Tony Bennett, the ACC Coach of the Year, has Virginia in the Sweet 16 for the first time since 1995 by getting his team to buy in to a brand of basketball that relies on relentless halfcourt defense and a paced approach on offense meant to value possessions.
But as Virginia fought off an upset bid from Coastal Carolina and squeezed the energy out of Memphis in its first two NCAA Tournament games, the thing that stood out wasn't the coaching on the sideline. It was the coaching on the court.
"We're a real player-oriented team," forward Mike Tobey said on Sunday night after the win against Memphis. "We have player-coaches almost."
Committing to a slower brand of basketball requires more thinking and concentration. We live in a world where most adults can't stay focused for more than 15 seconds. Tony Bennett's team can process situational basketball quickly and maintain that focus for 35 seconds on offense and defense, if necessary. The players talk often, and intelligently, about what is happening and what adjustments can be made.
When asked who might be a coach on the floor, Tobey said there were "a lot of them."
That was not the same answer as redshirt sophomore Anthony Gill, a transfer from South Carolina who has averaged 15 points and 6.5 rebounds so far in the tournament. When asked who was UVA's coach on the floor, Gill responded by mentioning true freshman guard London Perrantes.
"I think it's London," Gill said. "He keeps us all on track, and he's only a freshman. That's big for him to do. He's stepped up in a big way this year as far as leadership. He's Coach Bennett's eyes on the court."
Bennett has created a culture that empowers his players with confidence. Even as a true freshman with little high school hype, Perrantes has become one of the most important players on this team.
"I feel like it's gradually gotten there," Perrantes said of Gill's endorsement. "He wouldn't be able to say that at the beginning of the year. But confidence, and everyone having confidence in me. I've always wanted to be the coach on the court. Just be able to relay whatever the coach is saying to the players. That's good for me to hear that from him."
Perrantes, an Encino, Calif. native, was a three-star prospect according to 247Sports, wound up at Virginia thanks to a connection between Tony Bennett and former Washington State kicker Nico Grasu. After the win against Memphis, Bennett complimented his savvy guard and said that more people will start taking note of UVA's rapidly maturing freshman.
"To see him in these settings have the composure and the poise he does, I think, rather remarkable and I think we got a good one," Bennett said of Perrantes. "I know we do. So now everybody else is starting to see that."
For Perrantes, this kind of role has been years in the works.
"That's what I've always been trying to do my whole life; to be that guard that's running everything. Be that player that the coach can always rely on and things like that. I feel like after I got more confident on the court, played more games and showing people what I can do I feel like it's helped all of us."
And just because these guys are player-coaches doesn't mean they have forgotten how to have fun. As Perrantes discusses his role on the team, a familiar voice cuts in from the 6-8 senior to his right.
"You're not the coach on the court," Akil Mitchell jokes before adding, "I'm just saying that because all these cameras are here."
Perrantes, knowing the value of veteran leadership (and also a well-timed interjection), joins in the fun.
"Okay, okay. We're both coaches on the court."