phil Knight Legacy tourney.

“Our guys are competitive. They’re fun to coach. They get along. They’re out there playing with purpose and that’s what you have to have,” said Boilermakers coach Matt Painter, whose team was briefly No. 1 about this time last season.

“Early in the season, very few teams play with the purpose collectively,” he said. “I thought our guys played with a purpose.”

Baylor was sixth, Creighton seventh and U Conn climbed from 20th to eighth after beating Oregon, Alabama and Iowa State to win the Phil Knight Invitational. Kansas fell from third to ninth after losing to Tennessee in the championship game of the Battle 4 Atlantis, while Indiana rounded out the top 10.

There was a tie for 11th between SEC rivals Alabama and Arkansas with the Volunteers, another conference foe, right behind them. Gonzaga dropped from sixth to 14th, its first time outside the top 10 since Feb. 5, 2018, and Auburn was 15th.

Illinois was next followed by Duke and North Carolina in a tough week for Tobacco Road. The Blue Devils fell from eighth after their 75-56 loss to the Boilermakers.

Kentucky and Michigan State joined UCLA, Maryland, Iowa State, San Diego State and Ohio State in rounding out the poll.

RISING AND FALLING

Purdue made a rare 19-spot jump as the poll underwent a massive shakeup. UConn climbed 12 spots, Arizona moved up 10, Tennessee climbed nine and Alabama seven. On the flip side, the Tar Heels tumbled 17 spots, Duke dropped nine, Gonzaga fell eight and San Diego State fell seven.

IN AND OUT

Despite all the movement, Iowa State was the only newcomer this week, checking in at No. 23 after beating Villanova and North Carolina before falling to UConn. The Cyclones replaced Iowa, which dropped out after a one-week stay following its loss to TCU in the title game of the Emerald Coast Classic.

CONFERENCE WATCH

There are six difference conferences represented in the first seven teams in the poll. The Big Ten leads the way with six in the Top 25 while the SEC has five and the Big 12 has four, though three of them are in the top 10.

South Carolina tops women’s AP Top 25; Stanford, UConn next

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South Carolina remained the unanimous No. 1 choice in The Associated Press women’s poll, as the Gamecocks keep close watch on the foot injury of reigning Player of the Year Aliyah Boston.

The Gamecocks received all 29 first-place votes in the poll, a day after Boston left a game with her injury. Coach Dawn Staley said Boston was “questionable” going forward but added that the “team doctor wasn’t too, too concerned.”

South Carolina’s next game is at home against No. 15 UCLA.

Stanford remained No. 2 after cruising through a tournament in Hawaii. It’s the 618th appearance for Cardinal coach Tara VanDerveer, tying the late Pat Summitt for most all-time. Summitt’s teams only missed being in the poll 14 times during her Hall of Fame career at Tennessee.

UConn, Ohio State and Indiana rounded out the top five.

The Huskies are one of four Big East teams to be ranked this week as Marquette entered the poll at No. 24. It’s the first time the Big East has four ranked teams since the conference realigned in 2014. The league is 56-14 so far this season, including going 8-2 against ranked teams.

“We’ve been trying to earn a little more respect,” Marquette coach Megan Duffy said of the Big East. “Tried to schedule tougher non-conference (games). ‘Nova’s playing people. Us going to the Bahamas was great. Creighton’s doing what they’ve been doing since last season. Getting some of those quality wins is everything.”

North Carolina moved up two spots to No. 6 after rallying to beat then-No. 5 Iowa State in the Phil Knight tournament. The Cyclones fell to eighth.

The Tar Heels visit the Hoosiers on Tuesday in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge. Indiana returns home after winning two games in Las Vegas at a subpar venue that lacked basic necessities.

Notre Dame remained No. 7 while Virginia Tech and Iowa finished off the top 10. At No. 9, Virginia Tech has matched its best ranking ever and is in the top 10 for the first time since 1999.

Tennessee fell out of the poll this week marking the 56th time in the 827-week history of the poll that the Lady Vols weren’t ranked. Kansas State also fell out with Gonzaga moving in at No. 23.

FALLING CARDINALS

Louisville dropped to 18th in the poll this week after falling to South Dakota State in the fifth place game at the Battle 4 Atlantis last week. It’s the Cardinals lowest ranking since Jan. 11, 2016.

Louisville entered the top 10 in the preseason poll in 2017 and hadn’t been out since, a span of 98 consecutive weeks. It was the longest active streak.

“It’s a compliment to the consistency that we built here,” Louisville coach Jeff Walz said of being ranked in the top 10 for so long. “Obviously are goal would have been to stay in the top 10, but it’s a new team and growing.”

Edey scores 21 as No. 24 Purdue beats No. 8 Duke 75-56

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PORTLAND, Ore. – Zach Edey and No. 24 Purdue shook off a slow start. When No. 8 Duke tried to rally in the second half, the Boilermakers finished strong.

Edey had 21 points and 12 rebounds, and Purdue beat Duke 75-56 on Sunday in the championship game of the Phil Knight Legacy men’s tournament.

Fletcher Loyer scored 18 points for Purdue (6-0), and reserve Caleb Furst finished with 11 points and 10 rebounds.

“I feel like we weren’t getting the looks we wanted early. As we settled into the game, we kept our poise and kept getting the shots that we wanted,” Edey said. “They were making some tough twos at the beginning of the game, shots we’re OK with all season.”

The 7-foot-4 Edey was 7 for 13 from the field and 7 for 8 at the line. He was named tournament MVP.

“They have the most unique player in the country,” Duke coach Jon Scheyer said of Edey. “He’s a hard guy to prepare for because there’s nobody else like him.”

Duke (6-2) shot 36.2% (21 for 58) from the field. Tyres Proctor scored 16 points for the Blue Devils. Kyle Filipowski and Jeremy Roach each had 14.

Ethan Morton had a steal and a dunk to help Purdue open a 58-41 lead with 15:37 left in the second half.

Duke countered with an 8-0 run, capped by two foul shots by Dariq Whitehead. But Furst made a layup and a jumper to help hold off the Blue Devils.

A hook by Edey and a 3-pointer by Loyer made it 68-56 with 5:03 remaining.

Duke got off to a 14-7 start before Purdue worked its way back into the game.

“I don’t feel like we came out bad today, but they matched our energy,” Edey said.

A 3-pointer by Brandon Newman pushed the Purdue lead to 46-28. A late run by Duke cut the Boilermakers’ lead to 46-35 at halftime.

BIG PICTURE

Duke: It looked as if Roach had an issue with his left foot at one point, but he went back into the game. Scheyer said Roach had hurt his toe.

Purdue: Although neither team had great offensive games, Purdue was the better team from range. Purdue made seven 3-pointers to just two for Duke.

UP NEXT

Duke: Hosts Ohio State on Wednesday.

Purdue: Visits Florida State on Wednesday.

No. 18 Alabama beats No. 1 North Carolina 103-101 in 4 OTs

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PORTLAND, Ore. – Mark Sears had 24 points, five rebounds and five assists, and No. 18 Alabama sent top-ranked North Carolina to a second straight loss with a 103-101 victory in a quadruple-overtime thriller on Sunday in the third-place game of the Phil Knight Invitational tournament.

Jahvon Quinerly added 21 points off the bench for the Crimson Tide (6-1), who knocked off the top-ranked team for the first time since upsetting Stanford in the 2004 NCAA Tournament.

“I was losing track of how many overtimes we were in there at the end,” Crimson Tide coach Nate Oats said. “A lot of credit to our guys. I thought they showed a lot of character when we could have folded.”

Charles Bediako had 14 points, 16 rebounds and three blocks, while Brandon Miller also scored 14 points.

Caleb Love led the Tar Heels (5-2) with 34 points, nine rebounds, four assists and three steals. Armando Bacot contributed 20 points and 10 rebounds, and R.J. Davis had 19 points and nine rebounds in the second four-overtime game in North Carolina history. The other was a victory over Tulane in 1976.

“At the end of the day, Alabama made one more play than we did,” North Carolina coach Hubert Davis said. “I walked in the locker room and a number of the guys had their head down and I told them to pick their head up. I’m just as disappointed (as the players) in terms of the final outcome, but I couldn’t be any more proud about the way they competed.”

Bediako gave the Crimson Tide the lead for good on a layup with 26 seconds remaining in the fourth overtime.

The Tar Heels, who lost to Iowa State in the semifinals, led by as much as eight in the second half before Alabama came back to tie it. The Crimson Tide retook the lead on a pair of free throws from Gurley with 2 minutes remaining, and later tied with another free throw from Sears with 51 seconds remaining in regulation.

Alabama starting forward Noah Clowney took a hard fall on a dunk attempt four minutes into the first half and had to be helped off the court. He did not return.

The Crimson Tide were 16 for 38 (42.1%) from 3-point range, with Sears making seven.

BIG PICTURE

North Carolina: The Tar Heels figure to take a deep drop in the Top 25 poll.

Alabama: The Crimson Tide bounced back nicely following their loss to No. 20 UConn in the semifinals, beating a top-ranked team in the regular season for the first time since a 66-64 victory over eventual national champion Arkansas on Jan. 8, 1994.

UP NEXT:

North Carolina: The Tar Heels travel to Bloomington to face No. 11 Indiana on Wednesday.

Alabama: The Crimson Tide return home to face South Dakota State on Saturday.

Clingan lifts UConn past Iowa State for Phil Knight title

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PORTLAND, Ore. – Donovan Clingan had 15 points and 10 rebounds to power No. 20 UConn to a 71-53 win over Iowa State in the championship game of the Phil Knight Invitational on Sunday night.

Tristen Newton scored 13 points for the Huskies (8-0), who went 20 for 25 at the free-throw line. Alex Karaban and Andre Jackson, Jr. each had 10 points.

Osun Osunniyi led Iowa State (5-1) with 14 points. Tamin Lipsey had 12 points and Jaren Holmes finished with 11.

“They were the more aggressive team,” Iowa State coach T.J. Otzelberger said. “We wanted a physical game. We didn’t want a physical game with them getting the rebounds and then also us putting them on the foul line. Lesson that we’ve got to learn is we need to embrace being the aggressor at both ends of the floor at all times.”

The Huskies had more offensive rebounds (20) than the Cyclones had total rebounds (19), and capitalized on that disparity with 20 second-chance points.

“Those guys are tough,” UConn coach Dan Hurley said. “T.J.`s an excellent coach. They grind people up. To outrebound them, it just speaks to how tough we were.”

Clingan, who was named tournament MVP, scored eight points to help UConn to a 38-28 lead at the break.

Iowa State closed to 53-48 on Holmes’ 3-pointer midway through the second half. But Karaban made a 3 and a dunk, and Newton’s jumper made it 60-48 with 7:13 remaining.

BIG PICTURE

UConn: The Huskies couldn’t have asked for a better showing in Portland, winning all three of their games.

Iowa State: The Cyclones picked up nice wins over Villanova and top-ranked North Carolina in the earlier rounds but ended with their first loss of the season.

UP NEXT

UConn: The Huskies return home to face Oklahoma State on Thursday.

Iowa State: The Cyclones return home to face North Dakota on Tuesday.