I view next season’s ACC as having a clear top and bottom, and a lot of equivalent teams in the middle.
At the bottom is Wake Forest. Last year the Demon Deacons were the worst team in a BCS league since Ken Pomeroy started tracking statistics, so even if they get substantially better, they will still be one of the worst teams in the league. And Boston College loses almost its entire rotation. If Steve Donahue wins five ACC games at BC next season, he deserves the coach-of-the-year award.
On the flip side, North Carolina returns virtually everyone from an ACC winning squad, and they are national title contenders along with Duke.
I’ve also pegged Miami for third by a good distance because the Hurricanes return so many players. (But the injury to Reggie Johnson may cause Miami to have a slow start to the season.)
After that, I’ve viewed teams 4-10 as interchangeable. There are a number of teams that could challenge for an NCAA tournament bid or miss the NIT.
One team I’ve become more optimistic about lately, however, is the Virginia Cavaliers. After I read that forward Mike Scott was granted an extra year of eligibility due to his injury last season, it is plausible that Virginia could move up towards the top of that 4-10 group. Scott was the team's best offensive weapon prior to his injury, and with Scott and Assane Sene manning the middle, Virginia might have one of the better frontcourts in the ACC.
But there are a few things make me cautious. First, Virginia managed to win seven games with smoke and mirrors last season. Their season long performance was horrible, and was more consistent with a four or five-win ACC team. Now some might compliment Tony Bennett for ringing out extra wins with an injury plagued team last season. But stats folks tend to be skeptical of teams that outperform their Pythagorean Winning Percentage. Baseball folks have shown that there is no such thing as a “clutch” hitter in baseball, and there is little reason to think Tony Bennett is a “clutch” coach.
More than anything though, my skepticism seems to stem from something that can’t be measured with stats. I’ve been losing faith in Tony Bennett’s coaching ability. Like Keno Davis and Pat Knight, Tony Bennett was the son of a coaching legend who was given a D1 coaching job when his father retired. And I’ve been beginning to ask whether Tony Bennett was just the beneficiary of paternal nepotism.
Bennett did not inherit a team that was in shambles. He inherited a team that had been built up in order to put him in position to succeed. And before he had a chance to see how his own recruits panned out, he moved on to a new institution.
But is it reasonable to say that Bennett’s success was just good fortune?
First, let’s start with the conventional wisdom on all three father/son stories. The conventional wisdom is that Bob Knight did little to help Pat Knight succeed at Texas Tech. Bob Knight walked out in the middle of the season in a year where he knew the team was going to have trouble making the NCAA tournament. Then Texas Tech went 4-7 the rest of the way. And because of the way Bob Knight walked out, Pat Knight knew he had a short window of opportunity to succeed. Thus he was forced to take short-cuts (like relying on junior college players), instead of trying to build a true winner in the long-run. It hardly seems like Pat Knight was the beneficiary of anything.
Keno Davis was a little bit fortunate at Drake. He took Drake to the NCAA tournament in his first year as head coach, but he was mostly doing it with players that were already on his father’s roster. Davis then went on to Providence where his lackadaisical defense drew harsh criticism from the media.
But Tony Bennett’s story seems to be the most fortunate. While Washington St. was not a traditional power in college basketball, it was a BCS program. And when Dick Bennett retired, he left a nice group of young players for Tony Bennett to develop. Tony Bennett was not starting from square one. And when his best players were getting ready to graduate, rather than try to develop another young team, he left for Virginia. One certainly gets the impression that Bennett never had to deal with adversity prior to taking the job at Virginia.
That conventional wisdom is probably a little bit misleading on all these coaches. First, consider the case of Pat Knight. Yes, his father walked out in the middle of his first season and left him with a rebuilding project. But he inherited a relatively young group that could have improved under the right coach. But instead of focusing on fundamentals, Pat Knight decided to speed up the tempo at Texas Tech. And at a school with limited talent, that was a disastrous decision. Had the faster pace helped him recruit some elite talent, it might have made sense. But Pat Knight was not able to attract elite talent to Texas Tech. Certainly, Pat Knight did not inherit a great situation, but he is not without blame for Texas Tech’s struggles.
Also, consider the situation of Keno Davis. While he inherited some promising players like Klayton Korver, to say his dad set him up for success is probably an exaggeration. He inherited a “first day” tournament team. That means Drake was a regular in the 7/10 or 8/9 games in the MVC tournament. And only by drastically developing his roster, was Davis able to turn Drake into the MVC champ. For example, his 2008 team was led by Adam Emmenecker. Emmenecker was a 6’1” guard who turned the ball over too much and couldn’t make a three to save his life as a junior under Tom Davis. But as a senior under Keno Davis he was an efficient, effective leader. And while Keno Davis certainly deserves criticism for how things ended at Providence, if Jermaine “Greedy” Peterson was not kicked off the team last season, his story may have had a different ending.
So if there are really two sides to the Knight and Davis stories, what about the Bennett story? Was he really as fortunate as I have made him out to be? The answer is almost certainly a “no”. Consider the best two players on his first Washington St. team, Kyle Weaver and Derrick Low. Both were horrible offensive players with ORtgs of 93.6 and 90.3 under Dick Bennett. But in Tony Bennett’s first year they raised their ORtgs to 106.1 and 109.3 while becoming the team’s leaders. Washington St. got better, in large part because Tony Bennett was able to develop his players. Also consider that while Bennett has struggled at Virginia, he’s also had more transfers and injuries than almost any coach in the nation.
Ultimately, Tony Bennett may not be able to succeed in the ACC. National championship coaches like Gary Williams have learned that it is hard to build a consistent winner in a league so dominated by Duke and North Carolina. But do not assume because his first two years were disappointing, that Virginia is a lock for the ACC cellar. Tony Bennett built a winner at Washington St., and he can do it again, if only his team stays on the floor this season.