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Virginia Cavaliers

Tony Bennett wants the Final Four that slipped away last season

Jan 26, 2016: Virginia Cavaliers head coach Tony Bennett reacts to a call during the regular season ACC matchup at Lawrence-Joel Coliseum in Winston-Salem, NC. Wake loses in the final second 72-71 to Virginia.
(Jim Dedmon/Icon Sportswire)

Last March, Tony Bennett was oh so close to coming off “the list.”

But after Syracuse mounted a 16-point comeback to beat his Virginia team in the Elite Eight, Bennett’s name remains on the list of best college basketball coaches without a Final Four appearance.

The short version among current head coaches includes Bennett, Arizona’s Sean Miller and Gonzaga’s Mark Few. Amongst all-timers, Purdue’s Gene Keady, Temple’s John Chaney and Missouri’s Norm Stewart had hall of fame level careers, but never coached on the last weekend of the season.

It’s a list that, while in many ways can be considered an honor, Bennett desperately wants to exit. In front of reporters at the ACC’s media day last week in Charlotte, N.C., Bennett opened up about how much getting to a Final Four would mean to him.

While many coaches have publicly argued too much emphasis is placed on the NCAA Tournament and reaching the semifinal round, Bennett admitted it was the allure of the event that led him to pursue a career in coaching to begin with.

Bennett originally joined his father, Dick Bennett, as a volunteer assistant Wisconsin in 1999. It was supposed to be a temporary gig as Tony figured out what to do next following the end of his professional playing career.

Then the Badgers made a run to the Final Four in 2000, securing Dick Bennett’s coaching legacy and selling his son on the idea of making a life as a college coach.

“I wasn’t even going to coach,” the younger Bennett told the media day crowd. “I said, ‘My dad is going to retire so I’ll just go join him as a volunteer. Well, that’s the year he he had that run to the Final Four and, of course, I said ‘this is easy.”

Tony Bennett found coaching to his liking and he was able to turn around downtrodden programs at Washington State and Virginia. He took the Cougars to the Sweet 16, a monumental feat in its own right, before getting the Cavaliers to the brink of the Final Four last year.

But he’s found out actually advancing that far is anything but easy. After all, Mike Krzyzewski was a head coach for 11 years before getting that far. And who can forget Bill Self collapsing in relief after Kansas held off Steph Curry and Davidson in 2008 to secure Self’s first Final Four.

Each of them eventually added national titles to their resumes, and it’s not crazy to think Bennett, who has won at least 29 games each of the past three seasons, might be on a similar trajectory.

But Bennett knows it’s far from lock. His father had a legendary career and only made it once. Yet he admitted he thinks about joining Georgetown’s John Thompson and John Thompson III among father-son duos to make it to the Final Four.

Could 2017 be the year? The Cavaliers lost stars Malcolm Brogdon and Anthony Gill, are picked to finish third in the ACC. But with London Perrantes back and Memphis transfer Austin Nichols ready to play, Virginia is also a Top-10 team nationally.

Time will tell if they can help their coach take the next step in the NCAA Tournament.

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