With the start of the 2020-21 men’s basketball season just weeks away, the team held a virtual media day Monday to take questions about the much-anticipated start.
The press conference featured three players including senior forward Sam Hauser, junior guard Kihei Clark and senior forward Jay Huff and Coach Tony Bennett.
The team discussed player development during the offseason, the complications of COVID-19 in the basketball world and expectations for the new season. Below are four key takeaways from the men’s basketball media day leading into the start of their season.
1. Sam Hauser looks to be an integral piece on both ends of the floor
A large portion of the buzz surrounding the men’s basketball team has dealt with the arrival of Hauser. After redshirting last season, the Marquette transfer looks to finally make his return back to the floor this year.
At Marquette, Hauser started 97 games in three seasons and averaged 14.9 points, 7.2 rebounds and 2.4 assists per game in the 2018-19 season. Known for his prolific shooting ability, Hauser has worked hard to become a more well-rounded player.
“I think I’ve developed into a better defender and that’s credit to the work with coach Mike Curtis and Coach Bennett as well,” Hauser said. “If I want to play here, I’m going to have to play some defense. So I took that personally and individually to get better on it and I think I have.”
This past season, being a redshirt year for Hauser was critical in his development and making the transition from the Big East to the ACC smoother. Hauser made note of the differences in play between the two conferences where the ACC is more physical as opposed to the fast-paced play in the Big East.
“Having a redshirt year, you really get a whole year to work on your game and figure out what you need to fine-tune and what you need to get better at,” Hauser said. “There’s a lot of great players in the ACC, and I just can’t wait to try to prove myself and show that I can play here.”
Hauser also discussed former teammates Mamadi Diakite and Braxton Key who helped him thrive in the transition to Virginia. Competitive practices between Hauser and the two stalwarts brought out the best in each of them.
“I’m a competitor — I like to compete and going against those guys was a lot of fun last year,” Hauser said.
Before even putting on the Virginia jersey, Hauser has already received high praise, receiving first-team All-ACC preseason honors. All eyes will be on the Wisconsin native when the Cavaliers take the floor for the first time this year.
2. Kihei Clark takes on a leadership role for the Cavaliers
With the departures of Diakite and Key, Virginia lost two veteran leaders of the team. Given Bennett’s emphasis on clear communication on the court, Clark stepping up into a more vocal role was welcomed.
“I definitely think I’ve tried to lead a little better, being one of the older guys officially now,” Clark said. “During these times, I know it has been difficult for the whole team.”
Clark started all 30 games in the 2019-20 season and averaged 10.8 points and 4.2 rebounds per game and notched a team-leading 5.9 assists. Hauser also praised Clark for growing into a bigger leadership role.
“I think that Kihei stepped up as more of a vocal leader and Jay as well and myself,” Hauser said. “We’re three guys who have a lot of experience in the college game, but we all can get better at the leadership aspect and be more vocal in practice.”
The Cavaliers were quickly gaining momentum last season before it was cut short due to COVID-19. At a record of 23-7, 15-5 ACC, Virginia had won eight straight games. Many are curious to know if that momentum will carry into this upcoming season.
“I don’t know if there’s too much momentum just because it’s a new group of guys and we lost two great players,” Clark said. “I think the identity of this team is going to be — like a lot of other teams — our defense, but I definitely think we have offensive capabilities with a lot of shooters on the floor.”
Having received second-team preseason All-ACC honors, the speedy Clark will also be watched closely this season as he continues to thrive in his true point guard role.
3. COVID-19 has expectedly caused some bumps in the road
With the prevalence of COVID-19, all sports have been impacted in a variety of ways. At Virginia, most sports have been impacted by having a very limited in-stadium audience. It is expected that this will also be the case for men’s basketball.
While practices have resumed, players and staff have had to follow various protocols including frequent testing, mask-wearing and social-distancing. Once in-season competition begins, players will have to be tested three times a week as a result of basketball’s designation as a “high-risk” sport by the ACC Medical Advisory Group. The team has been cautious on all fronts in order to avoid outbreaks.
“We’ve pretty much been able to practice without interruption,” Bennett said. “We’re getting as good as we can with the ways that we can.”
In addition to having an impact on the current team in practice, day-to-day activities and in upcoming games, the pandemic has also impacted recruiting for Virginia. Not being able to have recruits visit Grounds and evaluate them in person has made recruiting more difficult.
“It’s been a big impact,” Bennett said. “You just don’t get to see guys to really evaluate them because so many of these players — unless you’ve been on them for a long time — you uncover [through evaluation].”
Despite the impacts the pandemic will have on the way the game is played on the college level, the Cavaliers are still determined to perform the best they can, and the team is hoping to sustain some of their momentum from last season.
“I think there is some momentum that we can maintain and should maintain especially with the guys that were here,” Huff said. “Bringing along the younger guys, I think, is going to be a big task.”
It is still to be determined what arenas will look like on gameday for basketball and whether or not there will be virtual fans, cheering noises or other sound effects.
4. The national championship expectations remain the same
Just a few days ago, the Associated Press released their Top 25 Preseason Poll in which Virginia ranked fourth in the nation. Furthermore, for the first time since the 1982-83 season, the Cavaliers were picked to finish first in the ACC in the ACC Preseason Poll. Despite the buzz, the team is more so focused on actual performance on the court.
“I honestly don’t think that the rankings that came out mean a whole lot,” Huff said. “Obviously it’s a cool thing, but we’ve also been in situations where we ranked really high and didn’t do well and situations where we weren’t ranked and did better.”
The coaching staff also holds the same feeling regarding the polls and rankings that have been published about the upcoming season. Particularly with the pandemic still ongoing, there will be a lot more variability this season, as games will inevitably be canceled due to COVID-19 outbreaks within programs.
“With this year being different, I don’t think the rankings are going to hold or carry a lot of weight,” Bennett said.
One of the older players on the team, Huff is looking forward to getting back to the floor and playing a key role in elevating the team to success. Last season, Huff recorded a number of signature games and stat lines such as blocking 10 shots against Duke and registering his first double-double against Syracuse.
“Individual stats don’t matter that much to me at the end of the day,” Huff said. “What’s important is the team doing well and whether that’s me scoring 20 points or me scoring six points and grabbing more rebounds, I just want to do what I can to make sure I give our team the best chance to succeed.”
Lastly, Bennett discussed departures from the team and how the void left behind will be addressed.
“I can see we don’t have replacements for them — [Diakite and Key],” Bennett said.“But we’re gonna have to do it collectively and certain guys are gonna have to step up. There are advantages to this year’s team and some differences.”
Virginia kicks off their 2020-21 campaign against Maine Nov. 25 at the Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Conn. The tip-off time is to be announced.