CD Sports Roundtable — Basketball season preview

Answering the hottest questions about men’s and women’s basketball as their seasons start next week

deandre-hunter

Sophomore guard De'Andre Hunter’s led Virginia to multiple wins in clutch time last season.

Richard Dizon | Cavalier Daily

The CD sports staff takes a look at the prospects for Virginia men’s and women’s basketball with both seasons starting next week.

What does women’s basketball need to do to return to the NCAA Tournament under new Coach Tina Thompson?

Jake Blank, Editor: Last year’s team was a surprise NCAA Tournament team after a hot stretch in ACC play. Although this year’s team returns much of its talent, it may take new Coach Tina Thompson some time before she shapes the team in her image. A second-straight NCAA Tournament appearance would be an impressive feat in her first season, even if the returning talent has shown themselves plenty capable of doing so.

Zach Zamoff, Senior Associate Editor: Virginia women’s basketball should have a good chance at returning to the NCAA Tournament if new scorers emerge, especially in the post. Last year, the Cavaliers’ three leading scorers were guards. Junior guards Jocelyn Willoughby and Dominique Toussaint are poised to lead the charge, but Virginia will need to replace the scoring of former Virginia guard Aliyah Huland El in order to return to March Madness. Junior center Felicia Aiyeotan is already a presence on the defensive end, but if she can improve her postgame — under the tutelage of legendary post player Thompson — the Cavaliers will have what it takes.

Alec Dougherty, Editor: For Thompson’s team to contend with the many elite teams in the ACC, she will have to improve offensive discipline. The Cavaliers ranked 230th nationally in turnovers last year, severely limiting the team’s scoring potential. Toussaint — the team’s leading scorer last year — committed 101 turnovers herself, so Thompson will have to build her offense around limiting her scorer’s mistakes.

Lucas Beasey, Columnist: With the new coaching staff comes a new offensive system for which the Cavaliers need to adapt. Thompson advocates an aggressive style of play, which is antithetical to the gritty, defense-oriented teams of previous administrations. The extent to which Virginia’s starters can buy into this new system will largely determine just how far they can go this season.

Which underclassman men’s basketball player stands to have the biggest impact this season?

JB: Freshman guard Kihei Clark, despite his smaller stature at 5-foot-9, will have to fill a very large role. With guards Devon Hall and Nigel Johnson recently graduating, someone will have to takeover as secondary ball handler when either junior guards Ty Jerome or Kyle Guy sit. Clark has the shot, quickness and on-court intelligence to be a valuable contributor. The key will be whether Clark can play defense in Bennett’s switching heavy defensive scheme, as the guard may be asked to guard wings almost a foot taller than him. 

ZZ: 6-foot-7 sophomore guard De’Andre Hunter can do it all, and he will be the most dynamic player to wear a Cavalier uniform in a long time. Last year, Hunter’s athleticism, defensive versatility and ability to create his own offense single handedly gifted Virginia multiple wins in clutch time. The pressure will be on Hunter to deliver this year, and college basketball — and NBA scouts — are on watch.

AD: He will have to earn playing time, but redshirt freshman forward Francesco Badocchi has great potential as a two-way inside player. Coaches have compared him to former defensive stalwart Isaiah Wilkins with even more athleticism as a rangy inside scorer. His redshirt season gave Bennett a year to build out his strength and defensive game, so he could be the next big project player that Bennett has a shown knack for developing.

LB: Freshman guard Clark appears to have taken a huge jump this offseason to be a viable second option at point guard behind Jerome. He’s undersized at his position, but has a toughness and the on-court intelligence to be a solid distributor on offense. 

Who is the most important player for women’s basketball this year?

JB: Toussaint was the team’s leading scorer last year as a sophomore, after an freshman all-ACC campaign the year prior. There’s no reason to expect this growth can’t continue in her junior year, as Toussaint is poised to take the jump from being not only one of the most important players on the team, but in the conference.

ZZ: A team leader and a Lawn resident, junior guard Jocelyn Willoughby will be critical for women’s basketball. She does it all in the floor with relentless effort, and her consistent shooting stroke propels Virginia to victories. Willoughby was third on the team in scoring last year, and second on the team in rebounds, showing her tenacity. This year, more off-ball screens for Willoughby will activate her potential on offense.

AD: Junior center Aiyeotan has too much upside to overlook as a 6-foot-9 inside presence. While she has developed into a shot-blocking enforcer on defense, Aiyeotan has struggled with free-throw shooting and general offensive exposure, even as a mismatch in the low post. If Thompson can get her more touches and improve her efficiency early on, the Nigeria native can completely open up the Cavalier offense.

LB: Freshman guard Amandine Toi is poised to have a breakout year with the Cavaliers. Her athleticism and ability to score points in transition fit perfectly into Thompson’s high tempo offensive scheme. Although she was forced to sit out last season with a torn ACL, Toi looked fully recovered in the Blue-White scrimmage earlier this month and is poised to make Virginia’s backcourt one of the most threatening in the ACC. 

What’s your boldest prediction for men’s basketball?

JB: I predict Virginia loses one of their rising post players in junior forward Mamadi Diakite or sophomore forward Jay Huff to the draft this spring. While many have discussed Hunter’s NBA chances, and Jerome has been listed in mock drafts, few discuss the NBA prospects of these two gifted big men. If Huff can play ACC caliber defense alongside his impressive offensive array at 7-foot-1, or if Diakite’s improved shot and handle show out, professional teams will come calling sooner rather than later.

ZZ: Jerome will be the 2019 Bob Cousy Point Guard of the Year. Jerome is a cool customer, and he is the most complete point guard in college basketball. Despite gaps in athleticism, Jerome’s unprecedented shooting ability, court vision and leadership make him great. He made a huge jump in his game last year, and tireless work this summer puts him in good position to make another leap this year. Virginia will go as far as Jerome takes it.

AD: Senior center Jack Salt will be an offensive weapon. He won’t put up big numbers in Bennett’s system, but Salt showed flashes of offensive efficiency in big spots last year, and seemed to be developing a hook shot and more post moves. The addition of junior transfer forward Braxton Key may help open up looks for Salt on the post, since Key thrived when driving and dishing down low at Alabama. Look for Salt and Diakite to have more space in the trenches. 

LB: Key will be floated as a potential second round pick in the 2019 NBA Draft after a breakout first year with the Cavaliers. Key brings the exact skill sets that Bennett needs, and he will probably be Virginia’s most efficient scorer in transition. So long as his defensive development continues, he could be a great fit for the “post-up” type role that Virginia has left empty since the graduation of forward Anthony Gill after the 2015-2016 season.

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