BEASEY: Men’s basketball’s early season risers

With Virginia off to a blistering hot start, it’s time we recognize some of the best performers so far

Kihei

Freshman guard Kihei Clark has had a breakthrough season so far.

Andrew Walsh | Cavalier Daily

With the out-of-conference schedule almost completed, the No. 4 Virginia men’s basketball team (8-0, 0-0 ACC) has exceeded preseason expectations thus far. The Cavaliers already have two Top 25 wins against then-No. 25 Wisconsin (7-1, 1-0 Big Ten) and No. 24 Maryland (7-1, 1-0 Big Ten), both of which have continued to climb despite losing to Virginia. Another impressive win came against Dayton (4-3, 0-0 A10), which provided a spirited second half challenge during the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament last month.

Virginia’s record should not be surprising, the team lost only three games during the entirety of last season. However, the increase in offensive efficiency has been notable, as the Cavaliers have increased their average points scored from 67.1 last season to 74.8 this season.

This offensive uptick comes despite the graduation of guard Devon Hall, who was the second-leading scorer last season. This, in my opinion, is due to the development of a few key pieces of Virginia’s mover-blocker offense — three of whom I’ll analyze below as some as the most valuable players of the preseason.   

De’Andre Hunter

The sophomore forward hailing from Philadelphia is one of the most athletically-gifted players ever to play under Coach Tony Bennett, and returned for a second playing year at Virginia instead of declaring for the 2018 NBA Draft. Hunter took a large step in efficiency at the start of ACC play last season and became a vital for the Cavaliers record-breaking regular season campaign.

Hunter missed the postseason with a wrist injury, but seems to have taken another step forward in both his playmaking and shooting ability. He’s always had an outside shot, but has been a genuine threat from beyond the arc this season — shooting at a .444 clip at around two and a half attempts per game.

More impressively, Hunter’s ability to drive and get buckets at will has changed the nature of Virginia’s offense. The 6-foot-7 forward is too quick for most power forwards and too big for most small forwards, which means that he is a matchup nightmare that other team are forced to account for when he’s on the floor. When the shots of junior guards Ty Jerome and Kyle Guy aren’t falling, Hunter has a tendency to take things into his own hands. This makes him an ideal weapon for an offense that still can appear lifeless at times.

Kihei Clark

Freshman point guard Kihei Clark has emerged as one of the most shockingly aggressive players in the country. The 5-foot-9 true freshman was expected to provide meaningful but limited minutes off the bench, but has so far logged nearly 30 minutes per game, more than any player outside of Virginia’s big three of Hunter, Guy and Jerome.

He’s been a revelation for a program that’s lost a step on defense a season after graduating two of it’s best defenders, forward Isaiah Wilkins and Hall. His on-ball defense is incredibly developed for someone his age, and he has the ability to lock down the smaller, quicker guards that have been the bane of the Pack Line in the past.

Offensively, Clark is well on the way to becoming an elite distributor. He can shoot from the outside respectably enough and has can duck and weave amongst the trees to get to the rim, but only averages around 5.4 points per game with moderate efficiency. However, he’s an exceptional floor general and averages around three assists per game, some of which display on court vision well beyond his years.

Ty Jerome

Jerome has emerged as a leader for Virginia and one of the best two way point guards in college basketball. He is averaging over 14 points, 4 assists and nearly 2 steals in only 30 minutes per game. Jerome is shooting threes at .459 clip, which would be the highest percentage of his career by a wide margin should carry through the rest of the season.

Jerome received attention from NBA scouts this summer at the CP3 camp for point guards, where his vision and generalship on court propelled him into conversations about a potential first round departure after this season. Jerome’s turnover percentage is slightly down from last year while his assist percentage is slightly up. He has the ability to run isolation plays in the clutch, but can also has the playmaking ability to pass back out to other open shooters.

Luke Beasey is a Sports Columnist for The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at ldb2cj@virginia.edu or followed on Twitter @luke_beasey.

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