While Virginia fans mourn the loss of what could have been another remarkable March Madness run, junior forward Jay Huff is already preparing for his final season as a Cavalier. The 7-foot-1 forward stepped firmly into his role this year — starting 18 games and averaging career-highs in points, rebounds and blocks. Now, as many are looking for activities to fill empty schedules, Huff is gearing up for his senior season.
On both ends of the court, the Durham, N.C. native turned into a major threat with his length and shooting ability. For example, in a remarkable stretch against Miami, he scored Virginia’s first 17 points of the game to match a career-high. Then, in the final game of the season against No. 10 Louisville, Huff hit double digits again with 11 points and two blocks.
Boston College Coach Jim Christian was impressed by Huff in February, when the junior scored eight of Virginia’s first 10 points of the game and recorded a career-high three three-pointers.
“When Huff’s hitting threes, that’s a different weapon for him,” Christian said.
As Virginia started to heat up late in the season, riding a substantial winning streak and continuing to lead the league in defense, Huff reflected on what could have been an amazing postseason run.
“Everyone could tell that we were kind of hitting our stride,” Huff said. “We finished out the season 8-0 and a lot of those games were close but were games that [we might have lost] earlier in the season.”
Transitioning to life without basketball, especially after hitting a hot streak late in the season, has been an adjustment for Huff. Nevertheless, he has started to acclimate to a new schedule — often traveling between Charlottesville and his hometown of Durham, N.C. While his daily routine looks much different than it did a month ago, Huff makes time between classes to continue to develop his game.
“I’m just trying to stay limber and work on my core a little bit — just doing a little bit extra with all the free time I have,” Huff said.
Looking forward to the season ahead, Huff said he’s been working on increasing his free throw percentage and developing his moves in the post.
“I want to be more consistent shooting as well,” Huff said. “I felt like toward the end of the year I got pretty good at the three-point line. I’ve been working on ball handling because ball handling is something you can do in quarantine whether you have a hoop or not.”
On the defensive end this year, Huff had more of an impact than in previous seasons. The forward ranked fourth in the ACC in blocks and recorded 10 blocks in Virginia’s win against Duke — the most since Ralph Sampson blocked 10 shots in 1979.
“Jay does a great job of blocking shots, so when you have a force behind you like that you can kind of get into the ball a little bit and pressure a little bit,” sophomore guard Kihei Clark said after the win against Duke. “So he brings a big presence on the defensive end.”
Reflecting on his growing defensive presence, Huff said things started to click late in the season.
“I think I was getting to the point where I didn’t have to think about [playing defense] as much,” Huff said. “I would get to points in games where I was on the floor for long periods of time and I would kind of go into autopilot.”
After Virginia’s win against Clemson in February, Coach Brad Brownell commented on Huff’s length and ability to block shots.
“Jay Huff is huge and he is mobile,” Brownell said. “He [either] blocks it or he catches up and you [can] pivot to try and make a play but you have to be an outstanding player to do it. He bothered us on numerous occasions where we got the ball into a good position and we didn’t come away with the points.”
Having stepped up defensively this season and improved his range offensively, Huff will likely continue to see more minutes as he enters his final season, but the junior says his future in basketball isn’t set in stone. When asked about the NBA draft, Huff acknowledged that he’s open to testing the waters.
“[But] a lot of that depends on if there’s waters to test,” Huff said. “I did submit the UAC form — just to hear feedback. Ideally it would be really cool to test the waters but it kind of just depends on what happens and if there’s workouts to be had.”
While the draft is scheduled to take place in late June, the pandemic could impact when and if it will take place this summer. But similar to what senior forward Mamadi Diakite did last season, Huff seems interested in gaining experience with the draft process and will likely return to Virginia for his final season.
With the loss of Diakite and senior guard Braxton Key next year, the Cavaliers will look to Huff for length in the post and on defense. Senior forward Sam Hauser — who transferred from Marquette this season — will also be eligible and likely bring some talent to Virginia’s struggling offense.
“I don’t think it would be putting too much pressure on [Hauser] to say that he’s gonna do really well,” Huff said. “He hardly ever misses [shots] in practice — it’s really annoying.”
Huff added that he thinks they compliment each other on the court, spacing the floor well and opening up shots.
“If I ever get it in the post and get doubled, he’s a great guy to be able to kick it out to because most of the time you expect him to make it,” Huff said.
Huff also anticipates a larger leadership role in his senior season. He says he was particularly impressed by the younger players, including freshman guard Casey Morsell and freshman forward Justin McKoy.
“I played with [Morsell] in the Kenner League the summer before the season started and I could tell he was a really good defender,” Huff said. “He was scrappy, quick — really impressive in that regard. [McKoy] didn’t play a ton this year but he’s gonna be really successful. He’s a hard worker and the games that he did get in he made an impact.”
Maintaining a new routine during the pandemic has been relatively easy for Huff, who says that balancing class and training is much more manageable in isolation. And while the junior is disappointed to see many of his classmates graduate while he continues into his fifth year at Virginia, the pandemic has also given him time to reflect on life after basketball. With the goal of becoming a youth pastor after graduating, Huff has been thinking a lot about how he would handle the current situation with young people.
“It’s hard to figure out how to reach out to people that you’ve never met,” Huff said. “But I’ve tried to [think about] ways to do that.”
With all the time on his hands, Huff has also gotten involved in a new activity — yoga. Inspired by former Virginia center Jack Salt, Huff says yoga is helping him improve flexibility and core strength.
“YouTube is a great way to find instruction and I always thought that it would be a good idea but never really had the time,” Huff said.
The sports world has certainly been rattled by the effects of the COVID-19 crisis. The cancellation of the NCAA tournament and spring sports has had a profound impact on athletes and the larger student body, but sports fans find solace in the seasons to come, particularly for Virginia basketball. During the pandemic, Huff has been able to spend more time with his family and girlfriend while focusing on further developing his game away from Grounds. Next season, the return of the forward will undoubtedly bring even more excitement as he jumps into his final run with the Cavaliers.