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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.

Kansas transfer Grimes receives waiver, eligible immediately at Houston

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Maybe we now know why Houston was picked to win the AAC over Memphis.

On Tuesday, news broke that Quentin Grimes had won his appeal and received a waiver to gain immediate eligibility this season. Grimes was a top ten prospect in the Class of 2018, but after going for 21 points in the season opening Champions Classic, he struggled. In 36 games, Grimes averaged just 8.4 points and 2.0 assists while failing to prove himself a lead guard and struggling with consistency as a shooter.

Part of the reason why Grimes eventually was ruled eligible for this season was that Kansas did not have a scholarship available for him. The Jayhawks supported his eligibility throughout the process.

Grimes will get a chance at starting over with Houston, where Kelvin Sampson has proven to be exceptional at getting the most out of his backcourt. He’ll join DeJon Jarreau, one of this year’s breakout stars, and Nate Hinton in Houston’s perimeter.

With Grimes in the mix, Houston has the making of a top 20 team.

Grimes released the following statement on twitter:

Michigan State’s Langford out until January with ankle injury

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The joy of being named the No. 1 team in the AP preseason poll lasted for a matter of hours for Michigan State.

Because that’s when the Spartans found out that Joshua Langford, who missed the second half of last season, would be out for another three months after suffering a setback in his attempt to return from that ankle injury.

“It breaks my heart,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo told reporters on Tuesday. “I love Josh Langford. He’s given me everything on the court, off the court, in the classroom.”

Langford started the first 13 games last season before the ankle injury kept him out, but he was cleared to practice in full in September. But Izzo said on Tuesday that Langford’s ankle had limited him of late and that he did not play when the Spartans scrimmaged Gonzaga in Denver on Saturday.

College Basketball’s Breakout Stars: Who will be this year’s most improved players?

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One of my favorite things to do heading into a season is to put together a list of the season’s Breakout Stars. 

Sometimes, the picks are just too obvious – think De’Andre Hunter, or P.J. Washington, or Nickeil Alexander-Walker. 

Sometimes, those obvious picks just don’t pan out – like Herb Jones, or M.J. Walker, or Cane Broome.

Sometimes, a guy needs to be on the list for a couple years before he actually reaches said breakout – hi Jermaine Samuels!

Some people have strictly-defined parameters for putting together a list like this. I do not, beyond the basic principle that the player will be going from playing a role to being a star, whether that means he was a starter that will become an all-american or a bit-player slated to be a key cog on a potential Final Four team matters not.

Anyway, here are the 17 players that will be household names by the end of the year:



JERMAINE SAMUELS, Villanova

There’s an argument to make that Samuels’ breakout already happened.

It happened on February 28th of last season. Samuels popped off for a career-high 29 points, hitting five threes, as Villanova snapped a three-game losing streak by knocking off Marquette at home. During that three-game losing streak, Samuels had gone scoreless while attempting just two shots. Over the final seven games of the season, he averaged 11.0 points, cracked double-figures five times and helped lead the Wildcats to their fifth Big East regular season title and fourth Big East tournament title in the last six years.

And now the Wildcats are entering a season without Phil Booth and Eric Paschall to carry the offense while Bryan Antoine, their five-star freshman guard, is out with a shoulder injury. Someone needs to provide Villanova with some scoring. Samuels is a former top 40 recruit that picked Villanova over Duke and Kansas, that has proven the ability to put up big numbers and is a perfect fit for what Villanova’s offense has been over the course of the last half-decade. He’s a junior now. This is the year that players make the leap on the Main Line, and I’ll be ready for it.

ANDREW NEMBHARD, Florida

Everyone wants to talk about Kerry Blackshear and what his arrival will mean for Florida. What people seem to be forgetting is that Andrew Nembhard is a former five-star recruits that averaged 8.0 points and 5.4 assists as a freshman for the Gators and will be helping to fill the “role” vacated by uber-inefficient gunners Jalen Hudson and Kevaughn Allen. I think Blackshear ends up being the best player on the Gators this season, but Nembhard may end up being their MVP and their leader. On a team that projects to finish in the top ten and contend for SEC titles and the Final Four, that’s going to put him in the All-American conversation. That, to me, counts as a breakout star.

TRE JONES, Duke

This all hinges on what Jones becomes as a shooter this season. We’ve talked about this ad nauseum. I put together an entire video about it. Jones may just be the most influential player in all of college basketball this season.

TYRESE HALIBURTON, Iowa State

I’m torn about having Haliburton on this list because I’m not exactly sure how much better he can play than he did over the first three months of last season. That said, Iowa State is going to be one of the better teams in the Big 12 this season, and after a terrific performance playing for Team USA in the U-19 World Cup, Haliburton returns to Ames to play for an Iowa State team that lost pretty much everyone in front of him in the offensive pecking order.

The thing to note here is that I am not expecting Haliburton to suddenly become a guy that averages 18 points. That’s not who he is or how he plays. But I do think that there is a chance that he puts up a stat line that is somewhere around 12 points, six boards, six assists and two steals while shooting better than 40 percent from three. Put another way, we’re going to know that he is a star without having to look at the counting numbers to confirm it.

JAY HUFF, Virginia

We have talked plenty about Jay Huff and Virginia’s big guys in this space, but I think that he is in line for a massive jump this season. On the one hand, he’s actually going to be playing. Huff was in the same recruiting class as Ty Jerome and Kyle Guy. He redshirted his first year in Charlottesville, he played just twelve games as a freshman and managed to see the floor for roughly 10 minutes a night last year. With so much of Virginia’s frontcourt depth gone, he is going to be getting 30-35 minutes a night this year.

But as we talked about in the video below, it’s not just the added minutes that changes things. It’s how good Huff is as the big guy in ball-screen actions and the fact that Virginia ran a more ball-screen heavy offense last season. Huff is a 7-foot-1 rim-running, lob-catching, shot-blocking menace that also shoots threes at a 45 percent clip while being able to put the ball on the floor. He’s going to have a massive year.

ISAIAH LIVERS, Michigan

With Iggy Brazdeikis gone after his one-and-done season, Livers is going to be the guy that steps up for the Wolverines. A hyper-athletic, 6-foot-7 combo-forward, Livers is a good, versatile defensive weapon that shot 42.6 percent from three last year. Someone is going to have to step up and fill the scoring void that has been vacated by the departures, and Livers seems to be the obvious fit. I would not be shocked to see Livers showing up in NBA mock drafts at some point during this season.

DEJON JARREAU, Houston

This one is simple, really. Jarreau played just 18 minutes per game last season and still managed to put up 8.7 points and 3.3 assists despite sharing the backcourt with the likes of Corey Davis, Armoni Brooks and Galen Robinson. This year, those three are gone, which means that Jarreau is going to be the guy that the offense runs through. I think that he is up for the task, and considering Kelvin Sampson’s track record of finding a way to figure things out with his lead guards, all the dots connect.

NOJEL EASTERN, Purdue

Matt Painter has been as good as anyone in the country at finding ways to get his best players into positions where they can succeed, and I think that this year is the year that he figures out how to take advantage of the things that Eastern does well. He’s a skilled passer that has terrific size at the point and has proven the ability to take smaller guards into the post. I think that Aaron Wheeler and Trevion Williams are candidates for this list as well, but I tend to lean towards the veterans when it comes to Painter working his magic.

OCHAI AGBAJI, Kansas

This pick is not actually as easy as it may seem, and that’s because Agbaji’s emergence last season came after Udoka Azubuike went down with his wrist injury. So while Kansas is losing Dedric Lawson, among other, Azubuike is coming back and is going to demand a very large market share of the Jayhawks offense. Throw in Devon Dotson’s continued development, and the added opportunities for Agbaji may not be there. That said, I think that he is clearly the most talented perimeter player on the Jayhawks roster this season, and given his size, athleticism and ability from the perimeter, I think there is a real chance that he ends up playing major minutes as the four in this Kansas system.

Put another way, he’s definitely going to be better than he was when his redshirt was pulled midway through his first season in Lawrence, and he is definitely going to be a useful weapon for Bill Self, I just don’t see him emerging as a guy that scores 15 points per game.

COREY KISPERT and FILIP PETRUSEV, Gonzaga

These decisions somewhat hinge on whether or not Killian Tillie is back and fully healthy this season. If he is, then I think that Kispert is the guy that takes the biggest step forward for the Zags. He’s an underrated talent that has been hidden by the likes of Zach Norvell and Rui Hachimura, but he’s a guy that has the potential to be an all-WCC performer if given the opportunity. If Tillie ends up being banged up all season long, than Petrusev is the obvious pick. He’s a really talented big that will carry even more of the load without Tillie’s presence.

REGGIE PERRY, Mississippi State

After getting off to a relatively slow start to his freshman season, Perry was absolutely dominant for long stretches of SEC play. He averaged 11.2 points and 8.2 boards during conference play, posting eight double-doubles. After an offseason to develop, he should end up being the focal point of Ben Howland’s offense as a sophomore.

KIRA LEWIS, Alabama

The way that Nate Oats played at Buffalo, he gave his lead guards quite a bit of responsibility. Lewis is going to be his lead guard this season. As a 17-year old in the SEC, he averaged 13.5 points and 2.9 assists. He’s heading into his sophomore season at the same age as the kids in the Class of 2019 heading into their freshmen year.

JOE WIESKAMP, Iowa

As a freshman, Wieskamp was one of the best shooters in the Big Ten, averaging 11.1 points and shooting 42.4 percent from three. Then Iowa lost Tyler Cook to the draft and lost Isaiah Moss to transfer and look like they may have lost Jordan Bohannon for the season. Someone is going to have to score, and Wieskamp is certainly capable of that.

OSUN OSUNNIYI, St. Bonaventure

Osunniyi was one of the best defensive players in all of college basketball last season, averaging 2.7 blocks to go along with his 7.5 points and 7.6 boards. With three of the Bonnies’ top four scorers graduating, he is going to be asked to play a much bigger role this season.

NATE REUVERS, Wisconsin

There is always someone waiting in the wings in Wisconsin’s frontcourt, and this year it is Nate Reuvers. As a sophomore, playing on a team that ran their offense through Ethan Happ, Reuvers averaged 7.9 points, 3.9 boards and 1.8 blocks while shooting 38.1 percent from three. If the Badgers are going to get back to the NCAA tournament, they are going to need Reuvers to have a monster junior season.

JALEN HILL, UCLA

Hill is a bit of a reach, but someone is going to have to step up and be Mick Cronin’s frontcourt anchor, and Hill makes sense. He’s long and athletic, he can rebound and he can block shots, he can do all of the things that Cronin got out of his big men for the last 13 years in Cincinnati. There is more talent in Westwood than people realize. Hill is the perfect example of that.

Michigan’s Franz Wagner out 4-6 weeks with fractured wrist

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ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Michigan freshman Franz Wagner is expected to miss four to six weeks with a fractured right wrist.

The school said Monday a full recovery is anticipated. The 6-foot-8 Wagner is the younger brother of former Michigan standout Moe Wagner. He’s expected to be a key newcomer in the basketball team’s first season under new coach Juwan Howard.

The Wolverines open Nov. 5 against Appalachian State. They face Creighton on Nov. 12 and Louisville on Dec. 3, and play in a tournament in the Bahamas in late November. Those are all games Wagner could conceivably miss if he ends up on the long end of his recovery timeline.

Michigan opens Big Ten play Dec. 6 against Iowa.

Kansas-Missouri hoops series to resume next season in KC

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LAWRENCE, Kan. — The Border War is returning to college basketball.

The acrimonious rivalry between Kansas and Missouri, once the longest continually played series west of the Mississippi River, will resume next season in Kansas City. The schools have agreed to play six times, with four of those matchups taking place on their respective campuses.

“Having coached a lot of games versus Missouri in my time in Kansas, I could not be more excited to start this series up again,” Jayhawks coach Bill Self, who had been among the biggest reasons the teams never played, said in a statement announcing the series Monday night.

The series began in 1907 with a pair of wins by Missouri in Lawrence. The schools went on to play 269 times over 105 years. The last meeting was on Feb. 25, 2012, when the No. 4 Jayhawks rallied from a 19-point second-half deficit to beat the No. 3 Tigers in overtime at Allen Fieldhouse.

The reason the series ended can be traced to Missouri’s decision to depart its longtime home in the Big 12 for the Southeastern Conference. During a period of chaotic conference realignment, the Tigers moved to what they considered a more lucrative league — even though it made far less geographic sense — and in doing so left the Big 12 scrambling for its very survival.

Many coaches and administrators at Kansas not only took umbrage with their decision but held a grudge for years. Among them was Self, who was asked periodically over the years if he could envision playing the Tigers again, and was usually steadfast in his refusal to schedule them.

Tensions finally cooled enough that on Oct. 22, 2017, the schools agreed to play an exhibition game in Kansas City dubbed “The Showdown for Relief” to raise money for hurricane relief efforts.

Kansas won 93-87 in their first meeting in five years.

The thousands of fans who turned up for the game, coupled with the buzz it generated on both sides of the Kansas-Missouri border, piqued the interest of new Kansas athletic director Jeff Long. He was not part of the conference realignment mess and harbored no ill will toward Missouri, making him the ideal figure to help patch up relationships and ultimately resume the rivalry.

“One of the best aspects of college athletics is rivalries,” Long said. “We have quietly sought input from fans and supporters on the renewal of this series and we believe the overriding sentiments are that this historic rivalry should resume.”

After the initial game scheduled for Dec. 12, 2020, at the Sprint Center in downtown Kansas City, the schools will alternate between Allen Fieldhouse and Mizzou Arena for the next four games. The final scheduled matchup will return to Sprint Center, though it’s possible the series continues.

It’s also possible that the basketball matchups are just the beginning.

“Hopefully, this renewal on the hardwood will lead to more opportunities down the road in other sports,” Tigers athletic director Jim Sterk said. “Rivalries make college sports great, and there is no question that when Missouri and Kansas face off in any sport, it’s important to a lot of people.”