NORTH AUGUSTA, S.C. -- Coming over from Europe, where he'd just helped the USA Basketball U19 team win just its third gold medal in three decades, Tony Bennett was in a great mood at last week's Peach Jam.
This despite the fact that Bennett recently lost another player who decided to transfer from Virginia. The 44-year-old coach who has been in Charlottesville for four seasons has seen seven of his recruits leave after a year in the program and nine altogether. The exodus of Cavaliers has become a noticeable trend, something that's now sticking to Bennett's tenure more than other coaches (because the ratio in four years is higher than the norm).
Bennett attributed the most recent departures, of Taylor Barnett and Paul Jesperson, to lack of playing time. Bennett's not shy about these kinds of things; he's gone on record before about how players often transfer from his team due to wanting bigger roles or over the prospect of playing fewer more minutes.
The odd thing: the past three seasons have seen Bennett's roster have at least nine players average double-digit minutes. And that depth has helped Virginia be solid, albeit not exceptional. Bennett's Cavs went 23-12 last season and could have arguably been the most polarizing bubble team of all time. UVa did not wind up making the NCAAs, instead to the NIT as a No. 1 seed, going to the quarterfinals and losing to Iowa.
Despite all this, Virginia is still expected to be a good team next year, one that could -- or should -- make the NCAAs, even in an ACC that'll be absolutely stacked with the incoming of Syracuse, Pittsburgh and Notre Dame.
Bennett said the experience with USA Basketball was terrific for him personally and professionally. Like Shaka Smart (whom I also spoke with at the Peach Jam and was also an assistant at FIBA Worlds under Billy Donovan), Bennett said he learned much. He's not new to the experience, though. Bennett played for USA Basketball more than 20 years ago, in 1991, alongside Christian Laettner, Jimmy Jackson and Grant Hill. At one of the team's games against Cuba, Fidel Castro was in the crowd.
Player-wise, Bennett said the United States' roster was first-rate in the field.
"Athletically, there's no comparison," he said. "The depth and athleticism of our personnel was far beyond the competition."
One of the key components of that, somewhat surprisingly, was a player who's not even in college yet. Jahlil Okafor was a load at U19s. Bennett, who is not recruiting Okafor, said the high school senior to be is mature and ridiculously skilled. His movement with and without the ball was astonishing. Bennett's words aren't rare. In light of Okafor's performance in the Czech Republic and at the Peach Jam last week, the 17-year-old's reputation is booming. In a short time, he could very well be the favorite for No. 1 pick of the 2015 draft.
"At his age, weight, size and overall mobility around the basket, he's amazing," Bennett said. "He was as good as the other players there. He added a dimension on [the low block] that was really impressive."
The other benefit for Bennett came by way of Mike Tobey earning a spot on the roster and getting some minutes. Tobey, a 7-footer, will be a sophomore at UVa next season. Bennett said the "deceptive athlete" is growing well as a player. This experience was beneficial for both of them in making Virginia better.
Quickly, on Virginia for next season, Bennett said freshmen London Perrantes and Devon Hall will compete for minutes at point guard, and South Carolina transfer Anthony Gill (power forward) could very well see a lot of time on the floor. Malcolm Brogdon, who was out all of last season with a medical redshirt (foot injury), will also factor in.
Despite the transfers, Bennett will have a bevy of options. The team will be deep again. Is this the group to break through and make the mold for Bennett's culture and ideals at Virginia? It will be one of the more interesting storylines to follow in the ACC next season.