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Basketball midseason roundtable — the most pressing questions

A look at both women’s and men’s teams as they move into conference play

<p>Freshman guard Casey Morsell's ability to get to the rim could boost Virginia's offense in 2020.</p>

Freshman guard Casey Morsell's ability to get to the rim could boost Virginia's offense in 2020.

Both the Virginia women’s basketball team and the Virginia men’s basketball team have had mixed starts to the season.

The women’s team, hoping to return to the NCAA Tournament after a disappointing season last year, had a tough start. Despite solid moments in games against high-level competition in non-conference play, the Virginia women started off the season inconsistent. The Cavaliers were winless in conference play but have recently won consecutive conference games against Duke and Boston College. They are surging at the right time.

After getting off to an undefeated 7-0 start, the men’s team has suffered double-digit losses to unranked Purdue and South Carolina and recently fell to an undermanned Boston College team and Syracuse at home. With some outstanding, complete performances like that over Virginia Tech juxtaposed with unexpected defeats, the men’s team has also been inconsistent.

The CD sports staff is here to answer the most pressing questions facing both teams at the midseason mark.

Who has been the MVP for the women’s and men’s teams so far?

Luke Stievater, Sports Columnist: For the men’s team, it is senior forward Mamadi Diakite. Diakite leads the Cavaliers in scoring, averaging 12.9 points per game. However, what makes him the MVP thus far is the energy he brings to the court, especially on the defensive side, where he averages 1.1 blocks per game. He is the heart and soul of this squad that relies on defensive intensity to win basketball games.

Alex Maniatis, Associate Writer: From the beginning of the season, senior guard Jocelyn Willoughby has established herself as the primary scoring option for this Cavalier team. Willoughby is currently averaging 19.8 points per game, which leads the ACC and places her No. 22 in the NCAA. Willoughby leads the team in almost every category — minutes, field goals made, three pointers made, free throws attempted and made, scoring and total rebounds. She is an irreplaceable asset with her presence felt in every aspect of Virginia’s gameplan.

Chad Whych, Associate Writer: Senior guard Braxton Key is the MVP for the men’s team so far this season. A multi-dimensional player, Key is a guard yet leads the team with 7.7 rebounds per game. He is also second in scoring with an average of 10.5 points per game. Key’s ability to score, play stellar defense and provide intangibles — especially work ethic and veteran leadership — is what makes him an easy choice for team MVP. His absence was felt in Virginia’s whopping loss to Purdue earlier this season, and Virginia needs him at full strength to make a run this year.

How can the women’s basketball team get back to the NCAA Tournament?

AM: Unfortunately, Virginia has been given the toughest schedule in the NCAA — the toughest in all of women’s college basketball. Having played five top 25 teams thus far, the Cavaliers have struggled to find any sort of consistent play. The team is currently 7-9 and 2-3 in conference play. To make a tournament run this season, Virginia would need a complete turnaround and another scorer to complement Willoughby. The team is young, with five true freshmen, one redshirt freshman and one sophomore. The three seniors — Willoughby, forward Lisa Jablonowski and guard Dominique Toussaint — are carrying the load. Coach Tina Thompson is also only in her second year at Virginia. With young, bright talent in players like freshman guard Kylie Kornegay-Lucas, the Cavaliers will make significant progress over the coming years, but are unlikely to see the results this season.

Zach Zamoff, Sports Columnist: Similarly to the men’s team, the women’s team will need to ride consistent defensive intensity to get back to the NCAA Tournament. The Cavaliers’ ability to create havoc on defense allowed them to pick up their first conference win against Duke and stay in games against talented teams in non-conference play. Consistent defensive intensity is the first step. Combine that with more spread out offensive production — especially more interior scoring to complement production from Willoughby, Touissant and other guards — and Virginia should have a shot at the postseason. Limited interior defense, however, has been and will continue to be a liability for the Cavaliers.

Is there a fix for the men’s basketball team’s offensive woes?

LS: Based on the eye test and the fact that this offense has yet to score 70 points or more this season, the realistic answer to this question could very well be no. It was expected that the offense would take a big step back after losing current pro players Kyle Guy, De’Andre Hunter and Ty Jerome, but the performance so far has been worse than expected. The team currently averages 55.7 points per game — No. 348 in the country. With Diakite and Key currently shouldering the load, guards like freshman Casey Morsell, sophomore Kody Stattmann and junior Tomas Woldetensae need to step up soon.

ZZ: There’s no easy fix. The staple for this team has to be excellent defense without the same excellent guard scorers that Virginia’s offensive scheme tends to rely on. That said, Virginia still has a talented roster with plenty of capable scorers, both guards and forwards. What’s important is a balanced attack with multiple creators and more off-ball movement. This team cannot become dependent on sophomore guard Kihei Clark creating all offense like the 2016-17 Cavaliers became dependent on London Perrantes. Clark is a great facilitator, but Morsell, Stattman and Woldetensae can also create offense from the perimeter, and they should all be more assertive in getting to the rim. Their penetration can create space for Key, Diakite and junior forward Jay Huff inside. When the mover-blocker isn’t generating consistent offense and Virginia opts for more of a five-out look, off-ball movement still needs to happen. The Cavaliers can’t afford to get stagnant and rely on three-point shooting like they did at times last year and in the past.

Who do you expect to step up for the men’s basketball team in the second half of the season?

CW: Huff has both the experience and the tools needed to boost the struggling Cavaliers back to the top. Throughout his career, despite limited playing time, Huff has been a household name for Virginia basketball fans. His talent is easy to see. Now it’s time for Huff to utilize his wide skill set and provide the interior scoring that can aid Virginia’s current dependence on guard scoring — which has been lacking. Provided he can stay out of foul trouble and remain in games, Huff can be a difference maker for the Cavaliers in the second half of the season.

ZZ: I expect to see more from Diakite. After exploring the NBA Draft, he returned for his final year of eligibility to show why he’s a pro player and lead Virginia. So far, Diakite has had brilliant moments and games but has yet to play to his potential. Part of that is staying out of foul trouble, so he can develop some rhythm early in games, and part of it is picking the right moments to attack. But he has a smooth release and the ability to get to the rim and finish through contact. He is already attracting double teams and displaying improved court awareness and passing ability. Diakite is a gamer, and he will step up in 2020.

At this point, what do you view as a successful season for the women’s and men’s basketball teams?

LS: The ultimate goal for most college programs is to make the NCAA Tournament. This task, however, will be difficult for a young Virginia women’s team. In a tough ACC conference, a successful season for the women would be remaining competitive, developing the future of the program and making a run deep in the ACC Tournament. For the men’s team, despite losing key pieces, simply making the tournament will not suffice for success. So far, this season has an eerily similar feeling to the 2016-17 season. That team was coming off an Elite Eight appearance and lost stars like Malcolm Brogdon and Anthony Gill, which led to a tough second round NCAA Tournament exit. Improving from that finish and making it to the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament would therefore be a success for the men’s team.

AM: In such a tough conference, the remainder of the women’s season will be filled with ups and downs. I believe a positive finish for Virginia will constitute finishing the season .500 or better and continuing to play teams competitively. This is a tall task given that Virginia will be the underdog in the majority of its remaining matchups. However, the recurring issue for the Cavaliers has been their streaky play. They can match or outscore their opponent in three quarters but lose an entire quarter by 15 points. Thompson is aware of the team’s streaky play, and I think with more consistent play and significant offensive improvement this defensive-oriented team can make a real run with the coach and current roster. The Cavaliers, currently averaging over 18 turnovers per game, will also need to limit mistakes. If Virginia can rise to the occasion, the season can be saved.

CW: For this year’s men’s basketball team, making it into the Sweet 16 round of the tournament would be a success. The Cavaliers need to meet this mark to maintain their status as a national powerhouse program. The women, on the other hand, must qualify for the NCAA Tournament. Willoughby and Touissant definitely deserve a return to the postseason for all the work they have put into the program. It’s time for the other players to step up.

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