Monday, March 30, 2009

Bennett to Virginia; Calipari to Kentucky: Done Deal?


Tony Bennett has been hired as the new men's head basketball coach at Virginia. Bennett coached Washington State to the Sweet Sixteen in the 2008 NCAA Tournament.

Drive and Dish discussed the Virginia basketball program when Dave Leitao was forced to resign earlier in March. We acknowledged that while the University of Virginia is an esteemed academic institution with a gorgeous campus and outstanding basketball facilities, it has a tough time recruiting and competing against rival powerhouse Atlantic Coast Conference programs:

Virginia is an outstanding school with a beautiful, historic campus. And it has top-notch basketball facilities. But in the Atlantic Coast Conference, the Cavaliers have to compete against basketball powers like North Carolina, Duke, Wake Forest, Maryland. And they have trouble keeping the best players from Virginia in state, as the traditional ACC power programs and Georgetown usually raid Washington, D.C. and Virginia of its best basketball talent.

Despite it's many strengths (at least on paper), the Virginia men's basketball program remains something of an enigma. In theory, there's no reason why U.Va shouldn't be able to consistently finish in the top five of the ACC. After all, if a football school like Clemson can become a player in ACC hoops, certainly Virginia, with its outstanding facilities and strong basketball tradition, can reassert itself as one too.

But for some reason, a sustained return to basketball prominence just hasn't been in the cards. for Virginia.

Then we asked why -- given the difficulties that Virginia has encountered in trying to be a player in ACC hoops -- an in demand, up-and-coming coach would agree to take on the challenge that is Virginia basketball :

(u)nderstandably, the University of Virginia wants to replace Dave Leitao with a coach who can resurrect the Cavalier basketball program and generate excitement among Virginia fans and alumni. Virginia will likely spend big money to lure a hot, up-and-coming coach to Charlottesville. But Pete Gillen and Leitao were once hot, up-and-coming coaches who appeared to possess the qualities that would allow them to rebuild the once-proud Virginia basketball program.

Why Virginia has been unable to field a consistently competitive basketball program remains somewhat unclear. Why an in-demand, up-and-coming coach would accept the Virginia job, especially considering how the tenures of Virginia's
recent coaches have ended, remains even less clear.


Tony Bennett, however, is an interesting hire. He succeeded his father, legendary coach Dick Bennett, as the coach at Washington State (Tony had been an assistant on his father's WSU staff). Prior to the Bennetts' arrival in Pullman, WA, Dick Bennett built the once-moribund Wisconsin basketball program into a national power in the 1990's. Tony was a member of his father's coaching staff at Wisconsin when Dick Bennett's accomplished his most impressive feat as a Division I head coach (Dick Bennett had coached at several levels, including the NAIA): leading an improbable Wisconsin team to the 2000 Final Four. Dick Bennett retired from coaching shortly thereafter, but his reputation as a "program builder" prompted Washington State to pursue him to fill their coaching vacancy in 2003. When Tony Bennett took over the reins from his father in 2006, Washington State had already become a fairly competitive basketball program. But after he took WSU to the 2008 Sweet Sixteen, Tony Bennett became a hot commodity among Athletic Directors looking to fill coaching openings (Bennett was offered, but ultimately turned down, the head coaching jobs at LSU and at Indiana).

Tony Bennett is a young (38), and relatively charismatic coach. He was a great college point guard -- still the the NCAA's all-time leader in 3-point percentage (.497), he set Mid-Continent Conference records for scoring (2,285) and assists (601) while playing for his father at Wisconsin-Green Bay -- who played three seasons in the NBA before becoming a coach. Once at Washington State, he found immediate success as a first-time college head coach. What's more, the fact that the Bennetts have a solid track record of turning non-traditional college basketball powers into competitive programs makes Tony Bennett especially well suited for the challenge of returning Virginia basketball to prominence.

When Drive and Dish wondered why an up-and-coming coach would want to take on the massive task of trying to rebuild the Virginia basketball program, we didn't know that Tony Bennett was on U.Va's radar. Tony Bennett is a good fit for Virginia.


Calipari to Kentucky: Done Deal?


Earlier today, ESPN's Andy Katz reported that Memphis head coach John Calipari had met with officials from the University of Kentucky to discuss Kentucky's coaching vacancy. Later, Katz reported that Calipari was close to taking the Kentucky job, but had conducted several meetings with players and officials at Memphis.

This evening, Sports Illustrated's Seth Davis wrote that two separate sources characterized a Calipari/Kentucky deal as being somewhere between a "done deal" and "moving in that direction." Later in the evening, WMC TV in Memphis reported that Calipari was set to leave for Kentucky.

Drive and Dish has historically eschewed trafficking in rumors. Although our (former) proximity to the worlds of college and high school basketball -- albeit on the fringes -- prompted us to blog anonymously, we've always declined to publish confidential information that friends have relayed to us in private conversations (and we've had some damn good "scoops" over the years that we never posted). But for what it's worth, a "friend of Drive and Dish" who has "insider information" from the within the Kentucky basketball program told us this afternoon that Calipari is, indeed, headed to Kentucky, and that he's already notified Memphis of his decision to leave.

Since the Calipari to Kentucky story is already being widely reported, relaying the information transmitted by our friend doesn't violate Drive and Dish's "no snitching" policy. We'll continue to steer clear of the college basketball/NBA rumor mills. But the Calipari/Kentucky romance is in a different category ... at this point, it's one of the worst kept secrets around.

5 comments:

frankthetank said...

At this point, I don't see how Calipari doesn't to to UK. A lot of Memphis fans are saying the exact same things that a lot of Illini fans (including me) said when Bill Self was being wooed by Kansas a few years ago: he wouldn't leave such a talented team, he's able to recruit the top players in the country already so why would he leave, the fans aren't quite as insane (although that's debatable), etc. We all know what happened, though (and Illinois at least had the bargaining chip of being in the revenue and exposure-rich Big Ten along with a great recruiting location on paper as opposed to the purgatory of C-USA). The bottom line, though, is if one of the "elite of the elite" jobs opens up (which I would consider to be Kentucky, Kansas, UNC, Duke, UCLA, and maybe Indiana), a coach is almost 99% sure to take it if he's offered that job (with the 1% exception being guys like Tom Izzo and Billy Donovan that have so much entrenched success at their respective schools that they'd be crazy to leave what are virtual lifetime jobs where they have been able to reach the pinnacle on multiple occasions, which is why I laugh every time that I see those names get thrown around when a job opens up).

On your other point, the Tony Bennett move to UVA seems to be a good fit, but you're right to also mention that the school has a habit of chewing up young up-and-coming coaches at a rapid rate. I feel as though UVA basketball is a lot like how I feel about Illinois football - every advantage in terms of facilities and recruiting would seem to be in place to drive success, yet those programs are perpetually mired in mediocrity (with a great season every once in awhile that gets the fans' hopes up again). One would think that getting top level players to Charlottesville (one of the most spectacular college towns on the country) would be easier than drawing kids to Pullman, so Bennett now has that going for him, yet it may be a open question as to whether the Bennett-style of basketball will translate well to the ACC where the pace is dictated by UNC and Duke.

I also forgot that Bennett turned down the Indiana job, which I referred to earlier as one of those "elite of the elite" jobs and certainly higher on the prestige scale then the UVA job. I'd like to pick his brain as to why he would turn down one of the most prominent positions in college basketball (even with all of the wreckage left by Satan's Spawn, er, Kelvin Sampson) but then go to what would best be considered a historically underachieving program a year later.

Have Jumpshot Will Travel (a.k.a. Trashtalk Superstar) said...

Frank,

I think Tony Bennett is a good hire for Virginia. He's a good, rising talent in the coaching biz. Hopefully, things will work out for him in Charlottesville. It will be interesting to see what kind of system he runs/how his teams play in the ACC. With this hiring, it appears that U.Va harbors no illusions of grandeur, or grand plans to challenge Duke & North Carolina for supremacy in the ACC.

Virginia has signaled that they hope to build a respectable program that's consistently competitive (i.e., regularly finishes in top half of the ACC/makes the NCAA Tournament), but also that they realize that they'll never out-recruit North Carolina, Duke or Georgetown (or even Wake Forest or Maryland, for that matter).

At Washington State, the Bennetts had some great guards. It's not hard to find good guard prospects in Virginia and the Mid Atlantic. They're everywhere. It will be harder to recruit good big men to U.Va, but the Bennetts have won a lot of games with great guards and competent, role-playing big men.

I like the hire.

As for Kentucky, John Calipari will bring World Wide Wes to Lexington, the recruits will follow (& leave after their obligatory year in college), and UK will return to the forefront of college basketball. Kentucky will be shady, but they'll win.

But at least UK isn't pretending to that they plan to uphold some kind of honorable, warrior culture of the "student athlete." Kentucky is pretty blatant about winning at all costs ... as they always have been. During a practice back in the 1930's, Adolph Rupp once famously complained to a player who missed an easy shot, "for what we're paying you, you better make that shot next time" (I'm paraphrasing, of course).

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