Coming into last season, expectations were high for the Virginia men’s basketball team following their 2019 national championship victory. Though the team struggled in the early stages of the season — mainly due to the departures of former guards Kyle Guy, De’Andre Hunter and Ty Jerome — the Cavaliers eventually found their footing.
The 2019-20 Virginia squad stood at a record of 23-7, including 15-5 in the ACC — good enough for second place. Furthermore, the Cavaliers were on an eight-game winning streak before the season was halted due to the coronavirus pandemic. While the offense often looked flat-footed and stagnant, the Virginia defense proved to be a nightmare for opposing teams, which led to several signature wins — including a thrilling 52-50 victory over Duke.
With one week to go before the start of the 2020-21 season, the Cavaliers are slated to face a similar challenge in filling the void left behind by departed players. However, this time it will be the open spots of former guard Braxton Key and former forward Mamadi Diakite that will force Virginia to be resilient once again.
Projected starting lineup
The Cavaliers lost two starters from last season’s squad in Diakite and Key. Diakite’s defensive presence in the frontcourt paired well with Key’s rebounding and defending abilities from the wing. Offensively, Diakite had a knack for sinking baskets in crunch time.
However, the team appears to be solid at a number of other positions in its starting lineup. Junior guard Kihei Clark will certainly be the Cavaliers’ primary ball-handler, as he proved last season that he can step up when called upon.
Starting all 30 games last year, Clark averaged 10.8 points and 5.9 assists per game and boasts the speed and energy to continue being a quality defender.
Also returning to the starting lineup will be senior forward Jay Huff. Huff looks to continue to do it all on both ends of the court. Huff notched many signature games last season — including a 10-block bonanza against Duke — and averaged 8.5 points, 6.2 rebounds and 2.0 blocks per game.
Along with Clark and Huff, the final sure-fire starter will be senior forward Sam Hauser. After redshirting last season, Virginia fans have been left on the edge of their seats awaiting Hauser’s debut in blue and orange. The Marquette transfer averaged an impressive 14.9 points, 7.2 rebounds and 2.4 assists per game during the 2018-2019 season — the last time he was on the floor — helping lead Marquette to a fifth-seed position in the NCAA tournament. Known for his stellar three-point shooting ability, Hauser used his redshirt season to fine-tune his defense in order to contribute as much as possible on both ends of the floor.
With Clark, Huff and Hauser almost certainly slated to start, there are question marks for the remaining guard and forward slots.
At guard, there is a strong possibility that senior guard Tomas Woldetensae will have his number called to join the starting lineup. The Bologna, Italy native drew many eyes when he went 10-for-13 from the field and drilled seven three-pointers against Louisville back in February.
Woldetensae leading the team with 52 three-pointers and being a formidable starter in the backcourt beside Clark are just two additional reasons for him to be granted a starting role this time around as well.
The more notable question is which direction Coach Tony Bennett will choose to go with for the other forward position. There is a possibility that redshirt freshman forward Kadin Shedrick gets the nod due to his impressive size at 6-foot-11. Among other possibilities, Bennett could also go in the direction of shifting around the starters that are already locked in order to slide sophomore guard Casey Morsell into the lineup.
Freshmen and other key rotational players
Much like previous years, the 2020-21 season will welcome a number of new faces to the team. Among them are freshman guards Jabri Abdur-Rahim and Reece Beekman.
Hailing from South Orange, N.J., Abdur-Rahim earned the New Jersey Gatorade Player of the Year honor in 2018-19 and looked impressive during the first two games of his 2019-20 campaign before an injury cut his season short.
On the other hand, many fans are excited to see Beekman on the floor after he nearly averaged a triple-double in 2019-20, posting 19.4 points, 9.1 rebounds and 9.9 assists per game.
Also joining Abdur-Rahim and Beekman are freshman guards Carson McCorkle and Malachi Poindexter. As it currently stands, Beekman and Abdur-Rahim look set to play a crucial role at the outset with the potential to start earlier in the season, while McCorkle and Poindexter may redshirt to preserve eligibility.
Known for typically sticking to a seven- or eight-man rotation, it will be interesting to see which returning players Bennett has competing for minutes this season. Junior guard Kody Stattman proved to be a solid contributor in several games last year while sophomore center Francisco Caffaro may also receive quality minutes due to his size and physicality down low.
The prospect of sophomore forward Justin McKoy seeing the floor more often will be something to keep an eye on as well. McKoy has an NBA-caliber build but looked uncertain at times on the court last season as he adjusted to the rigor of ACC basketball.
Key narratives heading into the season
Will the team be able to replicate their momentum from last season?
As previously noted, the Cavaliers were picking up steam in the latter half of the last regular season, including an eight-game winning streak as the regular season closed out. Virginia recorded a string of impressive wins over other national powerhouses including North Carolina, Louisville and Duke.
The team certainly had a ton of momentum going in their direction before the season was cut short, leaving some players frustrated.
“I think we had a legitimate shot at the championship,” Huff said during the team’s Nov. 9 media day. “The way we were playing especially, I think we would’ve surprised some people because I know early on people were starting to get down on us.”
Despite the previous year being far in the rearview mirror, Huff and other teammates believe that some of their momentum will carry over to the 2020-21 campaign. The extended offseason has allowed players to refine their skills and prepare for the opposition.
“I think there is some momentum that we can maintain and should maintain, especially the guys that were here,” Huff said.
Are the Cavaliers still defending national champions and how important are rankings?
Another storyline that has created a buzz on the outside is the fact that the men’s basketball team are still the defending national champions. Though it is technically true that Virginia is still the most recent team to capture the NCAA basketball championship, the narrative is mainly a fun one enjoyed by fans. The team appears to be more so focused on what is ahead of them.
“That’s kind of fun to talk about certainly as fans and as part of the program,” Bennett said. “We want the chip-on-your-shoulder [mentality] because this group has not proved it or shown it and that’s what we’re trying to get towards and be the best that we can be without saying, ‘We’re the defending champs’.”
Additionally, in the Associated Press Top 25 Preseason Poll, the Cavaliers were ranked fourth in the nation only behind Gonzaga, Baylor and Villanova. Despite it being one of the highest preseason rankings in Virginia history, players and coaches are not placing much emphasis on preseason rankings.
“At the end of the day, the only ranking that matters is at the end of the season,” Huff said. “We try to not put a lot of weight on what we’re ranked in the preseason because we know that can change quickly.”
How will COVID-19 impact play?
This is a question that has been asked far too many times across other sports on both the collegiate and professional levels, and the answer will be not too different when it comes to Virginia basketball. Many expect to see a drastic reduction of in-person attendance at both John Paul Jones Arena and other universities across the country.
Players have described the experience of having a very limited or no in-person audience as being similar to that of a scrimmage.
“[There is] essentially no home-court advantage,” Clark said. “It’ll be interesting and we know that we’re going to have to generate a lot of our own energy throughout the team if there’s not a lot of fans.”
Aside from impacting actual games, the coronavirus pandemic has had an impact on the day-to-day lives of players and staff. With the obvious concern of the virus spreading to the team and jeopardizing the season being present, many have had to make sacrifices to keep this concern at bay.
“You got to make sacrifices in order to do what you want to do,” Clark said. “So if I [can’t] see as many people that I know just so that we are able to play, then that is something I am willing to do.”
The Final Countdown
As the team nears the light at the end of the tunnel following a lengthy offseason, expectations for the Cavaliers remain the same. As always, Virginia is expected to be in the mix among other notable teams on a national level, including ACC foes Duke, Florida State and North Carolina, who all joined the Cavaliers in the preseason AP Top 25.
Despite the season bound to look very different on multiple fronts, the team is poised to make a run for a second NCAA Championship and continue demonstrating their commitment to excellence.
The Cavaliers kick off their 2020-21 campaign Nov. 25, when they take on Maine at the Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Conn. Tip-off is set for 2:00 p.m. and the game will be streamed live on FloHoops.