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.
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?
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.