Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

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

1 Comment

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.

John Petty Jr. returns to Alabama for senior season

Getty Images
3 Comments

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Alabama guard John Petty Jr. is staying in school instead of entering the NBA draft.

The Crimson Tide junior announced his decision to return for his senior season Monday on Twitter, proclaiming: “I’m back.”

Petty, the Tide’s top 3-point shooter, averaged 14.5 points and a team-high 6.6 rebounds rebounds last season. He was second on the team in assists.

Petty made 85 3-pointers in 29 games, shooting at a 44% clip.

Alabama coach Nate Oats called him “one of the best, if not the best, shooters in the country.”

“He’s made it clear that it’s his goal to become a first round pick in the 2021 NBA Draft and we’re going to work with him to make sure he’s in the best position to reach that goal,” Oats said.

Fellow Tide guard Kira Lewis Jr. is regarded as a likely first-round draft pick.

McKinley Wright IV returns to Colorado

Getty Images
3 Comments

McKinley Wright IV will be back for season No. 4 with the Colorado Buffaloes.

The point guard tested the NBA draft process before announcing a return for his senior year. It’s a big boost for a Buffaloes team that’s coming off a 21-11 mark in 2019-20 and was potentially looking at an NCAA Tournament bid before the season was halted due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Wright was an All-Pac-12 first team selection a season ago, along with an all-defensive team pick. He and athletic forward Tyler Bey declared for the draft in late March. Bey remains in the draft.

“We’ve got unfinished business,” said Wright, who averaged 14.4 points and 5.0 assists per game last season.

Midway through the season, the Buffaloes were looking like a lock for their first NCAA Tournament appearance since ’15-16. Then, the team hit a five-game skid, including a loss to Washington State in the Pac-12 tournament. Simply put, they hit a defensive rut they just couldn’t shake out of, Wright said. It drove him to work that much harder in the offseason.

“This is my last go-around and I’ve got big dreams,” the 6-footer from Minnesota said. “I want to take CU to a place they haven’t been in a while. We want to go back to the tournament and win high-level games.”

The feedback from NBA scouts was reaffirming for Wright. He said they appreciated his transition game, movement away from the ball and his defensive intangibles. They also gave Wright areas he needed to shore up such as assist-to-turnover ratio and shooting the 3-pointer with more consistency.

He took it to heart while training in Arizona during the pandemic. He recently returned to Boulder, Colorado, where he’s going through quarantine before joining his teammates for workouts.

“The work I put in and the time I spent in the gym compared to all my other offseasons, it’s a big gap,” Wright said. “Last offseason, I thought I worked hard. But it was nothing compared to the time and different type of mindset I put myself in this year.”

Another motivating factor for his return was this: a chance to be the first in his family to earn his college degree. He’s majoring in ethnic studies with a minor in communications.

“My grandparents are excited about that. My parents are excited about that,” Wright said. “I’m excited about that as well.”

Wright also has an opportunity to take over the top spot on the school’s all-time assists list. His 501 career assists trail only Jay Humphries, who had 562 from 1980-84. Wright also ranks 13th all-time with 1,370 career points.

NOTES: Colorado announced the death of 95-year-old fan Betty Hoover, who along with her twin sister, Peggy Coppom, became fixtures at Buffs sporting events and were season ticket holders since 1958. Wright used to run into them not only on the court, but at the local bank. “I’ve never met anyone as loving and supporting and caring as those two,” Wright said. “They hold a special place in my heart. It sucks that Betty won’t be at any games this year. Maybe we can do something, put her name on our jersey. They’re two of the biggest fans in CU history.”

Jared Butler returns to Baylor

jared butler baylor
Getty Images
Leave a comment

Baylor got some huge news on Monday as potential All-American Jared Butler announced that he will be returning to school for his junior season, joining MaCio Teague is pulling his name out of the 2020 NBA Draft to get the band back together.

Butler was Baylor’s leading scorer a season ago, averaging 16.0 points and 3.1 assists for a team that went 26-4, spent a portion of the season as the No. 1 team in the country and was in line to receive a 1-seed had the 2020 NCAA Tournament taken place.

With Butler and Teague coming back to school, the Bears will return four starters from last season’s squad. Starting center Freddie Gillespie is gone, as is backup guard Devonte Bandoo, but those are holes that can be filled. Tristan Clark, who was Baylor’s best player during the 2018-19 season before suffering a knee injury that lingered through last year, will be back, and there is more than enough talent in the program to replace the scoring pop of Bandoo. Matthew Mayer will be in line for more minutes, while transfer Adam Flagler will be eligible this season.

Baylor will enter this season as a consensus top three team in the country. They will receive plenty of votes as the No. 1 team in the sport, making them not only a very real contender for the Big 12 regular season crown but one of the favorites to win the national title.

Preseason Top 25 | Mock Draft 3.0 | Early Entry Tracker

As MaCio Teague returns, Baylor now awaits Jared Butler’s NBA draft decision

Butler is the key.

Baylor was one of college basketball’s best defensive teams last year. They finished fourth nationally in KenPom’s defensive efficiency metric, a ranking that dropped after they Bears lost two of their last three games to TCU and West Virginia. Where they struggled was on the offensive end of the floor. The Bears would go through droughts were points were at a premium and their best offense was a missed shot. Butler’s intrigue for NBA teams was his ability to shoot and to create space in isolation. He’s the one guy on the roster that can create something out of nothing for himself.

And now he is back to try and lead Baylor to a Final Four.

Arizona State’s Martin to return for senior season

Getty Images
3 Comments

TEMPE, Ariz. (–Arizona State guard Remy Martin is withdrawing from the NBA draft and will return for his senior season in the desert.

“I’m blessed to have the opportunity to coach Remy Martin for one more season,” Sun Devils coach Bobby Hurley said in a statement Sunday. “Remy will be one of the best players in college basketball this year and will be on a mission to lead Arizona State basketball in its pursuit of championships.”

A 6-foot guard, Martin is the Pac-12’s leading returning scorer after averaging 19.1 points in 2019-20. He also averaged 4.1 assists per game and helped put the Sun Devils in position to reach the NCAA Tournament for the third straight year before the season was cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Martin’s return should put Arizona State among the favorites to win the Pac-12 next season.

Martin joins fellow guard Alonzo Verge Jr. in returning to the Sun Devils after testing the NBA waters. Big man Romello White declared for the draft and later entered the transfer portal.

Hurley has signed one of the program’s best recruiting classes for next season, headed by five-star guard Josh Christopher.

Michigan State forward Xavier Tillman will remain in the 2020 NBA Draft

xavier tillman nba draft
Getty Images
Leave a comment

In the end, Xavier Tillman Sr.’s decision whether or not to return to remain in the 2020 NBA Draft for his senior season came down to security.

A 6-foot-8 forward that averaged 13.7 points, 10.3 boards, 3.0 assists and 2.1 blocks this past season, Tillman was an NBC Sports third-team All-American a season ago. He’s projected as the No. 23 pick in the latest NBC Sports mock draft. He was the best NBA prospect that had yet to make a decision on his future until Sunday.

That’s when Tillman announced that he will be foregoing his final season of college eligibility to head to the NBA.

In the end, it’s probably the right decision, but it’s not one that the big fella made easily.

Tillman is unlike most college basketball players forced to make a decision on their basketball future. He is married. He has two kids, a three-year old daughter and a six-month old son. This is not a situation where he can bet on himself, head to the pro ranks and figure it out later on.

Preseason Top 25 | Mock Draft 3.0 | Early Entry Tracker

He needs something stable, particularly given the fact that we are living in the midst of a pandemic that has put the future of sports in doubt, at least for the short term.

He needs security.

He needed to know that there would be a job for him in the NBA. Not a two-way contract. Not a spot on a camp roster or a chance to develop in the G League. Hell, there might not even be a G League next season. That was an option at Michigan State. He was living in an apartment with his family that was covered by his scholarship and stipend. He had meals paid for. He was able to take food from the training room home and have dinner with his family. He was able to get to class, to the gym, to practice and back home in time to do the dishes at night. He told NBC Sports in March that the school was able to provide him with $1,200-a-month to help pay for things like diapers high chairs. That was all going to be there if he returned to school. It was a great situation, one that lacked the uncertainty that comes with the professional level.

Because as much as I love Tillman as a role player at the next level, NBA teams do not all feel the same. The tricky thing about the draft is that it makes sense to swing for the fences on the guys that can be locked into salaries for the first four years of a contract. The Toronto Raptors took Pascal Siakam with the 27th pick and have paid less than $7 million in total salary in his first four years for a player that made an all-star team. Kyle Kuzma is averaging 16.0 points through three seasons and is on the books for $3.5 million in year four.

Tillman’s ability to defend, his basketball IQ, his play-making and his professional demeanor means that he can step into the modern NBA and do a job as a rotation player for just about any team in the league. But he doesn’t have the upside that other bigs in the same projected range have — Jalen Smith, Daniel Oturu, Jaden McDaniels, Zeke Nnaji — so there are teams that are scared off.

I don’t get it.

But Tillman’s decision to head to the professional ranks indicates that he does, indeed, feel confident in the fact that he will have gainful and steady employment next season. Since he would have walked at Michigan State’s graduation in May had it been held, that doesn’t leave much to return to school for.

The Spartans will now be left in a tough spot. There are quite a few pieces to like on this roster. Rocket Watts had promising moments as a freshman, as did Malik Hall. Gabe Brown and Marcus Bingham are both talented players. Joey Hauser had a good season at Marquette, and the early returns on freshman Mady Sissoko are promising. But this is going to be a young and unproven group.

Izzo has had less at his disposal before, but this is certainly not an ideal situation for Michigan State.