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Women’s basketball preview: Everything you need to know about the 2020-21 Virginia Cavaliers

Virginia is looking forward to a new start and a new look in the midst of COVID-19

<p>With Coach Tina Thompson entering her third season with the team and the prospect of five new recruits and two transfer players, the Cavaliers hope to rewrite the narrative and prove that they can be a successful program.</p>

With Coach Tina Thompson entering her third season with the team and the prospect of five new recruits and two transfer players, the Cavaliers hope to rewrite the narrative and prove that they can be a successful program.

The women’s basketball season is quickly approaching, and Virginia is eager for a fresh start and new identity. The 2019-20 season was subpar — Virginia finished with a 13-17 overall record including a 8-10 record in the ACC. With Coach Tina Thompson entering her third season with the team and the prospect of five new recruits and two transfer players, the Cavaliers hope to rewrite the narrative and prove that they can be a successful program.

Virginia will kick off the 2020-21 season Nov. 25 against Central Florida in Orlando, Fla. The team will play four non-conference games, followed by 20 games within the ACC. As the season quickly approaches, let's take a look at the new Cavaliers.

Recapping the 2019-20 season

The Cavaliers closed out the 2019-20 season with a loss to Syracuse in the second round of the ACC tournament. Shortly after, the NCAA canceled March Madness due to the COVID-19 pandemic, though Virginia was admittedly not expected to be selected for the playing field even if the tournament had continued. While COVID-19 is still prevalent, Virginia and ACC basketball is scheduled to begin competition.

Last season, Virginia struggled to find consistency, finishing ninth out of the 15 teams in the ACC. The Cavaliers averaged 61.4 points per game, but allowed 63.1 on average. In the upcoming season, it is critical that Virginia improve on both ends of the floor.

Former Virginia guard and captain Jocelyn Willoughby will be greatly missed this season. Willoughby — who was drafted 10th overall in the 2020 WNBA Draft — led the Virginia offense in a way that will be extremely difficult to replace. The 2019-20 Kay Yow winner and All-ACC first-team selection averaged 19.2 points and 7.7 rebounds per game in her senior season. In fact, Willoughby was responsible for nearly one-third of the team's scoring per game. Although the Cavaliers will have to adapt without Willoughby this season, it’s important to note that she strengthened the team culture and passed her leadership skills down to the younger players. 

Virginia also graduated a couple other top scorers including guard Dominique Toussaint, who averaged 10.9 points per game, and forward Lisa Jablonowski, who averaged a solid 8.17 points. Without the trio of Willoughby, Toussaint and Jabłonowski, the Cavaliers will need to find more offense from different places and players.

Assessing the new recruits

The Cavaliers will field a brand-new team highlighted by seven new players — five freshman recruits and a pair of transfers. Of the 13-player roster, Virginia has seven new Cavaliers along with five sophomores comprising a team that is full of young talent. 

The Cavaliers recruited three guards — Kaydan Lawson, Zaria Johnson and Aaliyah Pitts. The ESPN recruiting report highlighted Kaydan Lawson and Zaria Johnson as three-star recruits that have a confident persona with a scorer’s mentality and a strong transition game and are able to handle attacks in uptempo games. Notably, Lawson joins her sister, junior forward Dani Lawson, on the team. 

Additionally, Virginia added two freshman forwards — Deja Bristol and Nycerra Minnis. The forwards — who stand at 6-foot-1 and 6-foot-3, respectively — add size to the Cavalier squad, are mobile in transition and are very active on the glass. 

Finally, Virginia added sophomore forward London Clarkson, who played with Florida State last year, and graduate student forward Emily Maupin, who was a walk-on at Elon for two seasons before transferring to Liberty where she sat out last season. Although new to the team, these players will likely see plenty of minutes and play a big role in the Virginia offense.

With so many new players on the roster, they will have to play a critical role in defining the new 2020-21 Virginia Cavaliers. Moreover, Thompson will have a fresh-faced team to work with — ten of the 13 players on the team are either freshmen or sophomores. Thompson will be responsible for cultivating these young talents and setting the Cavaliers up for success.

Analyzing Virginia’s style of play

Thompson has consistently run her offense through the guards as opposed to inside-out play — meaning that the guards will play a critical role in setting the pace for the team this year. 

Specifically, sophomores Amandine Toi and Carole Miller will play crucial roles as leaders and playmakers. Although young, Toi and Miller have significant experience from previous seasons and are ready to lead the young squad. Both players appeared in all 30 of last year's matches, with Toi starting 28 games and Miller starting 26 games. 

In addition to the shot-producing guards, freshman recruits Lawson and Johnson will join forwards Meg Jefferson, Dani Lawson and Tihana Stojsavljevic in a dynamic, up-tempo offense. Virginia’s forwards have strong athleticism and size, but the Cavaliers will need more consistent and effective results from their players in the post to win games.

Of the three returning players, only Lawson earned a starting role last season — starting in just five games. In her 278 minutes of playing time over the season, Lawson averaged 0.6 points per game. On the other hand, Jefferson and Stojsavljevic had the least amount of playing time last season with 86 and 78 minutes respectively. Between the two of them, only 25 points were scored in total.

Inexperience in the frontcourt may prove to be Virginia’s biggest weakness in the upcoming season, which could spell trouble since the Cavaliers don’t have a program-defining player like Willoughby anymore. Regardless, Virginia needs several players in the backcourt and frontcourt to step up to the plate and aid the Virginia offense.

The bottom line

On paper, the Cavaliers had an underwhelming 2019-20 season and will certainly struggle with the loss of its former star players. Thompson and the Cavaliers have to overcome several obstacles, especially with an inexperienced team. Without many veterans, Thompson will have to be creative to rework the offense and prepare the young squad for high-level competition. Although Virginia has a tough road ahead, the Cavaliers also have the opportunity to pave a new path forward for Virginia women’s basketball.

Virginia’s season begins Nov. 25 in Orlando, Fla. against Central Florida at 6 p.m. It is a non-conference game, which should allow for the Cavaliers to try out new things and further develop team chemistry before ACC play.

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