Well, it wasn’t exactly Vince Lombardi peeling the paint off the locker room walls in post game dress downs to his legendary Green Bay Packer teams, but for Virginia basketball coach Tony Bennett, Wednesday night’s address to his Cavaliers was about as close as he’ll come to matching St. Vincent’s intensity.
Lombardi used to treat all his players the same — like dogs, former Packer great Jerry Kramer once told this columnist.
“If Lombardi told you to sit down, you didn’t look for a seat,” Kramer said.
Virginia’s players could probably relate after last night’s game.
The Cavaliers stretched their winning streak to eight straight with a less-than-inspiring 75-57 win over yet another Rent-A-Victim. This time it was Morgan State, a team that needed an overtime to recently nip VMI, 81-80.
Virginia looked the part of a team coming out of a long layoff and Bennett wasn’t happy, particularly with the fact that the visiting Bears shot 52.2 percent in the second half and particularly after he had verbally laid into them at halftime.
Bennett, a Wisconsin native who naturally grew up a Packers fan, remembered a conversation from a golf outing with one of Lombardi’s old players, Carroll Dale. Dale had told him that Packers players could always count on catching Lombardi’s harshest criticism after a win.
The fact that Lombardi was relentless and would point out every mistake, only drove his players more toward greatness.
Bennett said last night that he doesn’t pretend to think his 9-2 Cavaliers are better than they are. He knows they have a long way to go before they’re ready for ACC play. Still, he expected more than what he got against Morgan State.
Remember a few weeks ago when UVa upset Wisconsin on the road? After that game, Bennett told his team that they needed to remember who they were, and how they needed to play every game that way: valuing every possession, playing suffocating defense.
Those trusty old pak yaks were missing in action Wednesday night as UVa watched its healthy lead dwindle to single digits at one point before the Cavaliers put their foot on the gas and left the Bears behind.
“If you’re victorious and see some things that need to be cleaned up, I think you have every right to challenge your guys and go after them,” Bennett said.
No coach worth his salt would argue that point. In fact, Lombardi would have been proud.
“I thought the effort was poor,” Bennett said. “I thought we were undisciplined, I thought we weren’t sound. We didn’t respect the game in stretches. The game is meant to be played a certain way for us. Our guys lost their way a little bit in my honest opinion.”
Certainly the Cavaliers defense wasn’t sound. Morgan State got too many easy baskets around the rim, especially from forward Dewayne Jackson, who finished with 32 points, a rarity against a Bennett-coached team.
While the long exam layoff was a built-in excuse, Bennett wasn’t buying it. Yes, the offense was a bit rusty but there is no excuse in the coach’s mind for playing poor defense.
“[Bennett] wasn’t very happy,” said UVa junior forward Akil Mitchell. “We got an earful at halftime and an earful after the game. I kind of expected it. We didn’t play to our potential defensively. We were a little rusty offensively and we let our defense slide as a result and that can’t happen.”
At least not without bringing out the Lombardi in a rather otherwise mild-mannered Bennett.
“You guys are pretty lucky you don’t see [Bennett] unhappy,” Mitchell said. “He gets really red. It’s not a pretty sight.”
Not a sight that Virginia players see very often anyways and no one outside the locker room ever sees.
What Bennett must contend with now is playing three games over the course of 28 days, from Dec. 8 to Jan. 6. In between, the Cavaliers had the win over Morgan State, play Saturday in the Governor’s Holiday Hoops Classic at Richmond Coliseum against Old Dominion, and host Wofford on Dec. 30 before ACC play begins Jan. 6 at home against North Carolina.
While Bennett is aware that his team must “sharpen up” and become more disciplined, his team probably can get away with a less than its “A” game against ODU, which fell to 1-10 Tuesday night.
Still, the coach is trying to get his team battle ready for the ACC wars that are coming, the games that are going to determine whether this program can put together back-to-back NCAA appearances for the first time since the mid-90s.
“I’ll watch the tape and I’ll be the first to apologize if the tape proves me wrong,” Bennett said.
The coach won’t have to sweat eating his criticism. He knows exactly what the tape is going to show and it will support every %#$@& word he said in postgame.
Somewhere, St. Vincent is smiling.