April 1, 2015

Bennettball in the NCAA Tournament

The 2014-15 edition of Virginia Basketball [far] exceeded initial expectations, and rose all the way to the #2 ranking and "top challenger to Kentucky" status.  Expectations were adjusted, and most Hoofans (myself included) settled on a run to the Elite Eight as the baseline for a successful postseason.  Around that time, Justin Anderson got hurt, and the cracks in the foundation began to show.  Lack of offense eventually caught up with the Hoos, who lost 3 of their last 5, and bowed out of the Big Dance in the round of 32.  A bitterly disappointing end to a season that held so much promise through its first three quarters.

In the week and a half since that sour loss to Michigan State, I think we've all been doing a lot of soul searching.  Why did we lose that game?  We were clearly outclassed and out-toughed, beaten at our own game by a Michigan State team that walks with a swagger born of consistent Tournament success... right?  Or was it as simple as a woeful 2-for-17 (.118) day from the perimeter dooming our offense in a 6-point loss?  Malcolm Brogdon and London Perrantes had tired legs after carrying the team in Justin Anderson's absence, and it was clear to see as all of their misses were short off the front of the rim -- no legs!  Right?  It was a bad draw given to us by the Committee, who is always out to screw us, right?  We should have been a 1, and Michigan State should have been something higher than a 7; we never should have met that team so early in the Tournament, right?  Or was it that we were simply too soft, and Michigan State wanted it more?  Clearly?  Which one was it?  Or was it all of the above?

I don't have the answer.  Really, the answer doesn't even matter.  We lost, and the hows and whys, well, that's for the coaching staff to figure out.

Instead, I've been directing my attention toward the bigger picture.  That being, Bennett's system, and its history of success (or failure) in the NCAA Tournament.

We already know about Tony's run here at Virginia.  A quick recap:

2010 -- 15-16, no postseason

2011 -- 16-15, no postseason

2012 -- 22-10, 10-seed, brutal destruction at the hands of 7-seed Florida in the 1st round, 71-45

2013 -- 23-12, NIT

2014 -- 30-7, 1-seed, squeaked past 16-seed Coastal Carolina, hammered 8-seed Memphis, lost in the Sweet Sixteen to 4-seed Michigan State, 61-59

2015 -- 30-4, 2-seed, uninspiring win over 15-seed Belmont, loss to 7-seed Michigan State, 60-54


Before Virginia, there was a three-year stint at Washington State, after he took over for his dad:

2007 -- 26-8, 3-seed, solid win over 14-seed Oral Roberts, double-overtime upset loss in the round of 32 against 6-seed Vanderbilt, 78-74

2008 -- 26-9, 4-seed, 31-point win over 13-seed Winthrop, solid 20-point win over 5-seed Notre Dame, 21-point trouncing under the heels of 1-seed North Carolina in the Sweet Sixteen

2009 -- 17-16, NIT


I know the chronology of this is all whacked-out, but bear with me.  Before Tony became head coach at Wazzu, he was his old man's lead assistant.  Running the pack line and blocker/mover systems (the combination of which I call "Bennettball"), here's what Dick did at Washington State:

2004 -- 13-16, no postseason

2005 -- 12-16, no postseason

2006 -- 11-17, no postseason

Okay, so no trips to the Dance while Dick was the big whistle at Wazzu, but don't ding him for that --- Washington State Basketball was a completely moribund program prior to the Bennetts stepping in and breathing a little life into those lungs.


Dick gained his notoriety at Wisconsin, of course.  It surprised me to discover that he only coached there for five seasons!  Here's how the Buzzcuts fared while running Bennettball:

1996 -- 17-15, NIT

1997 -- 18-10, 7-seed, 1st round upset loss to 10-seed Texas, 71-58

1998 -- 12-19, no postseason

1999 -- 22-10, 5-seed, 1st round upset loss to 12-seed SW Missouri State, 43-32 (yep, 43-32 was the final score of the game... yikes)

2000 -- 22-14, 8-seed, 66-56 win over 9-seed Fresno State, 66-59 win over 1-seed Arizona in an enormous upset, 61-48 win over 4-seed LSU in the Sweet Sixteen, 64-60 win over 6-seed Purdue in the Elite Eight, 53-41 loss to 1-seed (and eventual national champion) Michigan State in the Final Four.  DAMMIT SPARTY!


I won't go all the way back to Bennett's days at Wisconsin-Green Bay, because I think he was still in the process of developing Bennettball, and results at a low-tier mid-major are pretty irrelevant to my point.  (Know that Bennett made three NCAA Tournament appearances while at Green Bay, scoring one 1st round upset as a 12-seed over 5-seed Cal in 1994.)

So break it all the way down.  Bennettball is now 10-8 across eight NCAA Tournament appearances (in 17 total seasons).  Takeaways:

  • Bennettball gets teams to the Big Dance at roughly a 50% clip.
  • Not including obvious building/rebuilding situations, Bennettball goes dancing at about a 75% clip.  (8 out of 11 seasons.)  This is pretty impressive.
  • Average seed: 5.0
  • Once in the Tournament, Bennettball suffers seeded upsets 62.5% of the time (5 out of 8 appearances).
  • The upset losses in reverse chronological order: 7 over 2 (2015), 4 over 1 (2014), 6 over 3 (2007), 12 over 5 (1999), 10 over 7 (1997)
  • Outside of the obvious outlier of 2000's miracle Final Four run, Bennettball bumps - hard - into a glass ceiling at the 2nd round / Sweet Sixteen level.
  • Average seed defeated by Bennettball: 9.1
  • Average seed that defeats Bennettball: 6.0

The bottom line for me, is this:

Bennettball lays the foundation for ordinary talent to coalesce into winning teams.  At its core, it helps players to come together as a unit and overachieve... in the regular season.  But once in the NCAA Tournament setting, that lack of talent has been more or less exposed.  Bennettball earns high seeds, but then fails to live up to those high seeds.  It can't beat good teams in the Tournament.

Reason for concern, right?

Not so fast, my friend!

Recruiting class rankings across the last 12 true seasons of Bennettball at the high-major level:
  • 2004 Wazzu -- average stars: 0.5 (no shit)
  • 2005 Wazzu -- average stars: 1.0
  • 2006 Wazzu -- average stars: 1.3
  • 2007 Wazzu -- average stars: 2.0
  • 2008 Wazzu -- average stars: 3.16
  • 2010 UVA -- average stars: 3.16
  • 2011 UVA -- average stars: 3.33
  • 2012 UVA -- average stars: 3.6
  • 2013 UVA -- average stars: 3.0
  • 2014 UVA -- average stars: 3.5
  • 2015 UVA -- average stars: 3.0 (just one recruit, Jarred Reuter)
  • 2016 UVA -- average stars: 4.0 (and counting...)


Bennettball gets us into the Tournament, but it falls on the talent level of the team to help us win once we're there.  The system itself is not enough, barring a lightning strike like in 2000.

The good news is that Virginia Basketball is now a relevant brand.  Back-to-back 30-win seasons and the national coach of the year award opens doors for Tony Bennett that were once closed to him, his system, and this school.  He'll bring in upgraded talent, like he's doing in the 2016 class, and Virginia will shatter that glass ceiling that blocks us from advancing past the Sweet Sixteen.

2015-16 is a huge season in the grand scheme of things.  Even without Justin Anderson, the team will be loaded with experienced, seasoned talent.  It will be driven by the sour taste left in their mouths by the 2015 Tournament no-show.  It will be our best hope for a Final Four and validation for the program Bennett has been building.

If we crash and burn in the 2016 Tournament, I think some concern will be warranted.

I can't wait to see how it plays out.



  1. The history means nothing unless you really believe that the best predictor of the future is the past. Personally I think your sample size is too small here. Still, 5/8 seeded upsets is a bit troubling.

    1. I agree. Too many upsets, but it's still very early. 2016 is big.

  2. Not sure if it's fair to lump in Dick Bennett's postseason record with Tony under the term "Bennettball", without including other coaches who use the pack line.

    For example, Sean Miller and Bo Ryan run the pack line, so they could arguably be considered in this sample. I don't think we can say for sure Tony's coaching style more closely resembles Dick than Bo or Sean, especially when Tony and Dick seem to have pretty different personalties on the court.

    Overall though, I think this article makes some very good point about the overall state of the program.

    1. It's not just pack line, though. It's also blocker/mover. The combination of the two.

      But your point is a good one, and well-received. Thanks for reading and commenting!


    1. It's certainly not a good thing, but the fact that the staff has been kept together successfully for so long is surprising.

      Why do you think it will be so devastating? Definitely not happy to see him go, but I think the team will move on fine.

    2. "Devastating?" A bit of an overstatement, I'd say.

      Or maybe it's just weird that I'm not worried about this, AT ALL.

      I think a lot of us wanted to see some subtle modifications to the offense, and here's Tony's chance to: a) promote/retain Williford, who rightfully earns a lot of credit for our excellent big man development, and b) bring in a fresh, new voice with a different base of knowledge and interesting ideas on adding some good wrinkles to the blocker/mover offensive system.

      I feel zero consternation over losing McKay, and a lot of excitement over seeing who Tony promotes/brings in to replace him.

  4. wow!!! incredible article!