Tuesday, March 31, 2009

after sleeping on it

Yesterday was not an especially productive day at my bill-paying job. Eager for updates after a weekend of rumors, I lurked around the InterWebs at those places most likely to have news when it happened. As the day dragged on, I managed to get closer and closer to convincing myself that soon we were going to be allowed to revel in the news that that much-coveted tutor of basketball, Orlando "Tubby" Smith, would be the head basketball coach at the University of Virginia.

I suspect many of you can tell a similar story.

I left work, and no coach was named. I subjected myself to the usual ritual self-abuse at the gym, went home, fired up the web-surfing machine, and received the same unkind shock the rest of you did, and asked myself the question asked by 90% of the UVA fanbase: "Who the %&$# is Tony Bennett?" Also included in this question-but-no-answer session with myself was, Where the %&$# is Tubby Smith, What the $%&# school does Tony Bennett even coach at, and What the $%&# is Craig Littlepage doing, exactly? I felt like Jay in Dogma, enough so that I figured he could speak more aptly than I could and gave him exactly that opportunity, two posts below. I then opened up post window #2 and began a stream-of-consciousness rant before realizing, one, I still stunk from the gym and two, I'm damn hungry.

So showering is a great place to do some thinking on things when I'm not flexing the golden pipes, and it turns out this is a pretty good way to avoid having to write an I-take-it-all-back post later on. The first realization that came from this thinking cap session actually had its roots in the now-closed poll at right, in which Fran McCaffrey received zero votes. Damn, I thought, if by some off-chance he's hired, he's going to have to start by convincing the faithful that he's the man for the job, which is a sucky way to have to start. Tubby and Capel were the clear winners of that unscientific but probably pretty accurate experiment.

So it's not exactly fair to Tony Bennett to start right off the bat by ripping the hire because I was hoping for and expecting something bigger. Thus, yesterday's post was born. Regardless of anything else, Bennett deserves a solid three years, at the very minimum - coaches can't possibly be fairly judged in any less time unless they're Jim Harrick or Kelvin Sampson. No "Fire Bennett" calls will emanate from this page regardless of how many or how few wins this team wins next year. Littlepage, on the other hand, won't be so lucky.

But therein lies the rub in trying to evaluate exactly what we've got. Bennett has been a head coach for exactly three years. It's not fair to jump to conclusions because his name isn't Tubby Smith, but by the same token there really isn't much to go off of here. But let's give it a crack.

Much is already known about Bennett's style. Defense is his calling card and any number of stathead sites can tell you about his WSU teams' defensive abilities. We'll use KenPom, which says that despite the Cougars' pedestrian record last year, they were 6th in the land in defensive efficiency - points per 100 possessions is his benchmark. That's best in the Pac-10 and better than anyone in the ACC too. They've been turning in similar numbers since before Tony Bennett was even the head coach, but he's been there since 2003 so this stuff has his fingerprints on it no matter what.

Offense, though....hmm. Eeeesh, actually. It wasn't good this year. KenPom has them 120th, and remember, KenPom's numbers are tempo-free - they have nothing to do with the slow pace of play Bennett is reputed to employ. However, comma, when Bennett had experienced players his offense was actually quite good. In 2007 his Wazzu offense was better KenPom-wise than our Singletary-and-Reynolds-led offense, and not one of those WSU guys is an NBAer. It's safe to say that, whether by luck of the draw or by following the advice of other coaches in the country, Littlepage has found a coach who's got the X's and O's side of the game licked.

But can he recruit? The conventional wisdom seems to be that he's managed to bring in quality players to the most desolate outpost in big-major D-I basketball, so yes, he can recruit. I don't buy it. I'm not saying he can't recruit. I'm saying as far as Virginia recruiting goes, he's starting entirely from scratch and has proven practically nothing at all. In his time at WSU he pulled one player from UVA recruiting territory, who liked it so much in Pullman he transferred to St. Bonaventure after two years. If you read ESPN he's done pretty well. WSU's '09 and '08 classes appear solid, the real coup being Klay Thompson from the OC, CA. ESPN's also way high on Mike Harthun, and if you believe them, he picked WSU over Arizona and UCLA. Not so much, really - his actual other offers were from Pepperdine, Montana, and Oregon State. And he's from Medford, Oregon, so Pullman really isn't much of a stretch.

When it comes down to it, Bennett's recruiting at WSU since 2003 has turned up three players that you could legitimately say he brought in against the odds. That'd be Thompson, Chris Matthews (the aforementioned St. B transfer), and David Chadwick out of Charlotte, this year. You could maybe throw in a fourth, Xavier Thames from the Sacramento area. The rest have been a mishmash of guys with offers from Portland State or Evansville, locals, and foreign players. Bennett has signed more foreign players than Americans from east of the Mississippi. He also tends to have the pick of the litter in Spokane, as you'd expect. The '08 recruiting class was solid overall but the '07 class was honestly awful. The success he's had with these sorts of players speaks even better to his in-game skills, but mostly he's been out looking for the under-the-radar types that fit the system.

That's just not going to cut it here. It just isn't, not if we want to get any further than 8-8 or 9-7 every year. It's good enough to beat the Miamis and GTs and NC States of the conference, but do we want to ride the bubble every year or do we want to knock Tobacco Road off their perch? If it's the latter, and I hope it is, then we need major-league talent. Coaching will only get you so far. Pete Gillen and Dave Leitao, for all their faults, went into places like Philly and NYC and DC and brought us major-league talent while competing for it against the likes of Kansas, Kentucky, and Georgetown. Unfortunately it took Leitao a few years to get up to speed, and Leitao had been head coach in urban schools in Boston and Chicago and an assistant at UConn as well. Leitao knew how to recruit these places. Our main recruiting base is Virginia, DC, Maryland, Philly, New Jersey, and to a lesser extent North Carolina and NYC, and sometimes a little farther afield to the Midwest. Tony Bennett is brand-new to these areas. This is the biggest concern. If we don't show well next year or in '10-'11, Bennett is going to find himself in quicksand out in the recruiting circles. If Bennett can maximize the talent he's got on the team right now, which is pretty rough around the edges and extremely young but an embarrassment of riches compared to what he's been working with in Pullman, then he'll have a shot at parlaying that into recruiting success.

The other major concern is that we ain't in Kansas anymore. Figuratively speaking. At risk of sounding like a conference elitist, this is the ACC. The arenas are bigger, the spotlights are brighter, the announcers are louder, the stakes are higher. There are five arenas in the ACC bigger than anything they have in the Pac-10, including ours. It's one thing to make a trip to Pauley Pavilion each year. Certainly, that's tough. It's another to make a trip to Maryland where they hate your guts and Blacksburg where they hate your guts and Cameron where they hate everybody's guts, and the Dean Dome where 21,000 people are watching you. Who hates WSU? UW? Scary. We may not be North Carolina, but by virtue of sharing a conference with them -and Duke and Wake Forest and all the rest - the spotlight shines nearly as bright here as in Chapel Hill. And certainly far brighter than Pullman, Washington. If that's not evident by the million-dollar-plus raise Bennett is getting, then I can't help you.

Those of you who wanted Leitao fired and then complained miserably about this hire, stop it. You have no right to complain, I don't care what you'd been led to believe by Jeff White. By now you have to have noticed the similiarities between Bennett and Leitao. Both preach defense. Both have COY awards under their belt - both in 2007, no less. Both had done well for themselves at schools in a big conference but a tough spot. In all of these respects, though, Bennett has done better than Leitao. Bennett's COY award was a national one. Bennett's defenses were better than ours. Bennett's situation at WSU has got to be harder than Leitao's at DePaul, and yet Bennett did more with less at his pre-UVA stop than did Leitao. By these metrics, Bennett is an improvement.

I'm not yet convinced Bennett is a better hire than Tubby, Capel, Barnes, etc. would have been, though, and I didn't actually want Leitao fired, so I reserve the right to be a little disappointed we didn't get them. All of them are proven coaches with proven track records on the whiteboard and the recruiting trail. Some of them are more than familiar with ACC-land. But I'm warming to Bennett, a process which started about ten seconds after the initial discontented shock, when I learned the answer to that question, Where the $%&# is this guy from? Oh, Washington State? Hm, they've done well for themselves lately. There's no doubt in my mind at least that Bennett is a better hire than some of the other fallbacks that were mentioned like Grant or McCaffrey. UVA fans should keep an open mind on Bennett, a short leash on Littlepage, and above all else, welcome the new coach to Hooville with open arms.

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