Ben Vander Plas follows his family’s traditions. He’s a devout Christian and has played basketball since he could walk. This year he’s playing in the NCAA Tournament.
March Madness runs in his family. His father, Dean, made a run in the tournament in 1991 while playing for Wisconsin-Green Bay. The redshirt junior remembers his dad’s stories about the tournament and how exhilarating playing for a national audience was.
The father and son now share a common memory — going to the Big Dance. Dean did what he could to support his son after the regular season wrapped up. While Ben and the Bobcats were blazing through the MAC Tournament, Dean sent him Bible verses via text messages and the two prayed together over the phone before games. Afterward, the pair would run through Ben’s performance.
“We're a pretty religious family,” Ben said. “He definitely does a good job of giving me confidence and allowing me to go out there and just play free. He has a great basketball mind and a lot of people might not see some of the things that go on out there but he sees it all. He does a great job of letting me know what I'm doing well and what I need to do better.”
Dean’s memories of Green Bay live vicariously through Ben — or according to his birth certificate, Bennett. The elder Vander Plas named his youngest son in honor of his college coach, Dick Bennett, and Bennett’s son Tony.
Yes. Virginia coach Tony Bennett.
The two families kept tabs on each other since Dean and Bennett’s college careers ended. After Bennett became Virginia’s head coach in 2009, Dean and Ben tuned into Cavaliers games sporadically throughout the years.
Bennett kept tabs on the younger Vander Plas as he went through high school and eventually his time at Ohio. Bennett sees a lot of Dean in Ben’s playstyle. Both have an analytical mind for the court. In Bennett's eyes, Ben has filled the shoes of his old man well.
“His dad was so physical and had just the skill and the craftiness and know-how,” Bennett said. “And, you know, Dean’ll get mad at me but from what I’ve seen Ben might be better. I don't know, but Dean was a heck of a player and a heck of a teammate.”
30 years after Dean and Tony entered the 1991 NCAA Tournament as the 12th seed, Bennett will coach against his namesake and the 13-seed Bobcats. Saturday will be the first time a Vander Plas and Bennett will be in the NCAA Tournament playing against each other instead of together.
The 51-year old Virginia coach has never felt time fly by faster than preparing to face Ben and the Bobcats on Saturday.
“(That) makes me feel old,” Bennett said. “Ben came to a camp here in Virginia, I think he was in ninth grade. And I'm so happy for his success. Again, very strange when you look at it that way. Just means I've been coaching a while.”
There’s no enmity, but once Saturday arrives, personal feelings are set aside. The NCAA Tournament is on the line, after all. Bennett and the Cavaliers are the defending champions since the 2020 tournament was canceled due to the coronavirus. Vander Plas in the meantime wants to push Ohio as far along in the tournament as feasibly possible.
Bennett was ranked the best defensive coach by ESPN in 2018, and his defense can choke the life out of its opponents. Ohio is an offense-first team, and Vander Plas embodies that. The redshirt junior averages 12.8 points per game and is shooting 43 percent from the field.
Two contrasting playstyles come to head on Saturday, and Ohio has a strong chance of pulling the upset. For now, both Vander Plas and Bennett are focused on the game. Family friendships can wait until the buzzer.
“I think about all those connections and all the different parts of it, but I'm sure as soon as soon as we get on the court as soon as the ball is tipped this is gonna be another basketball game,” Vander Plas said. “Once we get out there, all of that stuff goes out the window.”