EDITOR'S NOTE: First in a seven-part series on the Virginia men's basketball recruiting class.
One by one, they checked into their dormitory last weekend for the start of summer classes.
One had arrived all the way from the state of Washington. Another was from California. There was one from Alabama, one from New York, one from North Carolina and one from Rhode Island.
Each arrived in Charlottesville with a similar goal: To collectively put the Virginia basketball program back on the map.
And that’s definitely what University of Virginia coach Tony Bennett has in mind with his first recruiting class — a whopping six-member group that is ranked within the top 20 in the nation.
Bennett, who essentially cooked with another guy’s groceries last season — former coach Dave Leitao had recruited everyone on the Virginia roster — is counting on his six freshmen to serve as the foundation of his program for years to come.
Bennett wants the class — Billy Baron, K.T. Harrell, Joe Harris, James Johnson, Akil Mitchell and Will Regan — to create the mold for a future Virginia basketball player, on and off the court.
Bennett, for one, thinks he has a pretty good template.
“It’s a complete class,” Bennett said. “There’s a little bit of everything as far as positionally, and character-wise, everyone is very solid. The big thing is that we tried to sell the vision of coming and being a part of bringing back what was once here, turning this program back into a really good program.
“I think, to a man, everyone was so excited to be a part of that — the class that hopefully can turn this thing and make things good and into something Virginia fans can one day be proud of.”
There’s little doubt that the success of Bennett’s tenure will hinge largely on the success of this first class.
Leitao’s first effort featured a player who transferred after just two seasons (Will Harris); a player who was eventually dismissed from the program for academic reasons (Jamil Tucker); a player who barely got off the bench (Solomon Tat); and a player who didn’t show any signs of development until his senior season (Jerome Meyinsse).
Bennett’s newbies, however, will have an advantage from the get-go over Leitao’s first group: playing time. The offseason departures of Sylven Landesberg, Jeff Jones and Tristan Spurlock, coupled with the graduations of Meyinsse and Calvin Baker, have freed up a ton of minutes.
It wouldn’t be shocking to see two, maybe three freshmen in the starting lineup right from the outset.
Regan, a 6-foot-8, 220-pound power forward, was the first player to commit to Bennett. In a way, he took a leap of faith.
“I didn’t really know who was coming with me,” said Regan, a Williamsville, N.Y., native who attended the Nichols School, the same high school that produced former Duke star Christian Laettner. “But when I’d talk on the phone with him, I would just feel real comfortable.”
Bennett sees Regan as a player who is capable of playing either the ‘4’ or the ‘5’ position. He calls Regan a “glue guy.”
“He just gets it done,” Bennett said. “He understands how to play the game. Whatever needs to be done, he’ll do it. He’s kind of like the mechanic — he finishes everything and gets it going.
“Every team has a guy like him.”
Harris, a Chelan, Wash., native who lives, breathes and dies basketball, was the second player to commit to Bennett. The 6-foot-6, 200-pounder, projected to play on the wing, is the son of a coach — he played for his father at Chelan High — who is known for his outside shooting.
“He’s actually a very good passer,” said Bennett, who had recruited Harris when he was coach at Washington State. “He’s not just a one-dimensional spot-up shooter. He has a good mind and feel for the game, and good size for a perimeter guy.”
Harrell, meanwhile, is already being talked by recruiting services as one of the steals of the entire 2010 recruiting class. The 6-foot-4 combo guard, who is from Montgomery, Ala., received some McDonald’s All-American consideration.
How strongly did Harrell feel about playing for Bennett? He committed without ever taking a visit to Virginia.
“I can’t really explain it,” said Harrell, shortly after he had signed. “I think it was just something that God was trying to tell me.
“Tony Bennett, just the way he talked about God and the way that he said he wanted to play — it made me feel real comfortable around him, and the relationship just grew and I decided I just really wanted to play for him.”
Bennett refers to Harrell, as he does every member of the class, as a “complete” player.
“He’s a student of the game,” Bennett said. “He’s powerful, strong and athletic, and has the ability to get his own shot. He’s a good defender, too. His completeness is what attracted us to him. The first time I saw him, I was like, ‘Boy, he is really complete.’ I saw him do a lot of things.
“I think he’s a very efficient player. I think that’s the best way to describe him. Physically, he’s ready to go. You talk about a mad-man workout guy.”
That would also be the best way to describe Johnson, a 6-foot-9 forward from Wildomar, Calif., who lives in the gym. The redhead could be the most explosive player in the class.
“The guy’s just a sick athlete,” said 6-foot-11 Dave Vik, a former player at Washington State now playing professionally overseas, who has trained Johnson in his spare time. “He’s a freak of nature.
“He’s 6-foot-9 with a wingspan of 7 feet and his vertical [leap] has to be close to 40 [inches]. Athletically, I think he has the tools and everything it takes to get to the NBA level.”
Bennett doesn’t want to create unrealistic expectations for any of his new players, so understandably he is more low-key about Johnson. However, he agreed that Johnson, who will initially see time at the ‘4’ and ‘5’ spots, has “big upside.”
“I think as he continues to become more polished in his game, he will become very good,” Bennett said. “He has all the physical tools. He’s strong and athletic.
“He’s a real rugged, aggressive player. Has a nice, explosive jump-hook and can also beat you off the dribble.”
Mitchell, the fifth player to commit to Bennett, is a combo forward. Just before he did so, he had had an offer from George Washington pulled off the table.
Most of Mitchell’s offers were from mid-majors, which had some fans scratching their heads. However, like Johnson, Bennett sees tremendous potential in Mitchell, a Charlotte, N.C., native who is only 17.
“I think what I saw was his ability to be a guy who can shoot the ball well and has a good skill set,” Bennett said. “I think his versatility will help and cause some mismatch problems on the offensive end.
“If he’s a 4, he’ll be able to take it on the floor and drive and shoot it. If he’s a 3, he’ll have very good size. I like his upside with his skill and talent for his age.”
Of course, since the incoming class is so much bigger than a typical class, there is the distinct possibility that Bennett will choose to redshirt one of the freshmen. Meyinsse — who was only 17 when he arrived at Virginia and took some time to develop — could have benefited from a redshirt.
“I think the beauty of determining if you’re going to redshirt or not, you don’t have to make that decision until November, until your games,” Bennett said. “We’ll absolutely consider that and something we’ll [look at], but I don’t want to pigeonhole and say, ‘Akil is the natural candidate or this guy or that guy is.’
“If he’s ready to play and contribute, then we’ll decide that at the time, with all of them.”
One player not likely to redshirt is Baron, who, after leading Bishop Hendricken High School in Warwick, R.I., to three straight championships, spent a prep year at Worcester (Mass.) Academy last season. He’ll likely be a little more seasoned than the average freshman.
If you need any proof of Bennett’s power of persuasion, look no further than Baron. The 6-foot-2 guard was all set to play for his father, Jim, the head coach at Rhode Island, before deciding the opportunity at Virginia was too good to pass up.
It had been Baron’s lifelong dream to play for his father. Instead, he became the sixth and final player to come join Bennett’s bunch.
“He’s just a complete guard ... he’s more of a ‘1,’” Bennett said. “He has that chip on his shoulder ... His dad is a heck of a coach and a tough guy. He loves the game and is real competitive.”
Baron was the final piece of a plan that Bennett concocted upon his arrival at Virginia 14 months ago. The first step was to analyze the roster that he had inherited from Leitao and to assess what the program needed. The second step was bringing in a large first class.
Bennett wasn’t interested in a quick-fix approach. At his previous coaching stops, he had seen the benefit of bringing in a big first class that could grow over time.
“You develop a young class, they get great experience and kind of learn,” Bennett said. “You kind of throw them in the fire and by the time they’re upperclassmen, you hopefully have something special.
“At Washington State, they grew together and went through hard times and came out on the better side because of it. Basically, they went from young men to men over a four-year period.”
The recent success of programs like Butler in this past season’s NCAA tournament only reinforced Bennett’s tenets.
“When you can get your program to have upperclassmen who have been in the program for three years, they become really hard to beat,” he said. “That’s why I like having a large group to start with.”
As soon as he took over, Bennett and his staff hit the recruiting road hard and beat out the likes of Arizona, Stanford, Washington and Oklahoma for the players.
“A lot of these kids were on their way with some other programs,” Bennett said. “To get the job in the spring, and then still land a class that we feel is really solid — we feel very fortunate.
“But that also speaks volumes about what you have to sell here.”
By all accounts, Bennett was a terrific salesman.
“When he would call, we wouldn’t talk about basketball,” Johnson said. “He would talk more just about life and what I was looking forward to in life.
“He said, ‘I can’t promise you anything or that you are going to go to the NBA, but I’ll work with you to make you the best you can be.”
Skill-wise, the one common denominator in Bennett’s first class is each player’s ability to knock down perimeter jump shots. To that end, he’s essentially brought in six shooters.
“I felt what needed to be addressed was an ability to shoot the ball consistently,” Bennett said. “I think that was an area where we were very inconsistent.”
As a whole, members of Bennett’s first class seem to have several other things in common. They are all hard workers, love to play the game and appear to be as interested in their educations as their basketball careers.
Recently, as Bennett talked about his first class, he had a boyish enthusiasm. A father of two, it was almost as if six new children were joining his family.
Bennett says he’s excited about watching the class over time.
“It will be fun to watch them grow up,” he said. “I think fans will enjoy watching them mature over the years.”