Every year, we ask our contributors to go out on the shakiest limbs they dare and make three bold predictions for the Hoos, and three bold predictions for the ACC. Most of those limbs break, but every so often….
With a couple additional writers on the team, and due to our propensity for wordiness, I have decided to break the Bold Predictions segment into two articles. First, we present our Bold Predictions for UVA:
1) Sam Hauser will be a bit of a disappointment, relative to expectations. He’ll eventually settle into a role and assert himself as our 4th- or 5th-best player, but it’ll sputter early and click only in fits and spurts.
2) Easy one: Casey Morsell quickly makes everyone forget about his lackluster freshman campaign as he emerges as a real up-and-comer in our backcourt, drawing late-season comparisons to Malcolm Brogdon.
3) Final Four.
Virginia has the tools in place for a solid showing this season. Besides the real possibility of coach Tony Bennett winning top coach honors, a deep bench of determined players appears ready to implement a non-isolation style of offense. A five-person halfcourt brand of offense with suffocating defense is likely to pay off with big wins versus ACC heavyweights and non-conference giants. Three projections for the team include:
(1) finishing first in the ACC, surpassing Duke and North Carolina;
(2) producing an All-American in senior transfer Sam Hauser;
(3) and reaching the “Elite Eight” round in the national tournament, with the very real potential of being a Final Four contender.
1) Jay Huff plays his way onto an All-ACC team. Maybe this isn’t SO bold, but for anyone else who averaged just 8.5 ppg and 6.2 rpg as a RS Junior, you might say he’s a good player but shy of all-ACC level. By a guy’s 4th year in college, he is who he is. But last year to some degree Huff was stuck sharing touches with Mamadi Diakite and Braxton Key, two other senior big men (spare me the designation of Key as a guard) with offensive demands and limited effect on spacing, so Huff’s shot count was arguably far less than what it deserved to be.
Here’s what I do know. He’ll be the starting 5 and only has unproven youngsters Caffaro and Shedrick as his backups, so Tony is going to let him play as many minutes as his conditioning, effectiveness, and foul situation will let him. Hauser as his new 4-spot running mate is an outside-in player with excellent 3-point shooting so spacing will be much improved. And Huff’s percentages speak for himself. He shot 37% on 3’s and 62% on 2’s, the latter of which was 5th best in the ACC, and he finished with the league’s 2nd-best eFG% of 59.5%. He was a top 15 rebounder, by rebounding percentage, on both the offensive and defensive ends. Oh, and he had the best block rate in the entire league last year. Let him be Kihei’s primary pick-and-roll/pop partner and watch him shred the ACC.
2) The guard rotation struggles out of the gate. This is my biggest area of worry this season. Not Kihei, mind you. The 2- and 3-spots. It was easily the weak spot of last year’s team. None of Casey Morsell, Tomas Woldetensae, Kody Stattmann, or Braxton Key ever really nailed down these positions at a high level. Certainly, defensively, these units performed adequately, though losing Braxton hurts somewhat. But offensively, that quartet struggled badly to score and space the floor, only Tomas Woldetensae eventually resembling an ACC-quality shooter by the end of the season, and even he was highly streaky. Could improvements be made from these returners? Sure. But how much improvement is possible in just one offseason?
We’ve also got three high upside freshmen coming in with Jabri-Abdur Rahim, Carson McCorkle, and Reece Beekman, but how fast will they acclimate? Abdur-Rahim and McCorkle are both coming off major surgeries that cut short their senior high school seasons and could be rusty. Beekman’s reportedly impressing but he’s more of a PG than a scoring threat. There’s a risk that this six-player grouping could give Tony fits trying to nail down his best options at starters and top bench players, and I worry that it could take some games to work out kinks.
3) Reece Beekman is the breakout star of the 4-star freshman trio. Tony knows point guards. He turned Jontel Evans into a sturdy multi-year starter and an all-ACC defender. London Perrantes was relatively anonymous when he arrived in 2013 and promptly steered the Hoos to an ACC title and nearly 30 wins a year over his career. Ty Jerome was on no one’s national radar when Bennett got his commitment in September of 2014, only to watch him blow up and lead UVA to a national title before becoming a 1st round draft pick. And we’re only halfway through the incredible story of Kihei Clark’s journey from five-foot-nuthin, a-hundred-and-nuthin recruiting afterthought to national champion and All-ACC floor general.
So put stock in Tony’s decision to laser in on Reece Beekman as his Plan A, #1 preference point guard recruit very early in the 2020 recruiting cycle. Tony saw the makings of yet another all-ACC performer in the Louisiana (originally from Wisconsin) product. He had not just the physical gifts but the IQ and the heart as well. And early reports from fall camp have him shining.
I know the circumstances point to the other freshmen being breakouts. Jabri Abdur-Rahim was the highest rated recruit of the class with the best NBA upside. Carson McCorkle is a Kyle Guy-esque marksman joining a team in desperate need of 3-point shooting after last year. And Reece’s path to the floor is ostensibly blocked by Kihei Clark’s incumbency. But Tony loves having two PGs on the floor together, riding Ty and Kihei’s partnership to the Final Four, and would love to do that again. Will size be an issue on defense with Beekman and Kihei sharing the floor? No worse than it was when Kyle and Kihei played together. Expect Reese to not only play the 5-10 mpg Kihei is getting a breather, but another 10-15 mpg alongside Kihei, leading the freshmen trio in minutes played.
1. Virginia’s TO rate will normalize this year.
Last year the Cavaliers were especially poor at protecting the ball and turned it over on almost 18% of their possessions. They ranked 278 out of the 353 Division I programs. The average record of the 75 teams worse than UVa at protecting the ball: 12 – 18. The average record of those teams better than us: 17 – 14. For a team that has ranked 9th, 2nd, 21st, 15th, 11th and 46th in the Peak Tony Era, this was almost as detrimental to the team’s struggles as the well-documented 3-point shooting woes. Last year Kihei Clark was overmatched as the sole ball handler playing 37 minutes/game and many of the turnovers were simply painful to watch. This year Clark has more help with the arrivals of Reece Beekman as a second guard and the eligibility of Sam Hauser as elite scorer. We will be back in the Top 20 in terms of TO percentage this year.
2. Clark is going to be better than people expect.
Amongst many of the faithful in Cavalier Nation, the prevailing sentiment seems to be that Clark has pretty much hit his ceiling in terms of growth and scoring potential. I say hogwash. Clark has smashed through the ceiling in both his years at Virginia, initially as a freshman playing starter minutes alongside the Big Three, and then last year as the sole guard logging monster minutes. We saw Clark learn to keep his dribble in the paint and play behind the rim, a la Steve Nash en route to averaging 5.9 assists/game. If you view Clark’s assists on a per 100 possessions basis, which takes into account our slow team speed, Clark had the third highest assist rate among power 5 conference guards. And this was with him being surrounded by the Gang that Couldn’t Shoot Straight. Clark is going to explode and be the second highest scorer on the team this year.
3. Too many Virginia fans will continue to yearn for 5* talent.
With the imminent whiff of long-time Bennett target Trevor Keels — it appears he’s headed to Duke — Bennett’s only recruit for the future is yet another white kid from Down Under. Twitter has seen a steady stream of comments like this:
I’ll admit, I’m being greedy. I believe Tony can win another Natty but it’s going to take grinding and some luck. I want him to land some of these kids so we can start stacking titles confidently.
Usually wistful comparisons are then made to the Duke Dynasty. But Bennett has crushed the Tobacco Road status quo since his arrival in Charlottesville. These fans can be shown this:
and it won’t be enough.
1. Jay Huff averages 12 points and 9 rebounds, shoots 39% from 3-point range, and records six double-doubles. For comparison, last season, Huff averaged 8.5 points and 6.2 rebounds in 25 minutes per game. Over the final three contests, though — which included the monster 15-point, 10-block, nine-rebound performance against Duke — Huff averaged 14.3 points, 7.7 rebounds, and 4 blocks. For the year, he shot 35.8% from beyond the arc on 53 attempts, but in 2018-19, he was at 45.2% on 31 attempts. Huff tallied three double-doubles. I think these numbers are within reach, though it will be tough, especially with a guy on the court who is an offensive star in Sam Hauser, who will take his fair share of shots. At the same time, you can probably argue having a player like the former Marquette standout on the court will take some teams’ focus off of Huff, allowing him to continue to grow in his final collegiate season.
2. Kody Stattmann begins to blossom. The Aussie started 10 games last season and averaged 3.6 points and 2.4 rebounds, but still only shot 26.9% on 3s, barely an improvement from the year before. He did score 10 and 11 points in back-to-back games in the home victory over Virginia Tech and the loss at Boston College. He also dealt with injuries. There were a couple of times when Stattmann surprised me with his athleticism, which is probably an underrated part of his game. He’s also going into his third year in the program, and he should know the system and defense well at this point. His length can give some guys at the 3 spot a problem. There’s playing time available at the 3 with the graduation of Braxton Key. I’m not going to necessarily call for Stattmann to hit any particular stat marks or start a certain number of games, I’ll just say I bet we see significant improvement and better shooting.
3. Virginia gets revenge after a regular-season loss and takes down Villanova in a classic national championship. I’m not sure if this really qualifies as THAT bold, which is a way to say we have an excellent program. These programs have already played a couple of great games in 2015-16 and 2016-17. UVa took the first meeting at John Paul Jones Arena by 11, and the Wildcats clawed out a 2-point win in Philly the next season. They are scheduled to play at Madison Square Garden on Dec. 19. I’ll pick ‘Nova to edge out the Wahoos in that meeting. But then the two end up on opposite sides of the NCAA tournament bracket. As they each win in the first few rounds of March Madness, anticipation builds for another possible exciting matchup. Virginia shows its trademark development throughout the year to down Villanova in the rematch by a handful of points. The Cavaliers are crowned champions in a second straight NCAA tournament, further solidifying their spot atop the sport. With Villanova having won two titles in three seasons recently and gotten to a third final, plus the four classic games these teams have played over the past half decade, Virginia-Villanova gains momentum as one of the better modern rivalries in college basketball.
Karl Hess (Not the Real Ref)
1. Kihei dunks during a game! At some point during the season, there’s going to be a tip out or tip away that results in an uncontested breakaway by the Mongoose. Instead of simply laying the ball in, Kihei decides to show off his hops. It’s going to be a convincing one-hand flush that bests either of Kyle Guy’s efforts in the 2018 ACC Tournament.
2. The 2020-2021 Hoos top the national championship squad as they set a record for the most 3 pointers made in a season. The 2018-2019 Hoos currently hold the program record with 321 makes. Sam Hauser, Jay Huff, and Tomas Woldetensae lead the way, but balanced contributions across the rest of the roster combine for at least 350 makes as these Hoos prove to be experts beyond the arc.
3. We all have to buy new national championship gear at the end of the season. This is probably going to be a common prediction, but a national title is still bold for us. It also still takes way too long for national title floor trinkets to be made and delivered.
1) Virginia will not win the national championship. With seemingly everyone above me predicting the national championship, this is the bold prediction. Virginia and Villanova will storm through their brackets, each win a nailbiter classic in the National Semifinal round, then meet for the most-anticipated title game clash in years. They will not disappoint, with ‘Nova winning on a tipin at the buzzer by Collin Gillespie.
2) Jay Huff is ACC Player of the Year. Kihei is getting his props. Sam Hauser is the media darling. Everyone expects the transfer to come in and lead the Wahoos out of the desert. Nobody is talking about Huff. What everyone is missing is that Hauser is going to make Huff more effective. He’s going to open up the lane on the pick-and-roll. He’s going to occupy defenders on the low block drawing them back a step from Jay on the arc. He’s going to clear the lane allowing Jay to sneak in for putbacks and alley oops. Scoring, rebounding, blocking shots, hard hedges – Jay is going to have his best year at all of them.
3) Virginia has six different players go for 25+ points in a game during the season: Hauser, Huff, Clark, Beekman, Woldetensae and Morsell.
So there you have it: The HOOS Place Bold And Crazy Predictions for UVA 2020-21!