Fittingly, Bennett’s first team at Virginia is last on this list. He had yet to establish his system, and wasn’t coaching his own guys yet. With all that, he was still able to lead the team to a 15-16 record, finishing 9th in the ACC at 5-11. This would be one of only 3 out of his first 10 seasons when Bennett’s team wouldn’t make the NCAA tournament.
Virginia’s second team post-Leitao was only slightly better than the first, but the pieces seemed to start falling into place as Bennett’s ideals began to hit home. Finishing 16-15, with a slightly better 7th place finish in the ACC at 7-9, they were experiencing the effects of the loss of a number of players to the transfer portal. On a positive note, Bennett had brought Joe Harris, previously a commit of his from Washington State, to Charlottesville. This would become important for seasons later on as the program was raised to new heights.
As a result of Malcolm Brogdon’s injury carrying over from the year before, and a very youthful team stacked with first years, Bennett’s fourth team at Virginia would lose out on an NCCA Tournament bid. Many will debate that this team deserved to get in, but lacking some of the talent of the year before meant that, after Harris and Akil Mitchell, they were very inconsistent in their offensive production. All disappointment aside though, the development this year allowed for would lead to a burst of success for the rest of the decade.
Mike Scott’s buy in to Tony Bennett’s system was the first big step forward for this program’s rebuild. His elite fifth season characterized Virginia’s year, as he was robbed of the ACC POTY and Virginia was robbed of a legitimate chance at tournament success by numerous injuries. Entering their first-round matchup with Florida, the Hoos only had seven scholarship players still healthy. That said, the team still took a big step qualifying for the NCAA tournament for the first time under Bennett.
Following the departure of program stalwarts Malcolm Brogdon, Anthony Gill, Mike Tobey, and Evan Nolte, Virginia took a step back in Bennett’s 8th season in Charlottesville. London Perrantes did what he could with the pieces around him, but the team lacked a true second option. Of course, players like Kyle Guy and Ty Jerome would gain crucial experience for the coming years. A season where the Cavs reached the round of 32, went 23-11 overall, and finished 5th in the ACC at 11-7, being a disappointment implied the success the program had achieved in recent years.
Oof. Somehow a season with a 31-3 record including both an ACC Regular Season and Tournament Championship fails to make my final four. This was undoubtedly a great year, but the way it ended is too heartbreaking for this team to be any higher. Of Bennett’s teams at Virginia, this is one of the five where there was a tremendous amount of success. What definitively distinguishes this team from the others is the UMBC loss. While we had to deal with a year’s worth of UMBC jokes, and all likely had years cut off our lifespan, it was all worth it in the long run.
An elite, experienced team, the ’14-’15 Wahoos saw a jump in production from Justin Anderson, but following his appendicitis and broken finger, Anderson and the team never really got back into the groove of things. This, and some iffy refereeing, resulted in the ACC Regular Season Champs getting knocked out (for a second year running) by the Michigan State Spartans. This was where the misconception that Tony Bennett and Virginia couldn’t win in March was founded, but the season was still a step forward as it proved the 2013-2014 team wasn’t a fluke. A 30-4 overall record with a Regular Season title in the ACC is nothing to scoff at.
At this point of Bennett’s tenure, fans and analysts started to become restless regarding Virginia’s lack of tournament success. Two seasons as a #1 and #2 seed yielded only results of a Sweet Sixteen and Round of 32 exit. With returners including Brogdon, Perrantes, and Anthony Gill, expectations were high. The team did fall off a tad in the regular season, going 29-6 (which, again, is nothing to scoff at), but the postseason success, making it to Bennett’s first Elite Eight, was another advancement for the program. Nevertheless, that feeling that meat was left on the bone persisted, as in the Elite Eight game against Syracuse, the Hoos let a 15-point lead with 9:33 remaining slip away. It’s a shame that the careers of Brogdon, Gill, and Tobey were ended on such a sour note. But, if this heartache was another necessary component for future success, I’m certain many UVA faithful will concede that swallowing that pill was worth it. Joy cometh in the morning.
The team that kicked it all off! In 2013 and 2014 everything finally fell into place for the Hoos. Brogdon’s return from injury, the arrival of transfer Gill (following a redshirt year), the development of then second years Anderson, Tobey, and Nolte, along with the veteran leadership of Harris and Mitchell, all suggested a jump. The season did get off to a relatively slow start, culminating in a 35-point loss to Tennessee on the road. But following a New Year’s Eve Day meeting between Harris and Bennett, the team finished the year on a 21-3 tear including a 16-2 conference record resulting in the ACC Regular Season Title. This was succeeded by an ACC Tournament Championship, clinched by a satisfying 9-point beating of Duke in the final. The Sweet 16 loss to Michigan State was frustrating, but the turnaround this team brought the program is, once more, worth the grief of losing that game.
A shared ACC Regular Season Title, the first final four appearance for the program since the ‘80s, and the first basketball National Championship for the University of Virginia are all what make this team the best under Bennett. Perhaps others, namely the 2013-2014 team, had more depth, or were more talented. But, this team had the cohesion, the chemistry, and the confidence of a National Champion. Led by the three headed monster of Kyle Guy, Ty Jerome, and Deandre Hunter, they had some of the offensive firepower previous Bennett teams had been lacking in big moments. Never afraid of the bright lights, they time and time again defied all odds and found a way to win. Embracing the concept that “It doesn’t end this way,” they never quit and never wavered in their quest. Unlikely heroes in Mamadi Diakite and Kihei Clark, along with steady contributions from transfer Braxton Key, and program stalwart Jack Salt, all contributed to make this team the best yet of Bennett’s tenure.
Know I’m wrong? Great! What’s your ranking of Bennett’s teams at Virginia? Let me know! Also, if you have the chance, check out the Brogdon Fan Page on Instagram, @brogdonfanpage.