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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.


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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.

Mike Krzyzewski, Jim Boeheim comment on death of Kobe Bryant and daughter, Gianna

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Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski was the head coach of the USA Men’s National team for nearly a decade, and in that time, he won two gold medals with Kobe Bryant.

Bryant, and his daughter Gianna, died on Sunday morning after a helicopter that they were flying in crashed in Calabasas, Cali.

“We have tragically lost one of the greatest sports figures of our time with the passing of Kobe Bryant,” Coach K said. “He was an incredibly gifted person who was universally respected. He was in constant pursuit of doing something special and there will never be a greater warrior in our sport.

“I had the amazing honor of coaching Kobe in the 2008 and 2012 Olympic Games, and I will always remember how much he cherished representing his country in a first-class manner playing the game he so loved. The game of basketball is better today because of Kobe, and he deserves eternal appreciation for that. This is a devastating loss, made even more tragic by the passing of his daughter, Gianna, and all others on board. The entire Krzyzewski family is saddened as we genuinely loved and admired Kobe. We extend our deepest sympathies to his wife, Vanessa, their daughters Natalia, Bianka, and Capri, and the families of those involved.”

Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim was an assistant on the 2008 Gold Medal winning team, dubbed the Reedem Team. That squad restored the image of USA Basketball after winning bronze medals in the 2004 Olympics and the 2006 World Championships.

“I first saw him in person when he came to the qualifier in ’07 before the Olympic year,” Boeheim told Syracuse.com. “He came in the first day and worked twice as hard as everybody else. He taught all the young players, LeBron and Carmelo and all those guys: ‘This is what you gotta do. You gotta go after this.’

“We lost in the World Championship the year before. And he just showed everybody — this is what you do. And we overpowered everybody in that tournament, then we went to the Olympics and overpowered everybody. When it was a close game against Spain in the finals, he took the ball, made the play to win the game.

“That’s who he was. He set a high standard. He’s the hardest worker I’ve ever seen. Jordan, I didn’t coach, but Jordan was the same. Of all the guys that I’ve ever coached and ever seen, he worked harder than everybody.”

Tom Izzo broke the news of Kobe Bryant’s death to Cassius Winston on live TV

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While the shock and immediacy of Kobe Bryant’s death spread through my network of friends and social media follows like wildfire on Sunday afternoon, one thing I kept thinking about was how many people involved with the game of basketball were actually playing while this was happening.

Take Michigan State and Minnesota, for example. The news of Bryant’s death broke around 2:30 p.m. ET. This game tipped off at 3 p.m. ET. Cassius Winston, Michigan State’s resident all-american, found out about Kobe’s death live on TV after the game came to an end:

 

Oregon’s Sabrina Ionescu breaks down during moment of silence honoring Kobe Bryant

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Oregon’s Sabrina Ionescu was moved to tears during a pregame moment of silence in honor of Kobe Bryant prior to a rivalry game against Oregon State on Sunday:

Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna died Sunday morning in a place crash that also resulted in the death of one of Gianna’s teammates and a parent.

Ionescu is the best women’s player in the country, recently surpassing Gary Payton for the Pac-12 career assist record, and she has developed a friendship with Kobe Bryant over the years. Gianna, a budding basketball star in her own right, was a huge fan of Sabrina Ionescu’s game, and Kobe Bryant had brought her and her teammates to a number of Oregon games in recent years.

These are the details of the crash, according to our Kurt Helin:

The crash took place in Calabasas, an area about 30 miles northeast of the Staples Center, where Kobe starred as a player for more than a decade. It is not far from the Mamba Academy athletic training center where Kobe was both an owner and an active participant. It was a foggy day in Southern California, which could have contributed to the crash.

The crash killed five people, of which Kobe was one.

Kobe was 41. He and his wife Vanessa have four daughters. Kobe’s 13-year-old daughter Gianna was aboard the helicopter with Kobe (they were on their way to one of her basketball games, along with a fellow teammate of Gianna’s and her parent).

 

Saturday’s Things To Know: Kentucky survives, Ayo Dosunmu’s on a tear, Roy and Huggs reach milestones

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It was actually a relatively slow day for a Saturday in late-January in college hoops, but there is still plenty to discuss. Here are the ten things that you need to know:

1. No. 15 KENTUCKY KNOCKED OFF No. 18 TEXAS TECH

Nick Richards went for 25 points, 14 boards and four blocks and Immanuel Quickley chipped in with 21 points of his own as Kentucky went into Lubbock and knocked off the Red Raiders in overtime. A full breakdown of that game can be found here.

2. TEXAS TECH IS IN REAL BUBBLE TROUBLE

I’m not sure people realize just how little their is on Texas Tech’s resume right now. They beat Louisville (11) on a neutral court. They beat Iowa State (70) at home. They beat Oklahoma State (83) at home. They won at Kansas State (89). Combined, that’s one Quad 1, two Quad 2 and a Quad 3 win. They have eight wins against sub-200 teams and have lost to seven Quad 1 opponents, including Kentucky (23) at home on Saturday. The Red Raiders will have plenty of chances to build on their profile — they get West Virginia (7) at home and play at Kansas (3) next week alone — but there is no doubt that this team has to start winning some games against teams that are not horrific.

3. AYO DOSUNMU CONTINUED HIS TEAR

In case you haven’t noticed, No. 21 Illinois is the hottest team in the Big Ten, sitting all alone in first-place in the conference standings and Ayo Dosunmu — who scored 27 points and hit the game-winner at Michigan today — has been the best player in the Big Ten this month. More on the Illini and their star here.

4. ROY WILLIAMS PASSED DEAN SMITH ON THE ALL-TIME WINS LIST

It’s ironic when you think about it: North Carolina was in the midst of their first five-game losing streak since 2003, and it just so happened to come after Williams had tied Smith on the all-time wins list. He finally broke the streak on Saturday, blowing out Miami, 94-71, to win his 880th game as a head coach. It is, quite literally, the first win for the Tar Heels in 2020.

5. BOB HUGGINS PASSED ADOLPH RUPP ON THE ALL-TIME WINS LIST

No. 14 West Virginia blew out Missouri in the SEC/Big 12 Challenge to give Huggy Bear is 876th career win, good for seventh on the all-time list, one better than Adolph Rupp, the legendary Kentucky head coach.

6. No. 1 BAYLOR UPSET UNRANKED FLORIDA

This might sound ridiculous, but if you subscribe to the theory that any underdog that wins a game is an upset happening, then No. 1 Baylor going into the O-Dome and knocking off Florida is, technically, an upset. The Gators entered the game as 2.5 point favorites, jumped out to a big league and then proceeded to watch as the nation’s best team proved that they are, in fact, the nation’s best team.

We have spent the majority of this season explaining away the reasons why there isn’t an elite team in college basketball, but I’m beginning to think that there’s a chance Baylor could be that team. They’re never going to be the darlings of the metrics and they don’t have much NBA talent, but they are so balanced, so effective in crunch time and elite on the defensive end of the floor.

7. MEMPHIS BLEW AN 11-POINT LEAD IN THE FINAL SIX MINUTES

This one was hard to do.

The Tigers were up 70-59 with less than six minutes remaining in the game and then never scored again. They would give up a 15-0 run in that stretch and go on to lose, 74-70, at home to an SMU team that is not very good. Penny Hardaway’s team has found themselves in a bad, bad spot this season.

8. ARIZONA BLEW A 22-POINT LEAD

The No. 22 Wildcats led Arizona State in Tempe by 22 points in the first half. With 1:40 left before the break, they were ahead 43-24. At halftime, they were up 43-30. With 16:30 left on the clock, the Sun Devils had cut that lead to 43-40, and after Alonzo Verge scored with 10 seconds remaining, the Sun Devils had a 66-65 lead and went on to win by that score.

The importance of this win for Bobby Hurley’s club cannot be overstated.

9. SAN FRANCISCO WORKED THEIR FOULING MAGIC AGAIN

Last weekend, San Francisco fouled a ball-handler at the end of the first half in order to get the ball back. It was a sneaky bit of math that gave the Dons an extra two points on their lead heading into the break.

On Saturday against BYU, Todd Golden drew up something similar. With 22 seconds left in the game and the Dons clinging to a 79-77 lead, he had his team intentionally foul Yoeli Childs, BYU’s star center who just so happens to be a 60 percent free throw shooter and coming off of a broken finger. The reasoning was simple: Since BYU was in the one-and-one, Childs shooting free throws meant that A) BYU’s xPPP for that possessions was 0.96, lower than the average possession for a team that had scored 77 points in 39 minutes and shot 15-for-27 from three on the night. If he made both, USF had a chance to win on the final possession. If he missed one, BYU’s best rebounder was shooting the free throws. Turns out, he missed the first, and USF hung on to win, 83-82.

10. SAMUELL WILLIAMSON MAY HAVE HAD HIS BREAKOUT GAME

Last weekend, it was freshman David Johnson that had his breakout game for No. 6 Louisville. He went for 19 points and seven boards as the Cardinals went into Cameron and beat Duke. This weekend, it was fellow freshman Williamson, who scored 14 points for the Cards as they blew out Clemson in the Yum! Center. Is this the start of his star turn?

No. 1 Baylor smothers Florida 72-61, 16th straight win

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GAINESVILLE, Fla. — MaCio Teague and Devonte Bandoo scored 16 points apiece and No. 1 Baylor extended its winning steak to 16 with a 72-61 victory over Florida in the Big 12/SEC Challenge on Saturday night.

The Bears improved to 6-1 in the annual inter-conference series – the best record of any team in either conference – and themselves another week atop The Associated Press poll.

Baylor also gave the Big 12 an even split (5-5) in the daylong series.

The Bears (17-1) overcame an eight-point deficit early and led by 19 points in the second half before Florida mounted a minor rally. The Gators (12-7) had a chance to make it a single-digit game with a little more than 7 minutes to play, but they missed the front end of three consecutive one-and-ones. Kerry Blackshear Jr. misfired twice on back-to-back possessions and then Noah Locke did the same seconds later.

What could have been an eight-point game was still a comfortable lead for the Bears.

Florida eventually managed to whittle Baylor’s lead to 10 on Andrew Nembhard’s driving layup with 2:40 remaining. But the Bears answered on the other end thanks to their 13th offensive rebound, which led to two free throws for Bandoo.

Davion Mitchell finished with 11 points and six assists for Baylor, which was a slight underdog entering the game. Jared Butler chipped in 10 points.

Baylor’s length, athleticism and defensive prowess posed problems all night for Florida, which shot 44% from the field and 23.5% from 3-point range.

The Gators fell to 2-17 against the No. 1 team, including 10 consecutive losses.

Keyontae Johnson led Florida with 20 points. Nembhard added 16 points and eight assists, but he missed more shots (8) than he made (6), including all four 3-pointers. The Gators missed 13 of 17 from behind the arc.

Baylor took control of the game with a 13-2 run to close the first half, turning a tie game into a double-digit lead. The Bears hit six 3-pointers in the opening 20 minutes – twice as many as Florida – and had seven offensive rebounds.

They got help from an unlikely source. Bandoo, who averages 7.5 points off the benched, scored 11 in the opening half on 4 of 6 shooting.

BIG PICTURE

Baylor: The Bears matched their best 18-game start in school history. They also started 17-1 in 2011-12 and 2016-17. They landed No. 3 seeds in the NCAA Tournament after those regular seasons and were eliminated both times by SEC teams (Kentucky in ’12, South Carolina in `17).

Florida: The Gators appeared to be taking strides while beating then-No. 4 Auburn last Saturday and nearly stunning LSU on the road earlier this week. But the team’s offensive woes returned against Baylor – no surprise given the Bears are one of the best defenses in the nation.

STILL HOBBLING

Florida forward Dontay Bassett missed his second consecutive game with a calf injury. Bassett averages 1.3 points and 2.1 rebounds.

UP NEXT

Baylor: Returns to Big 12 action and plays at Iowa State on Wednesday night. The Bears have won three of the last four in the series, but lost to the Cyclones in the conference tournament last March.

Florida: Returns to SEC play and hosts Mississippi State on Tuesday night. The Gators lost to the Bulldogs last year to end an eight-game winning streak in the series.