Since the start of this unique season, Virginia men’s basketball has had to rely on several new faces to play major roles. In fact, three of the Cavaliers’ top five players in total minutes played are newcomers to the team. One of these newcomers is senior forward Sam Hauser, who has quickly become the team’s go-to scoring option and leader on offense. As Virginia prepares to play in its seventh-straight NCAA Tournament, despite a surprise positive coronavirus test among one of the players, Hauser’s performance will be key to a deep run.
Looking back, Hauser’s journey to Virginia was not straightforward. Hauser was born in Green Bay, Wis., but grew up about 100 miles away in Stevens Point, Wis. — a city that coincidentally Coach Tony Bennett also called home from first to ninth grade.
After a prolific high school career at Stevens Point Area Senior High that included a state title, Hauser — a highly touted four-star prospect at the time — had a number of college suitors. Notably, one of those suitors was Bennett, who “recruited [Hauser] hard out of high school.” Bennett hoped to add Hauser to a recruiting class that would ultimately consist of four national champions — Kyle Guy, Ty Jerome, De’Andre Hunter and Jay Huff. Despite Virginia’s interest, Hauser chose to stay closer to home and attend Marquette in Milwaukee, Wis.
“A big thing for me coming out of high school [was that] I wanted to play closer to home, just so my family could watch me,” Hauser said on the Wahoo Central Podcast in early March. “That was a big factor ... [Marquette] had been recruiting me since my sophomore or junior year of high school, so I just felt that might have been the right place for me at the time.”
In three seasons at Marquette, Hauser started 97 times, helping the Golden Eagles win 63 percent of their games and secure an NCAA Tournament bid twice. Hauser truly came alive in the 2018-19 season when he averaged 14.9 points and earned a spot on the All-Big East second team. Despite Hauser’s excellent play, that season was a roller coaster for Marquette. The team won 23 of its first 27 games before dropping six of its last seven — including a blowout loss to Murray State in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
Less than a month after Marquette’s season came to a disappointing end, Hauser — along with his younger brother Joey, who was also on the Golden Eagles’ roster — announced that they would be transferring.
“I want to thank Marquette University for the countless opportunities it has granted me with over the past 3 years,” Hauser said via social media. “I’d like to thank everyone involved with the Marquette basketball program … Marquette will always have a special place in my heart. But moving forward with my basketball career, I have made the decision to transfer.”
Ultimately, the two brothers parted ways, with Joey preferring Michigan State and Sam deciding to play at Virginia. While it may have happened later than he wanted, Bennett finally landed Hauser’s commitment.
“I am really excited to join the Virginia basketball program,” Hauser said in Virginia’s press release. “I have great respect for Coach Bennett since he recruited me out of high school. I feel that U.Va. provides the best fit for me on-and-off the court to finish my collegiate career.”
Although Hauser officially joined the Virginia men’s basketball program in the fall of 2019, he had to wait a year to actually step on the court due to NCAA transfer eligibility rules. That being said, Hauser did not waste his year on the sidelines. In addition to supporting his teammates, Hauser used his redshirt season as an opportunity to grow as a player.
Hauser was primarily known as a catch-and-shoot and spot-up shooter at Marquette. Last year, however, Hauser worked on his ability to score off screens, developed his playmaking skills and, most importantly, learned how to play in Virginia’s infamous Pack Line defense.
“Having a whole redshirt year to really work on your game benefits you,” Hauser said on the Wahoo Central Podcast. “Redshirting is not bad in any way if you end up doing that route. I was able to really focus on my game and work hard. I think I've changed, I think I'm just doing different things.”
All of that work seems to have paid off, as Hauser has been a force to be reckoned with this season. Hauser is leading the team in minutes and scoring, averaging 34.1 minutes and 16 points per game.
The former Marquette player is not only scoring a lot, but he is doing so at an extremely efficient rate. At the moment, Hauser is making 51.8 percent of his field goals, 43.4 percent of his three-point shots — the highest mark in the ACC and ninth-best in the entire country — and 88.1 percent of his free throws.
If Hauser is able to maintain these marks, he could become the first Virginia player ever to finish a season in the exclusive “50/40/80” club. In just his first year in Charlottesville, Hauser may accomplish something none of Virginia’s other iconic Bennett-era shooters — including current NBA players Kyle Guy, Malcolm Brogdon and Joe Harris — ever could in college.
Hauser made an immediate impact, dropping 19 points and eight rebounds in his first game in the orange and blue — and he has not slowed down since then. So far this year, Hauser has recorded double-digit scoring figures in all but two games and has crossed the 20-point mark six times in the last 13 games.
In Virginia’s pre-ACC Tournament press conference, junior guard Kihei Clark mentioned that he knew Hauser was a talented shooter from day one. Hauser has certainly lived up to those expectations.
Admittedly, the 2020-21 season has had its fair share of ups and downs for Hauser and Virginia. The worst stretch was the Cavaliers’ three-game losing streak in mid to late February — the only time the team has lost more than one game in a row this year. Fortunately for Virginia, when the team needed him the most, Hauser stepped up and took charge.
In Virginia’s last five games, Hauser has scored 20.6 points per game — including a season-high 24 points in the regular season finale. Hauser’s recent string of strong performances helped Virginia secure its 10th ACC regular season title and advance to the semifinals of the ACC Tournament before COVID-19 issues disqualified the team. Hauser is playing the best basketball of his season right now, just in time for the NCAA Tournament.
“[The losing streak] taught us a lot about our team and ourself and where we need to get better,” Hauser said in a press conference March 8. “We locked in [during] practice more. We came with a better mindset and really focused on attention to details ... We've tightened up on defense, we've sharpened up on offense. We know how good we can be.”
Armed with a 6-foot-8 frame and an effective field goal percentage of 63 percent, Hauser’s unique combination of size and shooting has earned him a lot of attention. For instance, Hauser joined elite company when he became only the sixth Virginia player under Bennett to be named to the All-ACC first team. This exclusive group includes Virginia icons like Mike Scott, Joe Harris, Malcolm Brogdon, Kyle Guy, De’Andre Hunter and now Hauser.
Despite all of the individual and team success Hauser and Virginia have had so far this season, the Cavaliers now turn their attention to just one thing — the 2021 NCAA Tournament. This March Madness will likely be Hauser’s last shot at a national title, and the Wisconsin native is excited about the opportunity.
“You got to play like you either win or you're done, and that's the mentality for a lot of teams coming into this tournament,” Hauser said in the press conference. “Every possession matters even more this time of the year ... If the chips fall where they fall, you live with it, but obviously you want to win.”
Looking towards the future, Hauser has expressed interest in coaching after his playing career is over and hopes to lean on the Youth and Social Innovation degree he is currently pursuing within the Curry School of Education and Human Development. However, coaching will have to wait for now — Hauser has a game to play.