With the 2019-20 season brought to an unfortunate early close, the Virginia men’s basketball team will have to look ahead to next season to defend its national title.
The Cavaliers — after starting off conference play 4-4 — finished the regular season by winning their last eight games and 11 of their last 12 to finish tied for second in the ACC. They looked poised to make a run in the ACC Tournament and NCAA Tournament before both competitions were canceled.
Virginia relied on stellar defense and clutch plays in close games to produce yet another successful season in 2019-20. The Cavaliers allowed just 52.4 points per game — the best mark in the nation and the second-best ever under Coach Tony Bennett.
Former forward Mamadi Diakite and guard Braxton Key were a huge part of that defense. Diakite was named to the ACC All-Defensive Team and averaged 1.3 blocks per game, while Key led the Cavaliers in rebounding with 7.4 per game. Key also averaged 1.2 steals per game. Diakite and Key were also critical on the offensive end for Virginia. Diakite led the Cavaliers in scoring with 13.7 points per game and Key was third with 9.9 points per game.
With both Diakite and Key gone, Virginia has a significant hole to fill. That said, the Cavaliers have some strong returners, promising incoming talent and a now-eligible transfer player who could single-handedly ignite an offense that was often lethargic last year. Let’s take an early look at the 2020-21 Virginia men’s basketball team.
Projected starting lineup: Kihei Clark, Tomas Woldetensae, Jabri Abdur-Rahim, Sam Hauser, Jay Huff
Virginia’s two starting guard positions should be fairly set in stone. While Bennett shifted starting lineups frequently in non-conference and early conference play this past year, the Cavaliers’ most successful lineup in the final stretch of the season featured both sophomore guard Kihei Clark and junior transfer guard Tomas Woldetensae. The two work well together in the backcourt, with Clark’s ball handling skills and defense and Woldetensae’s shooting. Look for Clark — who made a huge leap offensively this past season — to be a leader on this team. With natural scorers like incoming small forward Jabri Abdur-Rahim and senior forward Sam Hauser, Clark can focus on being the Cavaliers’ facilitator. Freshman guard Casey Morsell could challenge Woldetensae for the second guard spot if his scoring can improve, and he may start in some games regardless due to his stellar defense.
The wing — or small forward spot — is not nearly as clear-cut as the backcourt. Without Key, a glue guy this past season, sophomore guard Kody Stattman could potentially start, as he received consistent minutes this past season and has experience with Bennett’s system. Freshman forward Justin McKoy, who played sparingly this past year, could also contend for a starting spot with his length and hustle, especially if he can improve his mid-range shooting. However, look for Abdur-Rahim to emerge as a starter at this position. His smooth scoring ability, that was on full display in Charlottesville at the NBA Top 100 camp, will be a valuable asset. Notably, Abdur-Rahim will only be able to give the Cavaliers an offensive boost if his defense is up to Bennett’s standards.
Hauser’s spot in the starting lineup is guaranteed, whether it’s at the power forward position or on the wing in case McKoy starts at power forward. His outside shooting, rebounding and general offensive prowess will be tremendous for Virginia. Junior forward Jay Huff should round out the starting lineup. Not only did the 7-foot-1 Durham, N.C. native expand his offensive skill set this past year, his defense was also much-improved. Huff led Virginia with two blocks per game and produced a spectacular performance in a hard-fought victory over Duke, leading the Cavaliers with 15 points, 10 blocks and 9 rebounds. Huff has submitted the paperwork to enter the 2020 NBA Draft process and receive feedback but has not relinquished his NCAA eligibility. He will benefit from the feedback — as Diakite did last year — but is expected to return to Charlottesville for his senior year.
Other key players: Casey Morsell, Kody Stattman, Justin McKoy, Francisco Caffaro, Kadin Shedrick, Reece Beekman
Armed with a deep team, managing the player rotation will not be easy. Bennett typically likes to keep his rotation small, to seven or eight players at most — last year only seven players had eight or more minutes per game. However, next season could be different.
If Morsell doesn’t start, he will be critical off the bench, contributing exceptional defense and athleticism. McKoy and Stattmann also figure to be important role players. Freshman center Francisco Caffaro played well during stretches off the bench last season with his toughness in the paint. While it’s difficult to predict how lanky freshman forward Kadin Shedrick will play, his redshirt year gave him time to bulk up, learn Virginia’s system and work on his skill set, so he could also be an impact player off the bench.
Finally, the Cavaliers have three very promising freshmen coming in. Besides Abdur-Rahim, shifty guard Reece Beekman — the Louisiana Gatorade Player of the Year — could make an immediate impact. Beekman nearly averaged a triple-double in high school and is a strong defender. Guard Carson McCorkle also has the potential to be great, but look for the sharpshooter to redshirt this upcoming year.
Three big questions
What will Sam Hauser bring to this team?
Hauser has the potential to be one of the best players in the country. Standing at 6-foot-8, Hauser has shot over 40 percent from three-point range every year he has played. In his junior year at Marquette, he averaged 14.9 points per game and 7.2 rebounds per game on his way to Second Team All-BIG EAST honors.
Key and Diakite — who both matched up against Hauser in practice often this past year — have both praised the Stevens Point, Wis. native.
“I think [Hauser] has the capability of being an All-American,” Key said. “He can score the ball really well … Some days he just wouldn’t miss.”
Known as “Big Smooth” to some for his silky jump shot, Hauser will give Virginia a much-needed offensive boost. Diakite even predicts he will be ACC Player of the Year. In addition to his offensive skills and “sneaky good” defense, according to Key, Hauser will be one of the leaders of this Virginia team and will look to help Virginia win another national title.
What will be this team’s biggest weaknesses?
Relative to past Bennett teams, defense could be a weakness for Virginia next year. While Virginia’s perimeter defense should be strong, the Cavaliers’ interior defense could be weaker than usual without Key and Diakite. Players like McKoy, Shedrick and Caffaro could provide some depth in that area.
The other area of concern for Virginia could be guard scoring. Most of the great Virginia teams in recent years have had most of the scoring come primarily from guards — players like Malcolm Brogdon, Joe Harris, London Perrantes, Kyle Guy and Ty Jerome. That was not the case for last year’s Virginia team, however. Virginia struggled to score last year, averaging just 57 points per game, with Diakite as the primary scorer and Huff also scoring consistently.
While guard scoring will likely be lower than usual again next season, the offensive talent of incoming players like Hauser and Abdur-Rahim should mean that Virginia will not struggle to score the ball nearly as much. Both Hauser and Abdur-Rahim also like to play on the perimeter, which means they will often work like guards in Bennett’s offense. Even so, increased efficiency from true guards like Clark, Woldetensae and Morsell — who all shot under 40 percent from the field — would take this team to the next level.
Can this team continue Virginia’s reign as national champion?
This team has all the pieces to defend the Cavaliers’ national title. Led by Clark, Hauser and Huff, they have the veteran stars needed to make a run deep in the NCAA Tournament. Virginia also has depth and a plethora of young talent. If the incoming freshmen and relatively untested players like McKoy and Shedrick can make an impact, along with Morsell and Stattmann improving their offense, the Cavaliers will be tough to beat. Ultimately, it will come down to Bennett’s ability to get the most out of this mix of young and experienced players. Two years after leading his team to a redemption title, Bennett is ready to lead his team to a repeat.