I really liked the movie “Moneyball”. I liked the book even more. I don’t think you have to be a baseball fan or even a sports fan to appreciate the game-changing, innovative strategies deployed by Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane. Similarly, Malcolm Gladwell’s book “David & Goliath” provides a non-sports related peek into the world of winning through innovation and differentiated thinking. The bottom line of these books – if David tries to beat Goliath in a traditional fight, he dies. If the Oakland A’s try to out-spend and out-market the New York Yankees or Los Angeles Dodgers, they get steamrolled every time. I think both of these books and their underlying themes are perfectly applicable to the strategy Tony Bennett has deployed for the UVa Basketball program and is manifest in his recruiting strategy.
UVa basketball cannot, under any circumstances beat Duke, UNC, Kansas, or Kentucky at their games. “Their games” being…by hook or crook, bringing top talent to their programs, playing up-tempo run-and-gun basketball, and getting their guys out of the “college” charade and into the NBA as fast as they can. Many other programs have tried to emulate this strategy. All have failed. NC State, Maryland, and a host of others have tried the Blue-Blood strategy several times under multiple coaches with limited success and a trail of broken promises and broken dreams. If Virginia tried this strategy, it too would fail.
Therefore, Tony Bennett doesn’t play the hook-or-crook game. He plays his own version of Moneyball for college basketball. Coach Bennett builds his program on defense, player development, selfless teamwork, humility, and service. Needless to say, these are not the pillars upon which Duke, UNC, Kansas, and Kentucky have built their highly successful programs. In fact, I would content that the strategies are polar opposites.
While Virginia fans love, with a capital “L” the success that Tony Bennett has brought to the Virginia program, Virginia fans are conditioned to expect the worst. We sense pending doom around every corner. It is part of what makes Virginia fans, well…Virginia fans. I could write a book on how Virginia fans arrived at this state, but any Virginia fan can easily identify a multitude of athletic disasters by one name or one word. This is the UVa version of “Name That Tune”…Mercury Hayes, Orlando Woolrich, Chaminade, Obed Ariri, and now UMBC.
Virginia’s fans love their basketball success over the past 7 years, but we are looking for the catch. What is going to ruin this magnificent run of success? The focus of the fans has been to worry about the level of talent Tony Bennett is bringing to Charlottesville. On the surface, there may be a reason to worry. Recruiting for CTB has run is waves and I think will continue to do so. However, I also think Coach Bennett looks at recruiting much differently than the blue bloods and the blue-blood pretenders. He has to be different to succeed because he will not out-recruit Coach K or Coach Calipari for top-shelf kids.
It is not that Coach Bennett would not like to have top-30 kids in the program, but there are not many top 30 high school players like Shane Battier who are top tier talents that also place tremendous value on getting a real education. If every top recruit were like Malcolm Brogdon, Virginia would have the top class of high school recruits every year. But there are not many Malcolm Brogdon’s in any given class of top 125 recruits. In fact many years there aren’t any. So Tony Bennett expands his search. He looks internationally, he looks for emerging players who have skills and talent but maybe not physical maturity. He looks for projects that he can intersperse with the handful of top 125 players he brings to C’ville over a 4-year span. Tony Bennett uses the redshirt strategy very effectively to develop talent over time and deliver more game-ready first-year players to the program…first-year players who have a full year of practice, conditioning and skill development under their belts. Redshirting recruits trades a player’s least effective season for his best. So far, this strategy has been a winner. Does it have longevity? 5 years averaging 28.6 wins a year is not compelling evidence that Coach Bennett can have the success of a Coach Williams or Coach K, but it’s a good start.
I realize the biggest argument against coach Bennett and his version of Moneyball is that the Moneyball strategy brought a lot of regular season wins to Oakland but never a World Series. This seems to run perfectly parallel to the success Virginia has seen the past 5 years. While it is true Oakland never won it all using Moneyball strategies, Oakland won a lot of games when the reality was it was completely overmatched in the market. Oakland was a threadbare franchise with second-rate facilities in a third-rate market. Conversely, when the Boston Redsox implemented many of the same sabermetric strategies first developed in Oakland, they broke the all-powerful Curse of the Bambino and won the World Series…twice over a 4-year span.
As much as it pains me to say it, the University of Virginia basketball program has much more in common with the Boston Redsox than the Oakland Athletics. UVa has one of the, if not the best venue in the country. It has an enthusiastic and supportive fan base and a tremendous game-day atmosphere. UVa is one of the great universities in the nation, residing in one of the best college towns in the nation. UVa has a wealth of assets to support Coach Bennett’s non-traditional strategy. Threadbare is not an adjective applicable to Virginia basketball.
It took the Redox a few years to win it all after altering their strategies. Tony Bennett is swimming with sharks who are used to winning often and winning their way. It may take him a few more years, but his strategy is sound. It will succeed. And one thing is 100% certain, if UVa tries to beat Duke by being like Duke, they will lose. Virginia is on a different path, and while fatalistic Virginia fans always see a cliff on the horizon, it is my contention that there is a national championship in the not-too-distant future.
Go Moneyball! Go ‘Hoos! Future National Champions!