As the 2019-20 season tips off Tuesday against Bucknell, Virginia women’s basketball enters one of the most uncertain seasons in program history.
After a disappointing 2018-19 campaign, the team has added fresh faces to the roster and another year of experience under Coach Tina Thompson. However, the biggest question remains — how will the new-look roster and the loss of a major leader within the program affect the 2019-20 Cavaliers?
What happened last year
Virginia went 12-19 overall — and 5-11 in the ACC — last season, marking the first time since the 2013-14 season that the Cavaliers had a losing record. They ultimately finished 12th in the conference standings.
After splitting its first four games, Virginia lost three straight and five out of the next nine games before entering ACC competition. In the postseason, the Cavaliers beat Boston College but were eliminated by Syracuse in the following round, ending their season.
Defense was Virginia’s biggest weakness, as the Cavaliers couldn’t defend at a high enough level to keep up with a difficult conference. For the season, Virginia allowed opponents to shoot 41.4 percent from the field and 33.8 percent from three, while only shooting 35.9 percent and 28.8 percent themselves, respectively.
Senior guard Jocelyn Willoughby led the team in scoring and rebounding, averaging 14.8 points per game and 8.2 rebounds per game. Senior guard Dominique Toussaint was Virginia’s best playmaker, leading the Cavaliers with 3.4 assists per game last season.
Earlier this fall, senior center Felicia Aiyeotan announced her retirement from collegiate basketball due to Marfan syndrome. Given her contributions both on and off the court, the impact of losing Aiyeotan cannot be understated.
The 6-foot-9 star from Nigeria was one of four seniors on a team that featured an uncharacteristically young class. She was also the Cavaliers’ leading shot blocker and one of the team’s most efficient players on offense. In limited minutes off the bench, Aiyeotan averaged 6.9 rebounds per game and shot 55.2 percent from the field during the 2018-19 season.
While depth became a debilitating issue for Virginia last season, this year’s roster is noticeably different.
Six new players join the team this season, including five freshmen and a transfer — sophomore guard Dani Lawson will not play this season in accordance with NCAA transfer rules. However, the incoming freshmen look to make an immediate impact.
The freshman class features guards Kylie Kornegay-Lucas, Shemera Williams, Dylan Horton and Carole Miller. Forward Meg Jefferson is the sole frontcourt player of the new Cavaliers. Another addition to Virginia this season is the return of redshirt freshman guard Amandine Toi, who has not played the last two seasons due to injury.
Virginia is clearly guard-heavy in an effort to facilitate more ball movement and less isolation play this season, but the lack of frontcourt depth is a potential issue to watch.
Without Aiyeotan, Willoughby will have to step up and play an even bigger role for the Cavaliers this season. She is clearly capable, as she was named to the Preseason All-ACC team and to the Ann Meyers Drysdale Award Watch List.
Storylines to watch
Multiple storylines headline the 2019-20 season for Virginia, ranging from program culture and leadership down to roster fit.
Thompson enters her second year leading Virginia as head coach. With the loss of a key senior and the addition of a fresh recruiting class, can she right the ship and bring Virginia back into the NCAA tournament picture?
Virginia will also have to find ways to stop its opponents’ offense without Aiyeotan and limited talent in the frontcourt. Can Virginia fix its defensive woes with its guard-heavy roster?
Lastly, who will step up with Willoughby to lead the Cavaliers all season? As talented as the New Jersey native is, Virginia will need other plays to have an impact as well.
There are many questions for Virginia women’s basketball, but one thing is certain — this will be a pivotal season for Virginia, for better or for worse.