In January of 2018, in an effort to decode why Virginia was in the midst of a seemingly-long recruiting dry spell, I wrote a three part series breaking down the ins and outs of Virginia recruiting on a more macro level. In the second part of that series, which you can read here: (link), I went in-depth on nearly every single factor that works for or against UVA in the recruiting sphere. I wanted primarily to articulate that when recruiting is going well or poorly, when things either succeed or fail with a particular recruiting target, it’s never just one factor at play, it’s a balancing of possibly dozens of variables that both UVA and its competitors can offer.
In some ways, that article wasn’t written all that long ago. Yet we also know what a momentous last two seasons UVA has been through. So I wanted to revisit that article and see what’s changed, and what hasn’t, for Virginia in the high school hoops recruiting arena. Just what is our recruiting profile today, with the events of the last 18 months incorporated?
What was the baseline?
First things first, there are still the non-negotiable aspects, some of which come from the university, some of which come from coach Bennett, and many of which blessedly come harmoniously from both.
Kids will still be held to the same high academic standards that other UVA students are expected to meet. No easy rides, no fake courses or gut majors, no skipping classes. Kids are also being held to high character standards, found not only in UVA’s tradition but also in coach Bennett’s Five Pillars. And Virginia will continue to refuse to Pay to Play in whatever sly forms rival coaches have developed, anything from direct cash handouts to jobs for family and friends.
And Tony is going to continue to be completely, even brutally, honest with kids. There’s no making promises of playing time, of feature roles, or of NBA success. He’s going to discuss a prospect’s weaknesses as much as he’ll discuss the strengths, and if the player is going to need some time to develop, Tony will say so. This is very uncommon in an environment where competing D-1 coaches are climbing all over each other to flatter kids and their families, trying to make bigger and better promises about just how big a star the kid can be, and how quick they can get there.
There are also the environmental factors. Geography will continue to play a factor in some recruitments, whether it’s distance to Charlottesville or at least to the ACC footprint. Speaking of the league, ACC Membership is a pretty solid pull to many kids who view it as the elite conference in college basketball and relish the opportunity to play the biggest opponents on the biggest stages. Virginia has both its stellar academic reputation to offer those prospects who value their time as a student as much as as an athlete, and our Grounds and Charlottesville are incredible settings that will appeal to a number of young players who wouldn’t prefer a more big-city setting like lots of Big East schools.
And the Virginia basketball culture is as strong as ever. Just as two years ago, Virginia basketball simply wins a lot of games, and everyone likes winning. Virginia’s excellent facilities, whether it’s the practice space, the locker room and lounges, or the immaculate JPJ, are as good as anyone’s in the country. And inside that locker room is a team that’s as close to family as you can get, a program culture that binds current players with coaches with managers with alums as far back as the Holland era. And on game nights, those players get to go play in front of one of America’s best home crowds, both students and civilians turning JPJ into a loud, energetic scene even against the smaller opponents. There’s a reason ESPN seemingly makes an annual pilgrimage to host GameDay in Charlottesville.
So What Has Changed?
In our original article, we had two factors classified as “Keep Knocking.”
Borrowing the phrase from our fearless leader, this referred to selling points that were going to improve with time as Tony continued to build the program.
First was Final Four success. As a team that had a knock for losing in March (and that was before UMBC), a big validation for a coach was making the Final Four. We wanted to see Tony achieve the kind of standing that guys like John Beilein had at Michigan, or Dana Atlman at Oregon, or Mark Few at Gonzaga, or Lon Kruger at Oklahoma. A Final Four appearance validates a coach, and helps give him credibility in a crowded marketplace.
Little did we expect that Tony’s first Final Four would quickly become UVA’s first National Championship, which puts Bennett in an entirely different, more exclusive fraternity. Tony has as many national titles now as Bill Self, Jim Boeheim, Tom Izzo, and John Calipari. Only K, Roy, and Wright exist on another plane as currently-coaching repeat winners.
So when AAU gyms open, Tony is one of only 8 active coaches who get to walk in to recruit with a title in his pocket. That’s a whole new level of recruiting clout.
The other “Keep Knocking” category was NBA Lottery Success. Like it or not, when recruiting elite high school basketball talent, being able to speak to their dreams of playing in the NBA is very important. Bennett had established a certain degree of bona fides by churning out a slew of 2nd rounders and undrafted free agents to go with Justin Anderson in the late 1st round (and Klay Thompson, if you’d like to count him as well). That continued last year with Devon’s second round selection. But 2019 was a bellwether year for Hoos in the NBA Draft, with Kyle going in the 2nd round, Ty late in the 1st, and Hunter peaking at 4th overall, all of whom were early entrants, and none of whom were NBA locks out of high school.
Tony isn’t the sort of guy who’s going to promise a prospect that he’ll get him to the NBA, much less that he’ll get him there quickly or highly drafted. But at the same time, Tony’s got a real track record that only continues to improve as (a) he brings in more talented players and (b) NBA GM’s value Bennett kids more and more each year. Aside from K, Roy, and maybe Boeheim (though he’s fading, over the last decade Bennett’s put just as many solid pros into the league as Boeheim has, despite worse recruiting; and how did he waste Tyus Battle?!), no ACC coach has the proven NBA track record that Bennett does.
When we last looked at this two years ago, the March washouts loomed large, and Justin Anderson being the only 1st rounder on his Virginia resume made his pro development bonafides a bit of an incomplete. Needless to say, those pieces of the résumé are now far more complete.
Edit: At the recommendation of Hoo social media user Toolie92, I’m adding one more factor here, and that’s Positive Media Coverage. A funny thing happened after UMBC and, more importantly, UVA’s all-class response to it. The media talking heads largely rallied around the Hoos, praised their resilience and their perseverence. The few who held their grudges felt like they laid low, afraid to be accused of piling on or kicking UVA whilst down. And so throughout the year, while UMBC was indeed mentioned early and often, it was usually as context to further laud UVA’s accomplishments during the season. Helped immensely that UMBC’s social media presence quickly became Tony Bennett’s biggest fan as well, shutting down anyone who wanted to use their good name as a weapon against the Hoos. And then as the Hoos fought through round-after-round in March and April the love-fest grew, exploding after UVA won the title. Pundits couldn’t wait to write the redemption story (that, let’s be honest, wrote itself), and so UVA wasn’t just a champion, it was a media darling. Recruits spent months getting inundated with positive press from most every corner of the sports internet.
What’s Still In The Way
So obviously UVA isn’t about to get every single recruit it wants, and not every recruit is beating down the door to come to Charlottesville. Some may ask “what gives?” And in some respects that may be a fair question: What more can Tony do than consistently turn borderline high-schoolers into NBA’ers while winning a ton of games and titles in America’s preeminent hoops conference?
We talked above a little about some of the hurdles that UVA and Tony’s standards create, in that not everyone is going to have the academic inclinations to hang at Virginia, or because some kids demand guaranteed playing time, or some family members are holding out for a handout, or because some kids are just vulnerable to slick salesmen making big hollow promises.
What unfortunately still will persist in some corners are complaints about style and pace. Defensive style isn’t a problem per se, but Tony’s prioritization of defense won’t be sexy to kids who’d rather play in highlight-reel shootouts. The Sides offense (aka Blocker-Mover), while recently augmented by Continuity Ball Screen (CBS) sets, is still a prevalent part of our offensive toolkit, and the way we run it looks very little like anything kids will see in the pros. Sides doesn’t appeal to a lot of kids who are better suited to either a pick-and-roll dominant system or in the open floor of a transition-based offense. And of course, we’re still not just a slow team, but THE slowest team, in the nation’s bottom 5 in offensive tempo and overall tempo (per KenPom) for four years running, dead last in both in 2018 and nearly again last year. You don’t have to like that it matters to some kids, but have to accept that it ultimately does. Tony, with a title in hand, now will feel zero pull to ever change, because his approach has received the ultimate validation.
Tony is still going to be a conservative recruiter. He’s not giving out committable offers and going all-in with his attention until he’s 100% confident the player is going to be a fit with the culture, the systems, the depth chart, and the ACC talent level. That means our assistants have less latitude in being proactive recruiters on kids that Tony has yet to evaluate in person. And given that positional needs are fluid as other players come and go from the roster, it means the level of Bennett’s attention can ebb and flow to some degree, something that may be frustrating to prospects accustomed to a steady stream of love.
And of course, as much as UVA’s profile has been raised, at the end of the day, there’s still the lurking Blue Bloods out there, programs like Kentucky, Duke, North Carolina, and Kansas who have not only the banners and NBA success that Virginia does of late, but decades of tradition and lore on top that UVA still lacks. Some days, a player is just going to be drawn to the allure of playing at one of those historical programs, and it is what it is.
The Changing Results
In many ways, the “Keep Knocking” mantra has applied as much to recruiting as it has to on-court success. By continuing to win games and continuing to develop quality pros, Bennett managed to turn the tide of recruiting starting last April.
After going through a 30 month stretch (October of 2015 to March of 2018) without a 4-star recruit, Tony started going on a relative tear last spring, ironically enough on the heels of the UMBC loss.
That tear started with the commitment of Washington, DC guard Casey Morsell, a consenus Top-75 prospect immediately lauded as a prototypical Bennett guard. That was followed by additional coups. Argentinian center Francisco Caffaro committed before blowing up at the FIBA Americas U18 tournament and cementing himself as a 4-star. Former Top-75 prospect and SEC all-Freshman teamer Braxton Key transferred in. Four star big man Kadin Shedrick jumped on board later that summer. And that fall, everyone was surprised when elite 2021 sharpshooter Carson McCorkle jumped on board before reclassifying to the 2020 class and being graded as a consensus 4-star.
This year has seen that recruiting success continue. While the team was still picking confetti out of their hair this past April, Bennett jumped all-in on forward Justin McKoy, who despite only being a 3-star had vociferous interest from Roy Williams and Rick Barnes as well, so it was no average 3-star recruitment. Former Top 100 and 2nd team All-Big East forward Sam Hauser transferred to UVA over Michigan State and Wisconsin. JuCo 1st-Team All-American Tomas Woldetensae picked UVA over reported interest from Maryland, Oregon, and UConn. Top 75 point guard Reece Beekman chose the Hoos over hometown LSU after Tony had zeroed in on him as UVA’s next great floor general. And the final big get came when Top 50 2020 wing Jabri Abdur-Rahim, one of the standouts at the NBPA Top 100 camp, chose UVA over numerous other top suitors.
Over the last 18 months, Bennett has taken commitments from ten current and future Wahoos. Six were consensus 4-star freshmen. Two others were former consensus 4-star transfers who’d already taken all-conference honors at their first school. And the two non-4-stars? One was a JuCo All-American with a ton of P5 interest and the other picked UVA over UNC.
And the Hoos continue to be well positioned with top recruits in the 2021 class and beyond. The corner really feels as if it’s been turned.
Now, obviously, the recruiting rebound started in 2018 after UMBC, not in 2019 after Minneapolis or Hunter going 4th in the 2019 NBA Draft. So we can’t pin the turnaround on the title or the pair of first rounders, just as we can’t pin the prior drought on the lack of those accomplishments. In reality, the uptick in recruiting came from the same causality as the title and draft success: Tony and the team’s perseverance year-over-year. The continued efforts to develop players properly, avoid short cuts, treat everyone fairly and transparently, prioritizing the establishment of a lasting culture over immediate pursuit of wins – those elements have been coalescing into results for a few years now, both on the court and off it, both in the ACC and then in the NBA. And while the 2017 and 2018 cycles saw a perfect storm of circumstances undermine recruiting (I mean who could’ve foreseen the Unite the Right rally?! Thank God that only continues to go further into the rearview mirror), the bottom line was that ultimately the winning and player development was bound to win out.
What the title and the new level of NBA Draft success provide are additional validation. They silence a lot of the negative voices that were working against Bennett behind the curtains. And that success that we saw in the 2016 and 2019 cycles? The results of April and June will only grease the skids for those kinds of continued results, maybe even magnifying it, as we saw with the “well that was almost too easy” feel of the 2020 class this past summer.
There will always be a certain “type” that fits in a Tony Bennett program. Guys who want to work hard to get better. Guys okay with having to earn their playing time. Guys willing to give 100% on the defensive end. Guys who are going to go to class and contribute to the community. They’ll be “5 Pillars” kinds of kids.
What’s changing is that the talent level associated with those players is improving. 4- and 5-star kids who are willing to take on the challenge of playing for Bennett aren’t common, but at the same time they aren’t non-existent either. Eliminating the prospects who want handouts or big promises or greased skids with their professors or a fast-track to the NBA, and of course those from the West Coast or Midwest who just can’t be pulled to the mid-Atlantic, is going to reduce the available pool of Top 150 kids from which Bennett can recruit. And yet, now there’s a level of confidence that Virginia will be just fine in that smaller pool.
Virginia has now gone two cycles without taking one prospect who feels like a reach. And by keeping this up with a strong 2021 class, Bennett is ensuring that UVA’s success will be self-sustaining.
Give Tony Bennett a roster full of bought-in 4-stars, and we’ve seen the banners he can hang. Looking down the road at Tony’s new power position in the recruiting arena, maybe it’s time to warn the JPJ arena management staff to clear room in the rafters for a few more.