There were times when things changed drastically at the ACC. Take Frank McGuire, for example, when he was forced out a few years later due to illness following the Everett case.
In the 1960s, Vic Bubas and then Dean Smith took over the ACC. Bubas has only been around for a decade, but Smith has built a lasting program at age 36.
Lefty Dressel arrived in 1970 and built Maryland into a basketball powerhouse. At the same time, Norm Sloan built NC State into a formidable program, leading it to a two-year run of 57-1 and a national title in 1974 (one loss was to UCLA.) ACC fans still talk about the NC State-Maryland rivalry back then. The schools were strong enough to briefly eclipse UNC.
In the year In 1980, Mike Krzyzewski took over Duke and built an amazing program, and just like that ESPN was coming along.
In the year When Smith retired in 1997, Coach K had the most dominant time the ACC had ever seen.
And in 2010, Tony Bennett arrived at Virginia and began to change that program to a nightmare for everyone.
After UVa’s impressive championship run in 2019 and the retirement of Ol’ Roy Williams and Mike Krzyzewski this summer, Bennett has a chance to dominate the conference just like Bubas, Smith and Krzyzewski did before him.
Bennett’s 2019 title run was just as compelling. Remember, last year Virginia was embarrassed by UMBC, becoming the first #1 seed to lose to a #16 seed. And UMBC wasn’t even close, winning by 20 and carving up Virginia like a Thanksgiving turkey.
In the end, that helped. Focused in the 2019 dance, Virginia knocked off Gardner-Webb, Oklahoma and Oregon in relatively regular games. Then came Purdue and one of the greatest plays in tournament history: With the game on the line, freshman Kehi Clark chased the ball out of bounds and after a free throw attempt, whipped it upcourt to Mamadi Diakiti, who hit a buzzer-beater. the game to OT.
That was followed by another thrilling victory, this time over Auburn 63-62 and eventually an overtime win over Texas Tech to clinch the title.
Then Covid hit in 2019-20.
Virginia finished 23-7 and of course there was no postseason.
In the year In 2020-21, the ‘Hoos went 18-7 but a late tussle with VV ensured they lost the NCAA opener to Ohio.
And last year, Bennett’s team finished 21-14 and ended up in the NIT.
So things have been a bit off since the headline run, mostly due to covid, but this year it seems to be back to normal for the riders.
First, and most importantly, Clark decided to take his bonus year at Virginia. why not? UVA is now generously listed at 5-10 but that’s a stretch. He’s closer to 5-8 and he’s not such a physical threat to play at that size in the NBA. Might as well stick around and add to the Virginia legend.
But Virginia is back at 6-6/242 pounds. Jayden Gardner from E.C.U. 6-2 junior transfer Reece Beekman, who proved to be a sore point last year, defensive end Arman Franklin, a 6-4 senior transfer from Indiana who found his shooting touch late, and 6-11 Kadin Shedrick, who certainly had moments last season. It can be a classic Bennett late bloomer that usually sits for a year or two and then emerges as a powerful force. His biggest issue was weight but we expect him to be very strong this time around.
Francisco Cafaro is 7-1 and 252 so he can go low. Tyne Murray, a 6-5 Kiwi, is back and showed last year that he can be a label.
The biggest loss is Igor Milicic, who left after one season.
Virginia brought back just one transfer, 6-8 Ben Vander Plass, who had 17 stops from Ohio in Ohio’s NCAA win over UVa.
He had a solid career with the Bobcats and should help Virginia. His shooting can open up the inside for other guys. Trivia: His full name is Bennett and his father was a college roommate of Tony’s father, Dick Bennett. So you see where the name comes from.
Virginia brings an impressive freshman class.
Isaac McKneely (6-4/195) came from Poca, West Virginia. Poca Lake’s nickname is Dots, which is great.
He reportedly played in a similar system to Bennett, so the adjustment could be quick. He has been compared to former UVA guard Joe Harris and is said to be a solid shooter and a good all around player. He chose UVA over UNC and West Virginia, among others.
Virginia also brought in Isaac Trout (6-10/230). He’s from Grand Island, Nebraska, and when he came out, people were really excited. He was also on Duke’s radar. He is a good shot that takes out defenders and has strong all-around skills. He’s not a great athlete, but he’s pretty good. He looks too good for Bennett’s ball.
Ryan Dunn (6-8/208) could see time at the point, which is a blessing given Clark’s height. We love Clark, but he’s small and you can’t fix him. You can go in though and Dune can see Time as a backup. At 6-8, it offers many options for Bennett.
Leon Bond (6-5/200) is a very athletic guard out of Wisconsin. He needs to work on his shooting, but in Bennett’s defense-first system, he should get a chance to play early. If you pair him and Beckman, that could be a real nightmare for opposing courts. See if he improves as a shooter.
Virginia’s running back should be loaded: Clark, Franklin, Dunn, Bond and McNeely will be as good as anyone. And don’t forget Murray, who could be the cause.
There are questions ahead. Is Shedrick ready? How does Vanderbilt fit in? How much can Traudt take as a freshman? Can you defend Bennett’s standards?
There aren’t many questions about Gardner. Last year he proved his worth.
However, like Clark over the past few years, Gardner has been asked to do too much. Virginia had no choice. Bennett rode his horses strongly, and both did well in the conditions, but Clarke is not first choice and Gardner, although he has done well, should not be the main post option.
Here’s a key thing to remember about Virginia this year: No one should be asked to do more than they can handle. No one should play out of place. That has to end.
And with so much talent, Bennett’s team should return what we’ve come to expect from Virginia: meat-grinders on defense and brutally tenacious on offense.
You can’t say for sure if this is a Final Four team, but 30 wins is a reasonable goal.
We’ll be shocked if Virginia doesn’t finish in the top three in the ACC. So does a deep March run.