The pairing of Virginia against Washington in the first game of the Maui Invitational for each hit Cavaliers head coach Tony Bennett like other staggering news.
Big news. Like the sky is blue.
“I had a feeling,” Bennett said.
The storyline was a natural delivery in nature’s wonderland. Bennett’s young 2-1 Cavaliers face Washington (9 p.m., ESPN2) to cap Monday’s opening day of tournament play.
Bennett left Pullman after three seasons in charge. He arrives in Maui with six freshmen on a team that was drilled by Stanford last Thursday. Stanford is picked to finish ninth in the Pac-10. Washington, by most, is selected to win the conference. Bennett thinks he knows why: Depth, explosiveness, experience, and, finally, size.
“This is the team I think he’s been waiting for,” Bennett said of Washington coach Lorenzo Romar. “He’s built and sustained it.”
Bennett is trying to do the same.
He left Washington State following the 2008-09 season to take control of the waffling Virginia program. The Cavaliers are historical ACC wave riders. Twenty-win seasons were sandwiched by .500 or less seasons. The waves always crashed, spewing out coaches with them.
Bennett inherited a 10-18 team when he arrived in March of 2009. He tacked on five wins to that total last season, hoisting Virginia’s record to 15-16.
“Our program is in the same stages that it was the early years at Washington State,” Bennett said. “I remember when my father came out of retirement and took the job at Washington State. It needed to go through some hard yards and be rebuilt.”
Bennett’s father, Dick, had six freshmen his first year. That team didn’t travel to Maui against such a loaded field.
That is the immediate challenge for Bennett, starting with Washington.
“When you’re playing against a team as explosive as Washington you have to try to limit their fastbreak opportunities, they’re very good on the glass, you have to handle their pressure defensively,” Bennett said. “Those are the things in the past, when we’ve played well (against Washington), we’ve been able to do.”
Washington coach Lorenzo Romar said Bennett has carried the same defensive principles to Virginia, but the offense is more open. Virginia’s primary force is 6-foot-8, 242-pound Mike Scott (12 points, 7.2 rebounds in 2009-10) in the post. He and the other Cavaliers will be facing a new beast on Monday night.
“This is the first time against this kind of quickness and athleticism,” Bennett said. “We’ll learn, adjust and grow from it. (Romar) has a team, at least from the early stages, that looks very promising.”
That’s as obvious as the pairing.