October 22, 2020

Independent analysis and commentary on UVA athletics

A Look Ahead To The 2020-21 UVa Basketball Season

Before I shift too much into football mode, I did want to circle back and do a post looking ahead to the next Virginia basketball season as I promised at the end of my revised top 10 UVa games list. This is a post I’ve published in the April-June time frame for the past few years, but because of the uncertainty surrounding sports, and the fact that I was compiling and writing my various “best games attended” lists, I put it on the back-burner.

OK, so diving right in, here’s a refresher on the scholarship players on the team going into the season, because if you’re like me, your brain has probably been scrambled by everything going on, and last season — when Virginia finished 23-7 and won 11 of its last 12 games — probably feels like a decade ago.

(in order from most seniority to least, with last year’s stats, if applicable)

Redshirt senior forward Jay Huff (8.5 ppg, 6.2 rpg, 2 bpg)
– Redshirt senior forward Sam Hauser (14.9 ppg, 7.2 rpg, 2.5 apg at Marquette in 2018-19; transferred and then sat out last season)
– Senior guard Tomas Woldetensae (6.6 ppg, 2.2 rpg, 1.1 apg)
– Junior guard Kihei Clark (10.8 ppg, 5.9 apg, 4.2 rpg)
– Junior guard Kody Stattmann (3.6 ppg, 2.4 rpg)
– Junior forward Trey Murphy III (13.7 ppg, 5.5 rpg, 1.2 apg at Rice; ineligible due to NCAA transfer rules)
– Redshirt sophomore center Francisco Caffaro (1.4 ppg, 1.2 rpg)
– Sophomore guard Casey Morsell (4 ppg, 1.7 rpg)
– Sophomore forward Justin McKoy (1 ppg, 1.1 rpg)
– Redshirt freshman forward Kadin Shedrick
– True freshman guard Reece Beekman
– True freshman guard Carson McCorkle
– True freshman Jabri Abdur-Rahim

So who’s gone? Mamadi Diakite and Braxton Key have graduated. Diakite averaged a team-leading 13.7 points, and also 6.8 rebounds and 1.2 blocks during his senior season. During the 2019 NCAA tournament run and his final year, Diakite blossomed offensively. Virginia is going to miss his athleticism and versatility. He developed his game in the paint and could score in multiple ways, finishing second on the team last season in 3-point shooting at 36.4 percent (up from 29.4 percent in 18-19; he increased his 3-point attempts to 55 from 17). Additionally, Diakite was a solid defender who could wipe out mistakes by blocking shots. He’s been invited to the NBA draft combine, should there be one. The draft itself is supposed to be held Oct. 16. Key put up 9.9 points, a team-leading 7.4 rebounds, and 1.8 assists per game in his final campaign. Key was a terrific defender and a fantastic rebounder, especially given his middling height of 6-foot-8. Virginia will miss his physical presence and ability to be a glue guy. He also will be remembered for blocking the shot of Texas Tech’s Jarrett Culver at the end of regulation in the national championship, perhaps preserving overtime and ultimately the win.

Who will replace their leadership? I am not worried about this, so long as Tony Bennett is guiding the ship. Diakite was a fun-loving guy who grew into his leadership role by his senior year, but he also led by example, and that’s what Key did as well. I did not think of either of them as vocal leaders in the traditional sense. Clark already was a leader last season, and will continue to be one as a three-year starter. Huff is now in his fifth season in the program and capable of firing guys up through his emotional play. Plus, Hauser will command respect right away for what kind of a player he was at Marquette.

Let’s get this team on the court, because it is loaded. Obviously, I want everyone to be safe and stay healthy. Like football, it wouldn’t be surprising in the least if the basketball season is affected in some way by the pandemic. But if there is a season of any length that concludes with the NCAA tournament, Virginia has a good chance to win the national championship again. And that’s not just me or other fans saying that. The Cavaliers are one of the betting favorites to win it all. There was no tournament last year, so that means if Virginia does win the title, it would be the first back-to-back NCAA tournament champion since Florida in 2006-07. Such a repeat would come with an asterisk, of course. Even the most ardent UVa supporter would tell you last season’s team probably wasn’t winning the title. A better comparison if Virginia does win it all again would be Villanova, which won two crowns in three seasons (2016, 2018). As you may have noticed, the Wildcats are right up there with the Wahoos as one of the favorites, too. And Villanova and Virginia are scheduled — key word is scheduled — to play each other at Madison Square Garden on Dec. 19. The two teams faced off recently in memorable games in 2015-16 (Virginia 86-75 win in Charlottesville) and 2016-17 (61-59 Villanova victory in Philadelphia).

How will COVID-19 affect the season? No one knows right now, of course, but the virus has already altered the college football season. I am just thankful that the football team has Bronco Mendenhall at the controls, and the basketball squad has Bennett. With those two guys, I am certain the teams will be as organized and as prepared as they can be under the unusual circumstances. If anything quirky comes up during the season, such as a postponed game, or a game that has its location changed, I know Bennett will handle it. And this program — no matter the day, no matter the location, no matter the opponent — will always have a foundation of defense to fall back on.

Who is Virginia playing? The answer to this question is the one most up in the air due to the virus. If UVa plays a full 20-game conference slate, these are its games, based on the rotation the ACC set in February 2019: Virginia Tech and Louisville at home and on the road, as usual; home and away against Georgia Tech, N.C. State, Notre Dame, and Wake Forest; home only against Miami, North Carolina, Pittsburgh, and Syracuse; and road only at Boston College, Duke, Clemson, and Florida State. Also, it has been reported the season would not tip off with a slate of ACC games, as it did last season when UVa traveled to Syracuse. There would, however, be conference games in December.

For nonconference games, these are the two that actually have dates: Temple in Charlotte on Nov. 13 and Villanova in New York on Dec. 19. In addition, Virginia is supposed to play at James Madison, and host Kent State, Gardner-Webb, Fairleigh Dickinson, and Long Beach State. Virginia also is supposed to play in the Wooden Invitational at UCLA, where it would face two of Kansas, UCLA, and Georgetown. The entire slate is uncertain right now, but especially these nonconference games. The UCLA tournament and the Villanova game would be key contests and great for fans. Hopefully, some of these non-ACC games can be played. 

What else is Huff capable of? After a couple of frustrating seasons of mostly being stuck to the bench, Huff finally had his breakout campaign as a redshirt junior. His biggest game came against Duke, when he posted a crazy line of 15 points, 10 blocks, and nine boards, just shy of tying Ralph Sampson’s single-game blocks record of 12. Over the final three games of the season, the 7-footer averaged 14.3 points, 7.7 rebounds, and 4 blocks. Over the entire campaign, he shot 35.8 percent on 3-pointers, down about 10 percent from the year before, but he increased his attempts to 53 from 31. If his play can come close to what it was down the stretch last season, and he can continue to hit 3s at a decent clip, he will definitely have a chance of getting drafted after this coming season — not to mention the benefit to the ‘Hoos in 20-21.

Can we expect more from Clark? One would think his size would hold him back from getting even better, but the 5-9 Californian exceeded expectations last season when he played 37 minutes per game and was second on the team in scoring. He averaged more assists last year than Ty Jerome did in 2018-19 despite having fewer weapons to distribute the ball to, and Clark also upped his 3-point percentage from 34.1 percent as a freshman to a team-leading 37.5 percent, even though he had to shoulder more of the Cavaliers’ scoring load. He turned the ball over a bit much, 4.2 times per game, but he improved after recording nine turnovers at Florida State. Over the final four games, he averaged 3.25, and that stretch included tough contests against Duke, at Virginia Tech, and against Louisville. With the likely promise of receiving more help on offense, I wouldn’t be surprised if Clark lowers his turnovers, increases his assists, and picks his spots to shoot a little more carefully and efficiently, which probably means fewer dive-bombs to the basket, though he became surprisingly effective at those, too. At this point, Clark is a very experienced true junior with championship DNA. I wouldn’t bet against the little guy some fans have affectionately referred to as a mongoose or honey badger.

Was the Cavaliers’ best player on the bench last season? It is entirely possible. Hauser played at Marquette for three seasons before transferring to UVa last year and sitting out per the NCAA’s rules. In his final year as a Golden Eagle, Hauser recorded 14.9 points, 7.2 rebounds, and 2.4 assists per game while shooting 40.2 percent from 3-point range (on 219 attempts) and 92.4 percent at the free throw line. He was named second-team all-Big East. For his Marquette career, he’s a 44.5 percent shooter from beyond the arc. Simply put, Virginia didn’t have a player quite like him last season. He’s a versatile scoring threat that can rebound pretty well, too. He may have to work on his defense, but we know that’s a given with Bennett. If he puts in the work on that end, there’s no reason he won’t have a great, possibly all-ACC season.

Can Woldetensae be more consistent? The junior college transfer is going into his final collegiate season. He shot 47.6 percent on 3-pointers in his final JUCO year, and his percentage decreased last season to 36.1. But he had to overcome a wrist injury going into the season, adjust to the speed of the game at the Division I level, and learn the Pack-Line defense. He had a lot to think about and got off to a slow start, hitting only 3 of his first 21 attempts (14.3 percent). Then he made 3 of 4 at home against North Carolina before quieting down a bit. He took off at Wake Forest, saving the ‘Hoos from a disastrous loss by making 7 of 14 from beyond the arc for 21 points, and he followed that up by making 7 of 10 at Louisville and scoring 27, a season high for any player. He also went 6 of 10 at UNC and 4 of 8 at home against Boston College before calming down again at the end of the season. From the Wake Forest through BC contests, a stretch of seven games, Woldetensae knocked down 28 of 60 attempts (46.7 percent). Over the final five games, he made just 4 of 22 (18.2 percent). The Italian had a very up-and-down year. If he can bottle that seven-game span in the middle of the season and take that into this year, the ‘Hoos will be even more dangerous. And again, with more offensive weapons around, he should be able to have more open looks.

Will Morsell improve on offense? Well, he couldn’t be much worse. Wahoos fans were expecting a Kyle Guy, Malcolm Brogdon, or Joe Harris-type impact from Morsell in his freshman season but were let down. The Maryland native shot just 38.3 percent on 2-pointers and 17.6 percent from the beyond the arc. He made two 3s each against Navy and at North Carolina, the only games he was close to going off. He did score 19 points against Arizona State and was pretty much the reason Virginia won that game. He made only 1 of 6 3s but made 6 of 7 from inside the arc. If Morsell starts off slow shooting the 3 again this year, I would just tell him to attack, attack, attack. He was very solid at the free throw line (85.7 percent), so I think he should work on driving to the rim and knocking down those freebies. His on-ball defense was very good as a freshman. I think Morsell is someone who could benefit the most from the addition of Hauser, Huff’s return, and the influx of a talented freshman class. Morsell was thrown into the fire quickly as a true freshman, starting right away, though he was benched for Woldetensae late in the year. Morsell was expected to be a star from day one and just wasn’t ready. With the pressure a little off and the expectations a bit eased, it’ll be easier for Morsell to loosen up, have fun, and improve his game.

Who could emerge into a bigger role among Stattmann, Caffaro, and McKoy? Stattmann would appear to have the inside track, possibly taking over the starting spot Key vacated. He’s long and can play some defense, and he started 10 games in the early going last year. He scored 10 and 11 points in back-to-back outings against Virginia Tech and Boston College. But he only shot 26.9 percent on 3s, and he probably will have to compete against the talented Abdur-Rahim for playing time. Caffaro and McKoy, to me, would seem to be in more direct competition with Huff and Hauser, respectively, for time, and that’s not a good thing for them, though both bring some good traits to the table, and lineups and matchups can be so versatile, so who knows what Bennett could cook up. McKoy saw a lot of time at Purdue and at home against UNC last season, showing memorable spunk versus the Tar Heels while grabbing five rebounds. Once the calendar flipped to February, though, he didn’t see the court anymore. Caffaro saw a bit more action throughout the entire season and even started two games early at home against Stony Brook and South Carolina. His most memorable game, though, was also at JPJ versus UNC, when he recorded 10 points and seven boards in 21 minutes. After that game, I wrote that I liked how physically he played and that Bennett made some comments that could be construed as being a bad sign for Huff’s playing time going forward. We know that turned out differently for Huff, which is great, but it is good to know that Caffaro made such a good impression. Going into his third year in the program, Caffaro, an Argentinian, is still learning the American game. Remember how long it took for Huff to get significant time? For now, Caffaro loves to play a physical style, much like Jack Salt, and he’s already shown more offensive ability early in his career than Salt did. There’s plenty of time for him to see the floor more. But as for this coming season, Stattmann seems to be the most likely candidate to see more court time.

Don’t forget about Shedrick. The big man joined the Cavaliers listed at 6-11, 200 pounds, redshirted as a true freshman, and is now listed at 216 pounds. He was a four-star recruit. He might actually be the reason Caffaro and McKoy have a tough time seeing the court. It is easy to forget about these guys that redshirt for a year, but Shedrick could be waiting to bust out. He’s another example of why I hope we get basketball this year. There are so many obvious reasons to be excited for this season: a third year to see Clark’s growth, the potential all-ACC year from Hauser, waiting to see what Huff does next … and then you forget, oh my goodness, we had a four-star, nearly 7-footer redshirting last season! Shedrick could be the surprise of the year.

Who could see the most time among the true freshmen? The Cavaliers bring in a star-studded class in the 6-7, 214-pound Abdur-Rahim (No. 38 in the top 100-ranked players by ESPN in his class), 6-3, 174-pound Beekman (No. 51), and 6-3, 184-pound McCorkle (outside the top 100 but still ranked a four-star recruit). They are all listed at guard, but in reality all will play different positions at UVa. As we’ve talked about a lot the past couple of seasons, basketball is becoming a postionless game, with players filling roles rather than specific positions.

In the traditional sense, Abdur-Rahim is more of a small forward (and that’s how he is listed on ESPN’s recruiting site) or “3” spot. But as you can tell, Abdur-Rahim is tall with some room to put on weight. He is a good defender who can score going to the basket and also can make 3s, though I believe his strength is more around the rim. He’s also a capable rebounder. He seems like the complete package, and he is the son of Shareef Abdur-Rahim, who was an NBA star in the late 1990s and early 2000s and is now the commissioner of the NBA’s G-League. His dad went to Cal and values academics, and obviously knows what it takes to get to the NBA. “JAR,” as he’s already being called by fans, could challenge for time right away with Key having graduated.

Beekman has nice height for a point guard — closer to Jerome than Clark in that regard — but could stand to gain some weight. He has great vision and also a good shot. Virginia didn’t have much in the way of a backup ball handler last season behind Clark, so Beekman should get immediate time to give Clark a breather.

McCorkle is being compared to Guy, and we of course can only hope he shoots close to as well as Guy did. McCorkle is also said to have a bit of a physical game that maybe Guy didn’t necessarily show as much, and McCorkle is entering UVa weighing more than Guy did, so he may have the body to do it. Depending on the development of Morsell and Woldetensae, McCorkle could see some action. I think the safe bet is that Beekman will get time right away, but it wouldn’t be shocking in the least if Abdur-Rahim or McCorkle — especially Abdur-Rahim — are seeing significant minutes as the season wears on.

If we can get on the court, the season should be super exciting as Virginia looks to get back to the Final Four. We are about two months away from games. All we can do for now is wait for more news regarding the season and cross our fingers.

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