Teel Time: Virginia coach Tony Bennett wasn't quite the scorer Georgia Tech's Brian Gregory recalls

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First-year Georgia Tech coach Brian Gregory knows quite well what awaits his Yellow Jackets when they host Tony Bennett’s Virginia Cavaliers on Thursday.

Just not as well as Gregory’s faulty memory portrayed during Monday’s ACC coaches’ gabfest.

Gregory is a former Michigan State assistant under Tom Izzo, Bennett a former Wisconsin assistant under Dick Bennett, his father, and in 2000 these Big Ten rivals met four times, the capstone coming in a Final Four semifinal in Indianapolis.

En route to Izzo’s first national title, the Spartans swept the Badgers: 61-44 and 59-54 in the regular season, 55-46 in the Big Ten tournament, and 51-43 at the Final Four in an eyesore of a game.

But that’s Bennett Ball, and during Wisconsin’s tournament run, it harassed the nation’s leading scorer into a 5-for-19 shooting night. Virginia fans will recognize the name: Courtney Alexander, who had transferred from U.Va., to Fresno State.

Tony Bennett has brought the same deliberate offense and thorny defense to Virginia, where his team is 14-2, 1-1 in the ACC, and ranked No. 15 by the Associated Press.

“I said in the beginning of the year I thought Virginia was a team that maybe was a little undervalued going into the season,” Gregory said Monday. “My experience with Tony and that style of play with his father and so forth goes back to obviously our days in the Big Ten.

“But even in 1990, my first year as a graduate assistant at Michigan State, we played Wisconsin-Green Bay in the first round of the NCAA tournament, and I think Tony had about 40 that night.”

Bennett, indeed, played for Wisconsin-Green Bay, where his dad coached. But the game Gregory referenced was in 1991, and Bennett wasn’t nearly such a force.

Led by future NBA all-star Steve Smith, the Spartans prevailed 60-58. Bennett scored nine points on 3-of-12 shooting. He did, however, have a game-high 10 assists.

“You have to play every possession and every pass,” Gregory said of defending Virginia. “You cannot relax at all, and if you do they take advantage of it with multiple players. But obviously (Mike) Scott has done an unbelievable job.

“You see the improvement that he’s made, and now you have to make him take tough shots all the time, because if you don’t, if you give him anything easy, it’s definitely in. And he’s become good enough now, like so many guys in this league, that even when you play great defense he can still score on you.”

A fifth-year power forward, Scott ranks fourth in the ACC in scoring (16.9), sixth in rebounding (8.9) and first in shooting percentage (58.8).

Led by Glen Rice Jr., Georgia Tech (8-9, 1-2) is playing better in the ACC than during a non-conference schedule that included losses to Tulane, Mercer and Fordham.

“We are making some strides,” Gregory said. “We just need to tighten up a few things in order to put us in a better position to win some of the tough games in this league. …

“I think our guys just kind of realized if we do what we’re supposed to do and stick to the core objectives that we talk about, and that’s playing really good team defense, kind of rebounding by committee with everybody on the glass, we’re going to put ourselves in position where as we steadily get better offensively, or on the nights we shoot the ball well, like (in a win at) North Carolina State, then we have a chance to do some good things this year.

“We talk about the future … but at the same time you want to make sure you’re not looking past the present right now. ... There’s no doubt this is a much better team than it was, especially at the start of the season.”

With Georgia Tech’s Alexander Memorial Coliseum under reconstruction, Thursday’s 8 p.m., game will be played at Philips Arena, home of the NBA’s Atlanta Hawks and site of this year’s ACC tournament.

Virginia has been idle since Thursday’s 61-58 loss at Duke in which senior guard Sammy Zeglinski was 0-for-8 from the field.

“I think you definitely say something to him,” Bennett said. “He's a significant reason why we've gotten off to a strong start. He's helped us in a lot of games. … We just said all is well, and let's get back to it. You find ways. Make some mental notes and find ways to be ready and more prepared for the next game and see where we're at but not to dwell on it.

“There is some wisdom in just moving on. Glean from it what you need, but move on as a player and be ready to play in the next practice.”

I can be reached at 247-4636 or by e-mail at dteel@dailypress.com. Follow me at twitter.com/DavidTeelatDP

Here’s a link to all my Daily Press print columns.

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