With the departure of forward Mamadi Diakite and guard Braxton Key, much of the old team from Virginia’s historic run to the national championship in 2019 is gone. Junior guard Kihei Clark and senior forward Jay Huff remain, but new faces are beginning to dominate the court. One fresh face you might’ve noticed last season is sophomore guard Casey Morsell — though, that first impression may not have been a good one. Morsell shot a paltry 27.7 percent from the field and failed to kickstart a historically bad Virginia offense. The sophomore was also synonymous with the Cavaliers’ terribly inefficient three-point game, shooting 17.6 percent from the arc.
With all the unanswered questions the coronavirus-shortened 2019-2020 basketball season left us, lost in the shuffle was whether Morsell would get the chance to redeem himself.
I’m here to tell you that the redemption tour starts now.
First and foremost, last season was Morsell’s first with the team — cut him a bit of slack. Sports writer Lukas Harkins makes the point that few Virginia freshmen have come in and made an impact right away: “Since 2010-2011, the Cavaliers have amassed a 262-80, .766, total record despite having only four freshmen average over 7.5 point per game — three of those players were NBA draft picks.” Even this season, highly-touted freshman guard Jabri Abdur-Rahim has appeared in just two games for a grand total of 15 minutes. Coach Tony Bennett prefers to ease his players in, so let’s not draw too many conclusions from Morsell’s freshman effort.
Let’s also not forget Morsell’s pedigree. He’s listed as a four-star recruit on 247 Sports and the 56th best player in the 2019 class. He’s also the tenth highest-rated recruit Virginia has ever landed. In him, the Cavaliers don’t expect just another rotational player, but someone who will blossom into a foundational piece of the team.
He may not have the athleticism of guard Kyle Guy or the size of forward De’Andre Hunter, but Morsell is a perfect scheme fit. He plays the physical brand of defensive-minded basketball that Bennett specializes in. It may not always be pretty, but Morsell’s scrappiness on the defensive side of the ball should earn him minutes.
We’re way too early in the season to begin labelling booms and busts. In fact, the Cavaliers (3-1, 0-0 ACC) still have some soul-searching to do after an embarrassing 61-60 loss to unranked San Francisco. However, if the first three games are any indication, Morsell has at least improved his offensive efficiency to 42.1 percent from the field and 33.3 percent from three-point line. While still not great, these are marked improvements from last season. Over 58 minutes, Morsell is also averaging 13.8 points this season compared to 7.3 as a freshman.
Though the sample size is small, Morsell has clearly put in work over the offseason to improve his offensive game. Still, despite his high expectations and improved efficiency, he has an uphill climb ahead of him. Last season’s performance didn’t prove to Bennett that he was ready for a starting role, so now Morsell is forced to contend with a host of other guards for a spot in the lineup. Junior transfer guard Trey Murphy III has already cut into a significant chunk of Morsell’s minutes. Surprisingly, freshman guard Reece Beekman has also been one of the most consistent faces on the court over the first three games — a rare exception for Virginia freshmen. While not garnering enough minutes to contend for a starting role, junior guard Kody Stattmann continues to make his presence felt on the court.
Despite it being their first years with the team, it seems Beekman and Murphy have shown enough in practice to earn Bennett’s trust. This may hurt the case for Morsell, as he’s averaging less minutes than he did last year, but neither Beekman nor Murphy have significantly outplayed him despite their increased time on the court. Bennett’s strategic division of minutes between the guards suggests that he’s waiting to see who heats up first, meaning that the door is still wide open for Morsell to make a bid for the starting spot.
In the end, it all boils down to offense. If Morsell can improve his shooting efficiency, especially from three-point line, he’ll carve out a starting role for himself — and I believe he’ll do just that. No more scraps and morsels, it’s time for Casey Morsell to take a seat at the dinner table.