Ryan M. Kelly/Getty Images
Tony Bennett has built Virginia into a national powerhouse. And now, UCLA is interested in the coaching superstar.
First, Pete Thamel of Yahoo Sports said UCLA covets Bennett as the replacement for Steve Alford, who was fired in December. Then, college basketball insider Adam Zagoria reported that Bennett “has not said no yet” to the Bruins.
We’ll do it for him. Hey, UCLA, you listening?
Bennett has outgrown you.
A little more than a decade ago, that would’ve seemed a hilarious thought. Beginning in 2005-06, UCLA reached three consecutive Final Fours. That run started one season before Bennett succeeded his father, Tony, at fellow Pac-12 school Washington State.
Bennett immediately led Wazzu to a program-record-tying 26 wins in consecutive seasons. However, the Cougars won only 17 games during his third year, which featured future NBA players in senior Aron Baynes and freshman Klay Thompson.
Dean Hare/Associated Press/Associated Press
Despite having little connection to the ACC―or the East Coast in general, save for his three-year NBA career as a guard for the Charlotte Hornets—Bennett accepted the job at Virginia. The program had two NCAA tournament appearances over the previous 12 years.
At the time, one Virginia supporter told the Richmond Times-Dispatch the Bennett hiring lacked a “wow” factor.
Ten years later, a move from Charlottesville to Los Angeles would be the sport’s biggest news. Yet there’s little sense in Bennett leaving Virginia and the ACC for the messes of UCLA and the Pac-12.
During his tenure with the Wahoos, Bennett has transformed them from NCAA afterthought to regular top-seed competitor. Virginia is riding an eight-year streak of 20-plus victories, and the current campaign will likely be the fifth 29-win season in six years.
UCLA, meanwhile, is trudging through a horrible season. The players are criticized for low energy, the offense is maligned for little movement, and the defense is a complete disaster.
Thuc Nhi Nguyen @thucnhi21
UCLA loses 104-80 to Stanford. Fourth time since beginning of last year that the Bruins have given up 100 points in a game. Before that, the last time an opponent scored 100 on UCLA was in 2004.
Bennett has accomplished this while guiding Virginia through the ACC, which is annually among the nation’s best conferences.
The Pac-12 is very much not.
After sending only three teams to the 2018 tournament, the Pac-12 is flirting with being a one-bid league this season. Just three years ago, the conference had seven representatives. While factoring in the talent level of this UCLA team―three 5-stars and five healthy 4-stars―the absence of success is a nightmare.
Unless Bennett desires a blank check or loves attention, the off-court reasons don’t make sense, either. He’s already the 14th-highest-paid coach, per USA Today, and his demeanor doesn’t suggest he craves the Los Angeles spotlight.
That notoriety would only foster high expectations in a location that long embraced a Showtime offense opposite of Bennett’s.
It’s true former UCLA coach Ben Howland also used a methodical system, and it was a contributing factor to Westwood souring on him as the teams started to underperform. Given how starved the Bruins are for success, though, the concern of Bennett’s similar style probably wouldn’t be a major issue initially.
Nevertheless, none of Howland’s three Final Four teams ranked higher than 209th in adjusted tempo, per KenPom.com. Surely Bennett’s grinding philosophy―the slowest tempo in the nation three years running―would become the chief criticism if the Bruins fell short. After all, it already is of Virginia today.
There’s little doubt he’d thrive in the Pac-12. Considering the league’s recent struggles, it wouldn’t take much for Bennett to transform the Bruins into a perennial conference title contender.
Steve Helber/Associated Press/Associated Press
But why leave an annual winner he built and sustained in a premier league? What does he gain? Restoring UCLA to glory only matters if he values tradition more than anything else.
If that doesn’t carry weight, the top priority is winning.
He’s best positioned to do that at Virginia. Besides, the only ceiling on his potential is based on a false perception. Just last season, Loyola-Chicago used a similar philosophy to reach the Final Four and became the darling of the tournament.
Bennett shouldn’t take his star near Hollywood.