Nations: Cavaliers bank on Bennett

You have to wonder if we are experiencing Tony Bennett’s greatest hits right here and now.

No, not that Tony Bennett — talented crooners need not apply in Charlottesville, where Dave Matthews long ago locked up that racket. The Tony Bennett most on the minds of Virginia fans roams the sideline at John Paul Jones Arena, an act he’s been pulling off with a fair amount of success for five seasons now.

Consistent winning has been a rarity for Cavaliers’ men’s basketball since the days of Terry Holland, so it comes as little surprise that Virginia Director of Athletics Craig Littlepage moved quickly to lock up Bennett for awhile longer following the program’s breakout season this past winter.

Bennett, already under contract through the 2018-19 season, got a new seven-year contract Tuesday that will keep him in Charlottesville through the 2020-21 campaign. Bennett gets a nice pay bump, too, with his annual base salary and supplemental compensation increasing to $1.924 million plus another $1.4 million in potential bonuses over the life of the deal.

Bennett earned it, no doubt. He’s steadily built up a moribund program that enjoyed only fleeting success under predecessors under Jeff Jones (five NCAA appearances from 1990-98, 6-5 NCAA mark), Pete Gillen (one NCAA appearance in seven seasons, 0-1) and Dave Leitao (one NCAA appearance in four seasons, 1-1). Virginia seemed to be trending further and further away from the glory days of Holland, who guided the Cavs to nine NCAA tournament appearances including two Final Fours (1981 and 1984) during his 16 seasons coaching the team.

Bennett was brought in to reverse that steady decline when Virginia lured him away from Washington State, where he’d won 2007 National Coach of the Year honors after taking a team predicted to finish last in the Pac-10 to its first NCAA Tournament appearance in 13 years and posting a tremendous 26-8 record.

The opening chapter of Bennett’s tenure in Charlottesville wasn’t quite so rosy. The Cavaliers produced a typical Cavs season, with a 15-16 overall record and a 5-11 mark in the Atlantic Coast Conference. It wasn’t great (still, a five-win improvement over Leitao’s last season), but not a bad base to work from and Bennett went to work steadily building up the program.

Year two, 2010-11, saw Virginia muster its first winning record since the 2007-08 campaign. The following season was a breakout, as Bennett’s squad rolled to a 22-10 season that included a winning mark in the ACC (9-7) and school’s first NCAA Tournament appearance in five years.

Virginia bettered that in 2012-13, posting a 23-12 overall mark with an 11-7 record in the ACC. All that got the Cavs was a spot in the NIT, seemingly stalling Bennett’s momentum.

Not so, as this past season proved beyond question. Virginia simply dominated the ACC on the way to a 30-7 overall record and 16-2 mark in league play, then beat Duke 72-63 in the ACC Tournament championship game. Bennett was named the ACC Coach of the Year after leading Virginia to the ACC regular season and tournament championships in the same season for the first time in school history.

That earned the Cavs a coveted No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, and Bennett’s squad continued to succeed despite doom-and-gloom predictions that Virginia wasn’t long for the Big Dance. The Cavs withstood No. 16 seed Coastal Carolina’s best shot in the second round to pull away for a 70-59 victory. Eighth-seeded Memphis provided no such challenge in the third round, as the Tigers simply crumbled in frustration trying to stop the Cavaliers’ deliberate offense and score against Bennett’s trademark smothering defense. The results — a 78-60 Virginia victory — pushed Bennett’s team into a Sweet Sixteen matchup with fourth-seeded Michigan State.

Against the Spartans, Virginia rallied back from a 51-44 deficit with seven straight points to tie the game before running out of steam late in a 61-59 season-ending loss.

Here’s a frightening thought for the rest of the ACC — much of that roster returns, minus standout shooting guard Joe Harris (12 points per game) and physical forward Akil Mitchell (6.8 points, 7.0 rebounds per contest).

There isn’t much further Bennett can take the Cavaliers, as the 2013-14 season would be a hard one for anyone to top. Maintaining the steady gains and building a consistent winner is the real test for Bennett, and Virginia is banking on his ability to keep putting a successful team on the floor for years to come.

“The outstanding performance of the basketball program this past season is a direct result of a vision to position the program for success for the long term,” Littlepage stated in a news release announcing Bennett’s extension. “It started with a desire to build one of the finest basketball facilities in the country and that was accomplished through the incredible support of our donors to build John Paul Jones Arena.

“The next step was to hire a basketball coach who would embrace our goals with an ability to compete at a high level, first in the ACC and then on the national stage.”

Bennett did just that this past season with smashing success. And as the new contract shows, Virginia is convinced Bennett will be no one-hit wonder in Charlottesville.

Contact Sports Editor Jeff Nations at 540-465-5137 ext. 161, or jnations@nvdaily.com>