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CANTWELL: Women’s basketball will look very different next season

Cavaliers bring in five recruits, plus others return from ineligibility and injury

The return of junior center Felicia Aiyeotan from injury will allow coach Tina Thompson much more flexibility to play smaller lineups.
The return of junior center Felicia Aiyeotan from injury will allow coach Tina Thompson much more flexibility to play smaller lineups.

The Virginia women’s basketball team struggled with depth this past season, their first under Coach Tina Thompson, finishing the ACC Tournament with only seven players healthy and eligible to play. However, the Cavaliers will look very different in the 2019-2020 season with a much deeper roster that will be more capable of leading the team back to the NCAA Tournament. 

Virginia has five incoming freshmen in their 2019 recruiting class, plus two players returning from serious injuries and a transfer, sophomore forward Dani Lawson, who will be eligible to play after sitting out a season. The Cavaliers, however, will have to replace two outgoing transfers, guards Brianna Tinsley and Erica Martinsen, and senior forward Moné Jones, who is graduating in May. 

Tinsley, who is transferring to James Madison, started 27 games for Virginia this past season, averaging 7.6 points per game, while Martinsen, who is transferring to San Diego, came off the bench to average 4.7 points per game

Since the Cavaliers now have some holes in the backcourt, their recruiting class is guard-heavy. Virginia’s top recruit is four-star guard Carole Miller, who is the 21st-ranked guard in her class according to ESPN and 82nd-ranked prospect overall. 

Miller is joined in the Class of 2019 by guards Kylie Kornegay-Lucas, Yanni Hendley and Dylan Horton, as well as three-star forward Meg Jefferson

In addition to the recruits, redshirt freshman guard Amandine Toi will likely finally make her Virginia debut in her third year in Charlottesville after two successive seasons with season-ending knee injuries before the season even began.

Virginia now has a bit of a logjam at the guard positions, and many of the incoming freshmen will have a hard time getting minutes.

Jefferson, a 6-foot-1 forward from Australia, is particularly critical because of how thin the Cavaliers were in the frontcourt this season. With junior center Felicia Aiyeotan out injured much of the year, Virginia was left with only junior forwards Lisa Jablonowski and Shakyna Payne and Jones to fill two spots.

However, the return of Aiyeotan should mitigate this problem quite a bit. Aiyeotan, who is tied for the tallest player in Division I women’s basketball at 6-foot-9, grabbed 6.9 rebounds per game and blocked 2.09 shots per game shots in her last fully healthy season in 2017-2018. The amount of work she does on defense gives Thompson some flexibility in deploying smaller lineups with Aiyeotan as the only big.

In addition, Lawson, who transferred from Purdue and was not granted a hardship waiver to play immediately, should make an impact for the Cavaliers right away. At Purdue, Lawson appeared in only five games her freshman year before having knee surgery but was the 22nd-ranked player at her position in the Class of 2017 by ESPN.

Virginia’s leading rebounder this past season was junior guard and forward Jocelyn Willoughby, who averaged 8.2 per game. Last year, Willoughby played primarily as a wing with two of Jablonowski, Jones and Payne on the floor with her, but during the ACC Tournament, Thompson experimented with playing three guards and Willoughby at power forward. 

The Cavaliers sometimes struggled with putting points on the board last season, but they looked a lot faster with these smaller lineups, which offered Virginia more scoring options. Expect to see more of them in 2019-2020 and with them a more exciting Cavalier team.

The Cavaliers were depleted in 2018-2019 and simply unable to compete in the ACC, but with so much more talent on the floor next season, Virginia has what it takes to make it back to the NCAA Tournament.