Talking Virginia Hoops with Mark Titus | VIRGINIA Magazine

Talking Virginia Hoops with Mark Titus

Former Grantland writer weighs in on Bennett, Brogdon and “boring” basketball

Columbus Dispatch photo by Kyle Robertson

Mark Titus was a regular contributor to the recently shuttered Grantland.com, where he wrote about college basketball. He also wrote the book, Don’t Put Me In, Coach, an irreverent look at his experiences as a walk-on basketball player at Ohio State.

The victories piled up for the Cavaliers last winter—30 wins and a second-consecutive ACC regular season title. But Virginia’s style of play, characterized by low-scoring games and Coach Tony Bennett’s stifling Pack Line Defense, drew criticism. In his weekly Top 12 NCAA Power Rankings on Grantland.com and on Twitter (@clubtrillion), writer Mark Titus regularly expressed praise and appreciation for Virginia, becoming a folk hero of sorts for many Cavalier fans. Here, Titus answers our questions about last year’s team and what might be in store for the season ahead.

Robert Viccellio

Some have described Virginia’s style as not only boring, but bad for college basketball—an assessment you strongly disagreed with last year. What led you to defend Virginia’s style of play?

I remember watching an early-season Virginia game last year and pausing the game to collect myself because I was so blown away by the defensive discipline of the Hoos. It was unlike anything I had ever seen in college basketball, including Virginia’s team from the season before. Most teams are typically lucky to have either great athletes or disciplined players who are all on the same page defensively. Virginia had an overwhelming abundance of both. I was watching poetry come to life and the basketball junkie in me felt like I was overdosing.

I assumed that as the season wore on, the rest of college basketball’s media would see what I saw and shower the Hoos with praise. Not only did that not happen, many claimed Virginia was “ruining” college basketball. This drove me crazy, and over time my frustration led to me becoming the national standard-bearer for Virginia basketball. I understand casual fans not liking low-scoring games, but college basketball media guys have no excuse. It’s part of our jobs to praise great basketball wherever we see it. When it came to Virginia, way too many of my colleagues were failing at this.

Matt Riley

Point guard London Perrantes in a December 30, 2014, win over Davidson. Now a junior, Perrantes was named to the All-ACC Honorable Mention team last season.

Can you elaborate on this tweet from last year?

It’s difficult to praise Virginia without sounding pretentious, so forgive me if I come across as a snob. But when the Hoos are clicking—especially defensively—it really is like watching a basketball instructional video. The positioning of the players is perfect. Every movement has a purpose. Screens are set, guys rotate over defensively to help and everyone seems to be in harmony with each other. If you just watch where the ball goes and hope for dunks, then yeah, I see why Virginia is boring. (Although, even that’s a lazy criticism since Virginia had Justin Anderson last year, and if you like dunks, you should love Justin Anderson.) But in that case, you don’t really love basketball—you just love big plays. To truly love basketball is to appreciate the nuances unfolding 20 feet away from the ball that impact who does or doesn’t score. And that’s where Virginia is better than any team in America. (There’s the pretentiousness I promised!)

Matt Riley

Forward Anthony Gill in a win over Clemson on January 13, 2015. Now a redshirt senior, Gill led the team last year in rebounding (6.5rpg), field goal percentage (58.2%), steals (29), and double-doubles (3).

The shot clock has been shortened from 35 to 30 seconds this season. How much do you think UVA’s deliberate pace of play factored into that rule change?

Not only was it a factor, I’d argue it was the factor. In fact, if I were writing the college basketball history books, I’d refer to the 30-second shot clock as the “Virginia Rule” in the same way that the ban on dunking in the late ’60s and early ’70s was called the “Lew Alcindor Rule.” A team averaged 65 points per game last year and spent pretty much the entire season ranked in the top 5. For the suits who are trying to draw more casual fans’ eyeballs to their games, that’s bad for business. Something had to be done.

I can’t imagine a shorter shot clock doing anything but helping Virginia’s defense. Teams that couldn’t score on Virginia in 35 seconds now have less time to crack the puzzle. The Hoos can be a little too methodical offensively at times, so I could see the shorter shot clock having a negative impact on the other end of the floor. But it wouldn’t surprise me if Virginia’s points-per-possession defensively is actually better this season.

Matt Riley

Mike Tobey and Marial Shayok go for a block in a January 7, 2015, win over N.C. State.

You made your first trip to Charlottesville when ESPN’s College GameDay came to town last January. What were your main impressions from that visit?

I mean this in the kindest way possible: I went into that game expecting to see a bunch of old people with their polos tucked into their khakis and their arms crossed in frustration because their monocles got smudged with caviar. What I saw instead was one of the nicest facilities in college basketball packed to the brim with relentlessly loud fans who passionately care about their basketball team. When someone asks me what my favorite arena/atmosphere in college basketball that never gets mentioned on those “best of” lists, JPJ is always my answer.

I’ll also say this: Before that game, I figured Tony Bennett leaving for a more high-profile coaching job was inevitable. Now I’m not so sure.

Matt Riley

College GameDay featured a visit from Cavalier legend Ralph Sampson.

Virginia’s recent success on the recruiting trail—the 2016 class has three players ranked in the ESPN Top 100—bodes well for the future. How do you think this infusion of new talent will affect the way Bennett coaches?

It won’t. That’s the beauty of Tony Bennett—he knows exactly what his system is and he knows that it works. You could give the guy the Dream Team and he’d still make them play his brand of basketball. What’s great about this is that his system works with any type of player. It’s not like he has to bring in guys with specific skills that he can plug into specific positions. He can just throw his five best players on the floor and let them play Virginia basketball. Basically, Virginia getting better players is just like getting new parts for a car—it’s still the same car, only now it’s smoother and more powerful.

Matt Riley

Memphis transfer Austin Nichols during an intrasquad scrimmage on October 17, 2015. After sitting out this season as required by NCAA transfer rules, Nichols—a former McDonald’s All-American—will have two years of eligibility remaining.

  • The Future

  • Austin Nichols—Transfer
    PF—6’9”/232
    McDonald's All-American. Averaged 13.3 points and 3.4 blocks in 27 games with Memphis in 2014–15
  • Mamadi Diakite—RS Freshman
    F—6’9”/195 freshman from Blue Ridge School
    5-star recruit averaged 12 points, eight rebounds and four blocks in 2014–15
  • Kyle Guy—2016 recruit
    SG—6’2”/165 from Indianapolis, IN
    ESPN 100 5-star
  • Ty Jerome—2016 recruit Highlight Video
    PG—6’5”/180 from New Rochelle, NY
    ESPN 100 4-star
  • DeAndre Hunter—2016 recruit Highlight Video
    SF—6’7”/190 from Philadelphia, PA
    ESPN 100 4-star
  • Jay Huff—2016 recruit Highlight Video
    C—6’9” from Durham, NC
    247 Sports Top 100 4-star

Which Virginia player do you most enjoy watching?

Malcolm Brogdon, and not just because he’s the best player. He’s all the clichés rolled into one—a gritty gym rat who does whatever it takes to win, leads by example, has no ego and plays the game the right way. I know that Joe Harris is held in the same regard as Thomas Jefferson with UVA fans, but there’s no question that Brogdon has been the most important player in the Tony Bennett era. In fact, if this season goes as expected, a strong argument could be made that Brogdon is the most important Virginia Cavalier since Ralph Sampson. I’m excited to see what magic he’s got up his sleeve for his senior year.

Matt Riley

Malcolm Brogdon in a January 7, 2015, win over N.C. State. Now a senior, Brogdon was named to the All-ACC First Team in 2014–15.

What’s your assessment of Tony Bennett as a coach and of the program that he’s building here?

When it comes to building a program, defensive instruction, and getting every player on the same page, nobody does it better than Tony Bennett .

Matt Riley

The Bennett Benefit

In 2009, Bennett took over a lagging program with just 10 wins in its 2008-2009 season. In his six years, he’s brought the program to its record level of wins:

2009–10: 15 wins
2010–11: 16
2011–12: 22
2012–13: 23
2013–14: 30
2014–15: 30

In addition, he’s taken the team to championships as well as winning recognition for his coaching.

  • 2× ACC regular season champions (’14, ’15)
  • ACC Tournament champions (’14)
  • Henry Iba Award (’15)
  • 2× ACC Coach of the Year (’14, ’15)
  • USBWA District 3 Coach of the Year (’15)

A couple of key players from last year—Justin Anderson and Darion Atkins—have moved on. What will Virginia need to do to match the level of success it’s had the last couple of seasons?

The sophomore class is going to have to step up. At this point, we know what we’re getting out of Malcolm Brogdon and Anthony Gill. Mike Tobey and Evan Nolte could be more consistent and London Perrantes could be more aggressive offensively at times, but we also pretty much know what we’re getting with those three. The sophomores—Marial Shayok, Isaiah Wilkins, Devon Hall, and Darius Thompson—are wild cards, though. They’re all pretty talented, but how many of them can be counted on night in and night out on both ends of the court? If that answer is zero—which it won’t be—Virginia should still be a top-15 team. But the closer that answer gets to four, the closer Virginia will get to winning a national title.

Matt Riley

Guard Devon Hall, now a redshirt sophomore, in a December 30, 2014, win over Davidson.

Matt Riley

Forward Isaiah Wilkins goes for a block against Duke’s Justise Winslow. As a freshman last season, Wilkins ranked third on the team with 18 blocks.

Matt Riley

Redshirt Sophomore guard Darius Thompson sat out the 2014–15 season after transferring from Tennessee. As a Volunteer during the 2013—14 season, he led the team in steals (36) and was second in assists (87).

Matt Riley

Guard Marial Shayok in a December 18, 2014, win over Cleveland State. Shayok, now a sophomore, was the only Cavalier freshman to appear in all 34 games in the 2014–15 season.