This century began with Dick Bennett making the Final Four in the year 2000 by beating Purdue in a regional final. This 2019 college basketball season featured Tony Bennett beating Purdue in an instant-classic regional final.
The Bennett family is still hounding Purdue, and the Bennetts have become the second father-son combination to make Final Fours — Big John Thompson and John Thompson III were the first. The Bennett family, not just Tony, is part of the story as the Virginia Cavaliers prepare to play the Auburn Tigers in the first national semifinal on Saturday in Minneapolis.
As in 2000, we have a Final Four with a Bennett; Tom Izzo of Michigan State; and a 5-seed from the SEC under a rising coach. In 2000, it was Florida with Billy Donovan. Now, it is Auburn with Bruce Pearl. All these stories are compelling, but the Bennett angle has the biggest reach in and through the story of college basketball over the past 30 years.
The story of the Bennett family goes back to the early 1990s and Wisconsin-Green Bay, where Bennett developed a tough mid-major team with some help from a family member:
Old timer tweet alert: UVA coach Tony Bennett was an absolutely sensational college basketball player. He played for his father at UWGB but easily would have started at any school in the country. Up there with Reddick & Fredette as one of the greatest CBB shooters of all time. pic.twitter.com/8QhFnGYH1H
— Tim Ring (@timringTV) March 31, 2019
Dick Bennett’s system first gained national prominence when, in 1994, Wisconsin-Green Bay knocked out a point guard from California-Berkeley in a 12-over-5 upset at the NCAA Tournament.
The point guard’s name: Jason Kidd.
Dick Bennett then went from the mid-major leagues to the big leagues at Wisconsin and denied Gene Keady a Final Four in his last trip to the Elite Eight in the year 2000. Dick Bennett took Wisconsin to its first Final Four in 59 years.
Having achieved all he could achieve at Wisconsin, Dick Bennett moved to the quieter, lower-expectations town of Pullman, Washington, to revive Washington State basketball. Dick established the culture, but he stepped away from head coaching and handed the baton to his son. Tony Bennett developed his father’s culture and turned it into a Sweet 16 appearance in the 2008 NCAA Tournament.
Wisconsin in the Final Four? Wazzu in the Sweet 16? Wazzu with a top-four NCAA Tournament seed in consecutive seasons (2007 and 2008)? That must be a very successful coaching system.
What Dick Bennett made possible as an architect, Tony Bennett turned into reality with his construction team of cheerful and dedicated workers.
Dick had the design and the vision, but Tony has been able to implement it at a level his father could only have dreamed of.
Tony Bennett didn’t just take Washington State to the Sweet 16 with his dad’s values and designs governing his process. Tony has made Virginia a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament four times — 2014, 2016, 2018, and 2019. He has made Virginia the No. 1 seed at the ACC Tournament four times in the past six years as well, a ridiculously impressive achievement in a league shared by Duke and North Carolina.
Dick Bennett said after Virginia’s win over Purdue on Saturday that Tony has gone far beyond him as a head coach:
“I’m probably more excited now than I was after our own game.”
— NCAA March Madness (@marchmadness) March 31, 2019
Yet, while that statement might be true in terms of annual on-court results, Dick Bennett’s reach and influence in college basketball — a significant storyline at the Final Four due to Tony’s arrival on this stage — are profound and considerable.
From Butler to George Mason to Wazzu to Virginia, Dick Bennett’s culture — more than his pack-line defense — has given rise to the emergence of remarkable improvements at multiple schools. His son has been part of that story, but he planted all the seeds, as this story explains in greater detail.
What you saw at Butler in the first decade of the 21st century — culminating in the 2010 and 2011 national championship games under Brad Stevens — was inspired by Dick Bennett’s coaching principles.
What you saw with George Mason in its seismic and seminal 2006 run to the Final Four — which changed the sport of college basketball in relationship to mid-major programs — was taken by Jim Larranaga from an interaction with Dick Bennett.
The pack-line defense is certainly a big reason why Virginia has snapped a 35-year Final Four drought. The tactical acumen of the Bennetts — and their willingness to bet that there aren’t enough good shooters (aka, Carsen Edwards-level players) — can be viewed as an example of big-picture thinking about the ways most basketball games are won and lost.
Yet, as smart as the pack-line concept might be, it wouldn’t amount to much without a culture which enables Tony Bennett-coached teams to exhibit harmony, cohesion, selflessness… and a locker room tough enough to respond to the UMBC loss in 2018 and respond to it by making the Final Four the very next year.
The Xs and Os matter and certainly should not be diminished, but the culture of a Dick Bennett basketball operation has made believers out of many people in the coaching profession. That culture is the true ingredient at the heart of Virginia’s rise, with Tony taking a vision and carrying it to greater heights than his father ever imagined.
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