Sunday, February 7, 2010

The First Family of Wisconsin

The Bennett family is to basketball in Wisconsin as the Kennedy clan is to politics in Massachusetts.

Brothers Jack and Dick Bennett each taught the game at high schools across Wisconsin before earning success at the college level. Dick Bennett coached Terry Porter at UW-Stevens Point and his son Tony at UW-Green Bay, then found a modicum of national respect at the University of Wisconsin.

Jack Bennett also coached at UW-Stevens Point, and retired after winning back-to-back NCAA Division III national championships — with help from son Nick — in 2004 and ’05. Dick Bennett is still mostly known as a coach’s coach. In the late 1990s, Sports Illustrated polled college coaches on whom they would like to attend a clinic with, and Bennett was among the top choices, along with the likes of Bob Knight and Mike Krzyzewski.

But back in 1991, Bennett’s prowess was still provincial. His reputation began to leak out across Wisconsin’s border when 12th-seeded UW-Green Bay took on fifth-seeded Michigan State in the first round of the NCAA tournament that year.

The Phoenix earned its first-ever NCAA invitation by winning the Mid-Continent Conference tournament. Green Bay’s tallest player was 6 feet, 9 inches, so the Phoenix relied heavily on perimeter shooting.

Green Bay, led by sweet-stroking lefty Tony Bennett, was the nation’s top three-point shooting team at 46%. Still, nobody outside of Wisconsin thought that a team with names like Vander Velden, Rondorf, Ludvigson and Vander Plas could hang with Jud Heathcote’s Spartans at the McKale Center in Tucson, Ariz.

If Green Bay were to have any chance, it would have to slow down Michigan State’s All-American, Steve Smith. The Phoenix’s Ben Johnson, whom Dick Bennett has called the best defender he ever coached, was tasked with the challenge.

Smith made his first four shots, but the Phoenix’s marksmanship kept it in the game. Bennett’s methodical offense was built upon patience and bone-rattling screens that freed shooters. Green Bay sank 8 of 10 three-pointers to take a 35-30 lead at the half.

Tony Bennett nailed 3 three-pointers in the first half, but was plagued by foul trouble after halftime. On the credit side for Green Bay, Johnson’s harassment slowed down Smith, who had missed six straight shots since his hot start.

Dick Bennett’s team seemed poised for a breakout victory when Johnson’s three-pointer with 3:45 remaining gave the Phoenix a 56-52 lead. But Bennett switched to a zone on defense, likely to keep Tony from getting his fifth foul. Smith, freed from Johnson’s constant presence, nailed back-to-back threes to tie the game at 58-58.

The Phoenix went back to man-to-man defense on the Spartans’ next possession, and Smith missed a three-pointer with Johnson draped all over him. Tony Bennett, never getting into the flow of the game, missed a tough leaner against two defenders with 18 seconds left in the game. Bennett, who averaged 21.3 points per game that season, finished the game 3 of 12 from the field for nine points, all on those first-half three-pointers.

Dick Bennett knew Smith would take the last shot. Smith got the ball against Johnson with 8 seconds left on the right wing. Smith took a couple hard dribbles to his left and then stepped back to take a 19-footer. Johnson was right there, but the Michigan State star’s long arms helped him get the shot away. The ball settled into the net as the buzzer sounded, giving the Spartans a 60-58 victory.

There was no upset, but Bennett’s reputation grew by leaps and bounds with Green Bay’s performance. His legend as a miracle worker would be fully burnished in the first round of the 1994 NCAA tournament, when the Phoenix knocked off Jason Kidd and California.

By then, Tony Bennett was in his second season with the Charlotte Hornets. Bennett The Younger lasted 152 games in the NBA before landing on his father’s staff at Wisconsin, where they teamed up to shock the hoops world by leading the scrappy Badgers to the 2000 Final Four.

The Bennetts eventually took their brand of basketball to the West Coast at Washington State. Dick coached three seasons before handing the reins to Tony. Tony Bennett’s fidelity to his father’s basketball vision helped resurrect the Cougars, and now the son has brought “Bennett Ball” to Virginia and the hallowed grounds of the Atlantic Coast Conference. His success shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone familiar with the family’s roots in Wisconsin.

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