Now we find out whether Tony Bennett and the Virginia Cavaliers can build on their greatest success. Just after winning their first national title in April, Bennett and the Cavs had to deal with major roster attrition -- De'Andre Hunter, Ty Jerome and Kyle Guy were all selected in the 2019 NBA draft -- calling into question whether next season is more of a rebuilding or reloading job for Bennett.
Since that time, Virginia looked beyond 2019-20 by securing commitments from transfer Sam Hauser and Class of 2020 prospects Jabri Abdur-Rahim (No. 28 in the ESPN 100), Reece Beekman (No. 40) and four-star Carson McCorkle. All four players will be eligible for the 2020-21 season.
With the roster taking shape, I sat down with Bennett in Charlottesville to discuss his philosophies on the recruiting trail, his thoughts on transfers and graduate transfers, and the most important aspects of his evaluation process during this critical offseason.
Does the sales pitch to recruits change after you win the national title?
Not really. The message before was from the movie "Rocky." I still have the poster of Rocky in my office -- "I just want a chance at a title fight." I want guys who have that mentality that want to go toe-to-toe against the best for a title. You can do that in this league [the ACC]. My message before was, Look, this program has done everything but go to a Final Four and win a national championship. Well, now that has happened, and there is nothing wrong with saying let's do that again. It validates what we are doing.
We can give kids a great education, offer players a chance to be on a successful team and have individual success to reach your dreams of playing professionally. As long as those things keep happening, it enhances the attractiveness of what this is about.
There have been college basketball observers who have reasoned that top prospects in this day and age don't necessarily want to play in a system emphasizing half-court offense and suffocating defense. Is there any truth at all to that notion, or have you debunked it at Virginia?
It doesn't really matter to me if I have or I haven't [debunked it]. There is plenty of freedom in this system; you learn how to play the right way. There are different ways to play. Is this system helping you to prepare to be a successful NBA player or professional player? That has proven itself out with a number of players over the years. When you go to the NBA, you have to be an elite role player initially, unless you are a Kevin Durant or a LeBron James. You better know how to be efficient, how to guard and make the next pass, take good shots, make open shots and not cost your team, and that's the reality of it. In talking with NBA teams, they like efficiency. You better learn to be efficient before you get there because if you try to learn efficiency in the NBA, you are not going to be there a long time.
One major addition to the roster this offseason is Marquette transfer Sam Hauser, who was an all-Big East player last season and will be eligible at Virginia in 2020-21. How is recruiting a prospective transfer, especially a veteran like Hauser, different from recruiting a freshman?
We have had some good transfers here at UVa. Anthony Gill (South Carolina) was a great transfer; Darius Thompson (Tennessee) helped us; and Braxton Key (Alabama) was part of our championship team. With transfers, their eyes are wide open. What I have found out about transfers is they make their decisions based on what they see versus what they hear. It's about the reality of the situation. With high school kids, sometimes they make decisions based on what they hear, and everyone can say anything they want and you really don't know what's real and not real. With transfers, they have been through the adversity, the highs and lows -- they don't worry about the grandiose promises of recruiting.
It was widely reported that Sam and brother Joey, who was also looking to transfer, were a package deal. That didn't happen -- Joey committed to Michigan State. What were the mechanics of that situation?
At first they wanted to play together. We did not recruit Joey as long. We recruited Sam real hard out of high school [Wisconsin's Stevens Point Area Senior High, which Bennett also attended]. You could tell from talking to them there was a crack in the window that if it made sense, they would go together. They had three great schools to choose from: Michigan State, Wisconsin and UVa. I applaud them for doing what they think is best for them. I am very excited to have Sam and his experience.
What are your feelings and philosophies about the grad transfer rules?
I am frustrated for some of the program such as mid-majors and low majors that have poured [resources and time] into these young men. They have built their programs around these guys, and, bam, they are gone. We have had the same thing happen to us. Because of the rule, you have to take advantage of it -- I understand in some cases. But I think it's becoming hurtful for programs that have built around one guy. Every young man wants the chance to play at the highest level. I am concerned how it has affected some programs, but at the same time it has benefited some programs too.
I wish in a way it was not available. But from my understanding, the rule is never going to change. I think it hurts the coaches that found a hidden gem, developed them and poured into them and now that player is looking elsewhere. When you look at our program, all of a sudden Kyle Guy, Ty Jerome and De'Andre Hunter are gone and it makes sense for us to look at [transfers]. We took one -- Nigel Johnson from Rutgers.
Should a fifth-year grad transfer sit for a year or play right away?
It will be a truth serum to see whether coaches would give a two-year scholarship for one year of playing. For players, would they want to sit then play? I am OK with sitting, unless we need someone to help us right away. [laughs] The numbers [of transfers] would definitely shrink if they had to sit. I am not a fan of a four-year transfer playing right away. We will have recruiting in the handshake line after the game. I understand there are some cases that lend themselves to a waiver. It's such a quick-fix society, and it will become even harder to build a program if you can transfer and play right away. It could be tough on the game. There has to be a commitment from both the players and the coaches. I know coaches can leave at any time, so it's a fair point.
You have two ESPN 100 players joining the squad this season, in Kadin Shedrick and Casey Morsell. Tell us about your first impressions of those players as recruits and how you expect them to help the program.
Kadin was a late bloomer. I remember the first time I watched him play. He did not have a good game. I saw his activity and potential. He throws his body around and blocks shots with mobility. He has a soft touch around the basket. As his body fills out, he has big upside on both ends of the floor.
Once I had a conversation with him and his family, you realize that they get it. They were humble about his game and understood the long-range plan. Sometimes with bigger guys that are newer to the game, it's more of a process. A lot of mid-majors were on him for a while and then he exploded with his play. We have been so fortunate to get the guys like Joe Harris, Malcolm Brogdon, London Perrantes, Ty Jerome and Kyle Guy who are hidden gems. At first they are not highly recruited, but they become gems.
Morsell is a tough, complete guard who is a two-way player. I love two-way players. A young man who fits what we are about -- extremely competitive and humble. I watched him play for Team Takeover in the summer, and the program (St. John's College HS in Washington, D.C.) and that league he played in (WCAC) prepared him well.
I always ask our guys in the offseason: If you played [last year's version of] yourself one-on-one, could you dominate yourself now? If you can't say yes, then you have not done your job improving. Those guys have improved.
When you evaluate, aside from talent, what on-court traits are nonnegotiable?
Competitiveness. If not, it's challenging [as a coach]. Once the athletic ability, skill and talent are enough for the level, I like offensive players who have completeness, especially with the perimeter players. I want guys who can shoot, pass, handle and defend the ball and competitiveness in a recruit. There are too many talented guys out there. You are always going to face guys who are better or bigger, so if you are not a competitor, it's not going to work. Watching Ty, Kyle and De'Andre, they were all competitive. It's a separator.
For Tony Bennett, what drives winning?
I tell our players it's a gift for me to coach and you have been gifted with the ability to play this game.
The quote by Steve Prefontaine drives me: "To give anything less than your best is to sacrifice the gift."
The Lord has blessed me with the gift to coach; I want to honor and maximize that gift. That drives me to be my best as a coach, and as a program to prepare them to win, to help develop them and it's my "why" factor to win at the highest level. I don't want to sacrifice the gift and opportunity I have been given.