Thursday, April 02, 2009
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Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Now is the time for relevance to return to UVa basketball

CHARLOTTESVILLE -- Every other year. That's not too much to ask, is it? The Virginia men's basketball program and its new coach need a tangible goal, a baseline for success, and this should be it: At least once every two years, you're in the NCAA tournament.

If that sounds unambitious, consider where the Cavaliers are. During the past 12 seasons, they've made the tournament just twice. They're nationally irrelevant. Sure, this coaching change is big news around here -- and the $1.7 million annual compensation for Tony Bennett is serious money -- but the job search never caused so much as a ripple on ESPN. When did the UVa job become akin to one at Duquesne?

Too long ago, that's when. When the team stopped being competitive on an annual basis.

Bennett was introduced here Wednesday as the man charged with changing that. It's hard not to be impressed with Bennett, the man. He's friendly. He's funny. He's humble. He's, well -- how to put this? -- the kind of guy your teenage daughter would like.

Other coaches seem to like him, too, which is a good thing.

He's not the "home run" hire we always heard UVa needed, the soaring, no-doubter into the bleachers -- the Tubby Smith, the Jeff Capel, the Rick Barnes. Not yet, anyway. Rather, he's Craig Littlepage's rocket shot heading into the gap, where if he hits the angled walls just right, maybe the athletic director will leg out a four-bagger on his own.

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The immediate skepticism Littlepage received when news of the Bennett hire broke Monday reminded him of the scrutiny he faced in 2006, when he was the chairman of the NCAA selection committee. CBS announcers Jim Nantz and Billy Packer blasted him on the air for many of the committee's choices of small-conference teams over those from bigger leagues.

Littlepage was vindicated when those small teams performed well in the bracket -- particularly after much-maligned choice George Mason stormed into the Final Four.

"So," Littlepage was asked Wednesday, "Is Tony Bennett your George Mason?"

"If you want to make that analogy," Littlepage said.

It's a pretty good one. And maybe Bennett will be. Lord knows Washington State was a mess before he took over three years ago. At the very least, the 39-year-old Bennett has charisma and energy, two good starting points for a struggling team. He easily charmed a room eager for hope Wednesday.

Still, neither Bennett nor Littlepage could say just how long this whole rebuilding thing would take. It depends, they said. The pieces have to get into place, they said. It's impossible to set definitive pass-fail requirements this early in the process, they argued.

So let's help them out here: Every other year. That's it. Clock starts now. That means if the team gets an energy bump from the new hire and overachieves next season, Bennett will get a break in the 2010-11 campaign if that subsides a little. And if the team is just too broken, too run down after the Dave Leitao era, he'll get a mulligan and a year to recruit.

That's reasonable if you look around this place. The arena is gorgeous. Shoot, the PRACTICE arena is gorgeous. Money is everywhere. During Monday's press conference, Pro Football Hall of Famer Howie Long stood in the back and watched. Howie Long! You're not getting that at Duquesne.

But you do get expectations. And the expectations here should be to finish at least in the top half of the ACC. Most years, that'll get you into the NCAAs -- and back on the college basketball map, where UVa belongs.

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