Thanks to Covid-19, the Virginia Cavaliers are still the reigning national champions of college basketball. For the second season in a row, Virginia will be facing a sequence of opponents wanting to knock off the champs. Last year’s team accomplished remarkable things with a 2nd place ACC finish and ending the season on an 8-game winning streak, but a realistic assessment of its NCAA Tournament chances would put a hard cap of Sweet Sixteen on their projection. The team simply lacked the offense to advance deeply into the tournament. The 2020-21 edition, should it get to play, will have the offensive potential to successfully defend the Cavaliers’ championship.
The 2019-20 Cavaliers were one of the better defensive teams of the Peak Bennett Era, but it was also the most deeply flawed offense of the era. For most of the season, it lacked adequate outside shooting, and any player who could consistently get his own shot against good defense. Even when Tomas Woldetensae started having some big games from the arc, once defenses started giving him the A-list treatment, his production dropped again, to 4-22 in his last four games. Kihei Clark generally wound up trying to get a shot late in the shot clock, but was generally unsuccessful, especially when help defense was available. The success Kihei did have in creating his shot came when he was able to get 1-on-1 opportunities. The team’s most consistent producer was senior Mamadi Diakite, who improved during the season to end up at a solid 0.922 PPP.
Diakite and Braxton Key are gone, of course, which will subtract from the defense more than the offense. Key never did solve the problem of consistently putting the ball in the basket in college. His 2-point field goal percentage improved as a senior, but his three-ball went into the tank. Diakite was a good offensive workhorse, but he wasn’t a player who could take over the offense for a half or just go get a shot against any defense. Excellent supporting offensive player, but not a star.
The best offensive player on the team in 2019-20 will finally get to take the court without warmups this November. Sam Hauser brings exactly what the Hoos need to have real championship potential, and he is just the leader of a cohort of reinforcements for the offense. Hauser is a career 45.5% three-point shooter, 87.6% free throw shooter, and 52.4% shooter from two-point range. His 2018-18 statistics from Marquette would have made him #1 on UVA’s team last year in scoring, #1 in 3FG%, #1 in 3FG attempts, #1 in turnover percentage (lowest), #1 in ORtg, 2nd in 2FG% (Jay Huff) and 2nd in assist percentage (Clark). His overall PPP of 1.109 his last year at Marquette would have been highest on the Hoos last year. His PPP on Spot Up, Post Up, Isolation and Cut plays all would have been best on the team. The only areas he would not have led the team were Off Screen (2nd) and Pick & Roll Roll-Man (4th) plays.
Hauser was a consistent, diverse producer at Marquette. He also had 16 games of 20 points or more in his last two seasons, seven of them of 25 or more, and three 30+ outings. He is a player who is not going to be shy to put up a lot of shots, and as we saw in the Championship Run, you don’t go deep if you don’t have at least one guy who can just pour in 15 points in a half every game. Hauser is joined by two incoming freshmen who also routinely dumped buckets by the bucketful in Jabri Abdur-Rahim, who was 6th on the EYBL circuit at 25.2 ppg and Reece Beekman, who basically averaged 20 ppg (and 10 rpg and 10 apg) his last two high school seasons.
Hauser, Abdur-Rahim and Beekman bring three consensus top 100 talents to the roster. Hauser was #94 on the 2016 Ratings Services Composite Index (RSCI – the same year that Kyle Guy was #32, Ty Jerome was #46, Braxton Key #56, Jay Huff #61, and De’Andre Hunter #74). Abdur-Rahim was #36 on the 2020 RSCI list – only the second top 40 recruit of Bennett’s career – and Beekman was #57. The three newcomers will join Huff, Casey Morsell (#58 in 2019) and Kadin Shedrick (#65 in 2019) to give Bennett six consensus top 100 recruits on the roster in 2020-21, the most he has ever had.
The two years that Bennett had five RSCI top 100 players, he won a national championship (2018-19 with Guy, Jerome, Key, Huff and Hunter) and was #2 in the country until his top 50 player was lost to injury (2014-15 with Justin Anderson #48, Evan Nolte #74, B.J. Stith #83, Mike Tobey #92 and Malcolm Brogdon #94). The two seasons he had four RSCI players he won the ACC regular season and tournaments.
It is a lot to ask of freshmen to come in and lead a team no matter how high their rankings. Morsell stumbled under the weight (although he did lead the team to victory over Arizona State). Guy and Jerome had some very good games their freshmen year, helping to lead the Hoos to wins over California, North Carolina and Notre Dame with excellent performances, but they were also relative non-factors in several other games. They were supporting players on the weakest team in the Peak Bennett Era (and, incidentally, the ONLY RSCI players on that roster). Even so, Guy went for 20 twice and double-digits nine other times, and Jerome had five 10+ scoring nights that first year.
But Sam Hauser is no freshman. He’s a senior who will join another top 100 senior in Jay Huff. Even if he is the only newcomer to join the starting lineup, he should have an enormous impact. As good as Diakite and Key were defensively, and as solid a workhorse as Mamadi was on offense, the Huff-Hauser combination has the potential to be dynamic, routinely dominant, and extremely difficult to defend.
First let’s talk about the defense, because it always starts with defense under Tony Bennett. Key and Diakite are big losses here, but Huff was #17 in the country in block percentage at 11.1, and led the team in DReb% at 20.6. Hauser’s 19.5 DReb% in 2018-19 would have been ahead of Diakite’s 18.7% last season. Looking at Synergy stats – flawed as they are, Hauser’s overall 0.687 PPP allowed would have been third on the team last year. His Post Up defense of 0.48 PPP was among the best in the country and would have been best on the team. He also would have been second on the team at defending Isolation, having given up a mere 0.312 PPP on such plays. While he doesn’t block shots and won’t generate the steals Key did, he will be a good positional defender and strong rebounder for the Hoos. That strong positional defense allows Huff to be the Monster of the Middle.
On offense, Hauser and Huff complement each other in ways that should make the Hoos extremely difficult to defend. Huff is not a strong post scorer – but Hauser is. Sam can post up while Huff roams the arc. Both of them should be able to create space in Sides with their ability to flash to the arc after a screen, and the high-low possibilities with Huff on reversal at the point and Hauser posting in the lane, but it is in the ball screen offense that the combination should really shine. Jay Huff excels as a Pick&Roll Roll Man, either on the roll to the hoop or the pop for the three-point shot. Having Hauser spotting up in the corner puts the defense in an impossible dilemma: rotate to the hoop to stop the pick & roll and leave a career 45% three-point shooter open in the corner, or take away the corner three and essentially give Kihei Clark or Jay Huff a clear lane to the rim.
Hauser also gives Virginia a small-ball five who can handle duties in the lane but also shoot the three from the five position.
What Virginia might lose on defense in trading Hauser for Diakite and Key, the Hoos gain in offensive firepower. In the NCAA Tournament, that’s a trade you take every year. The trio of Huff, Hauser and Clark gives Virginia a powerful offensive engine. Clark should be more productive and less error-prone. Hauser’s presence is going to mean a lot more clear lanes to the basket for Kihei.
That foundational trio of experienced, talented players means that the freshmen can come in and have a big impact as supporting players. Guy and Jerome provided 16 double-digit scoring nights on what was otherwise a deeply flawed offensive team. If Abdur-Rahim and Beekman provide 16 double-digit scoring nights – two over 20 points – they will be supporting a strong core. They can be difference makers. While neither Abdur-Rahim nor Beekman was a dead-eye three-point shooter, each can hit the three at a reasonable level, but both excel at creating offense. We can expect to see a lot of Beekman and Clark in the backcourt together. JAR provides the type of versatility that Hunter gave the Hoos with his ability to create offense from different spots on the floor.
Let’s not overlook Carson McCorkle. He was a top 50 sophomore until he reclassified up and disappeared from the rankings, similar to Devon Hall and Diakite. He comes in with rankings in the 130-140 range from 247 and Rivals, or similar to Joe Harris and London Perrantes. He also might be the best incoming freshman three-point shooter of Bennett’s time at Virginia. His stroke is pure and repeatable, and he sank over 50% of his threes in his last two years at Greensboro Day School. He was scorching the nets at 55% as a senior when his season was shut down for foot surgery, after hitting 52% as a junior. He also was a 90% free throw shooter in high school. Coming from Coach Freddy Johnson at GDS, he knows defense and he’s prepared to play it. Expect McCorkle to give Woldetensae stiff competition as the designated shooter. Harris – Guy – McCorkle. Book it.
The X-factor for the Hoos this year could be Casey Morsell. While it might be tempting to expect less of Morsell after his freshman campaign, Casey has several things going for him:
- He was an absolute stud in high school who excelled at getting buckets and late game heroics. You don’t dominate in the WCAC if you’re not a baller. The ability, the pedigree are there.
- Tony’s guards generally make a big jump from freshman to sophomore year. Brogdon, Perrantes, Guy, Jerome – all stepped up and became consistent primary producers their second year in the program. The experience, the ability to use the lessons of that first year, make a big difference.
- His character. He’s going to put in the work, he’s going to listen to his coaches, and he’s going to keep grinding.
All of this is why some national analysts have identified Casey as a potential breakout player.
The influx of talent makes this season exciting to contemplate and anticipate. It is an infusion of offensive ability like we saw in 2012 with Anderson, Tobey and Nolte and in 2016 with Guy, Jerome, Hunter and Huff. It fills the gaps and should complement the returning veteran core of Huff, Clark and Morsell nicely. There are other players I do want to talk about, but I am going to save them for another article.