Hoos seek U-turn II

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As chairman of the NCAA tournament selection committee in 2006, Craig Littlepage endured shrill, incessant and patently ignorant barbs for the panel's inclusion of several teams from so-called "mid-major" conferences.

When news broke Monday that Littlepage, the University of Virginia's athletic director, had chosen Washington State's Tony Bennett to coach the Cavaliers' basketball team, reaction was much the same.

  • David Teel
  • David Teel
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  • Do you approve of the job Virginia AD Craig Littlepage has done in his career?

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  • Do you approve of Virginia's decision to hire Tony Bennett?

    Do you approve of U.Va.'s decision to hire Tony Bennett?

    • Yes
    • No
They hired who? From where? What in the wide, wide world of sports — rent "Blazing Saddles" if that reference baffles — is Littlepage thinking?

Littlepage fervently believes that Bennett will vindicate him as George Mason did.

You remember the 2006 Patriots. Few considered them tournament-worthy, and all they did was author the most improbable Final Four run of modern times, upsetting past champions such as North Carolina, Michigan State and Connecticut.

Littlepage recalled that experience Wednesday as Virginia introduced Bennett to media, donors and athletic department staff.

"I had absolute confidence in what was being done," he said.

So Littlepage thinks Tony Bennett is another George Mason?

"If you want to make that analogy," he said. "I think the guy is a wonderful basketball coach."

Many of Bennett's peers agree. They consider his accomplishments at Washington State — he guided a program reeling from 10 consecutive losing seasons to a pair of NCAA tournaments and an NIT — borderline miraculous.

Given its resources, heritage and location, Virginia doesn't require a miracle.

"Everything is in place here at the University of Virginia," Bennett said. "You can't ask for much more as a head coach. ...

"The best thing you can sell as a new coach is (to) come be a part of a turnaround. The kids at Washington State will be remembered forever and ever."

The Cougars' U-turn from 11-17 in 2006 to 26-8 in Bennett's rookie season earned him national coach-of-the-year honors. His 2008 team made the NCAA's Sweet 16, and his three-year record was 69-33.

"He's proven he's a winner," said U.Va.'s Sylven Landesberg, the ACC's rookie of the year, "and everybody wants to win."

But no leadership change is a sure thing.

Not John Calipari to Kentucky, Mike Tomlin to the Steelers, or Tim Geithner to Treasury.

Why, just four years ago Littlepage sang similar praises of DePaul's Dave Leitao, whom he hired to replace Pete Gillen. Moreover, Leitao came with impeccable references such as Connecticut's Jim Calhoun, his mentor.

"We always feel optimistic, we always feel good when you bring new blood into the program," Littlepage said. "But you're never sure about these things."

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