We approach each season with high hopes. We always have, we're painful optimists. But those hopes have skyrocketed over the last five or so years as Virginia rose from the ACC's cellar, first as it started earning consideration for NCAAT berths, and then as it cracked college basketball's top echelon. This year is no different as we return a fifth year senior, and third year starting center, a former five star finally starting at the 4 spot, and some of the ACC's most decorated returning guards and wings at the 1-3. Once again Wahoo fans are dreaming of cutting down more nets. But what will it take for those dreams to become a reality? Hoos Place's writers weigh in with our Keys to the Season:
1) Emergence of at least two guys from off the bench. The starting five is set, and is ready to rock, but we need some of the young guys to emerge in order to provide functional depth. I'm bullish on Frankie Badocchi, and believe he'll be one of the bench guys to emerge. He offers a different brand of front court athleticism that promises to perfectly complement Jack Salt or stack strengths with Mamadi Diamite. My guess is that Kihei Clark is another who ends up playing a lot off the bench, and playing well. This team and this system is always going to need confident, competent ball handling and distribution, and Clark provides that. Meanwhile, Jay Huff continues to toil in anonymity, much to Hoofans' frustration.
2) Get mad about the 16-1 upset, and take the frustration out on everyone we play. This, really, is the key to everything for me in 2018-19. Regular season wins aren't going to mean very much to me this season... unless we're stomping mudholes in people. I want to see this team find its killer instinct and start tearing out some jugulars.
3) Tony needs to effectively feature De'Andre Hunter on offense. It means so much to this program to put a guy into the NBA draft lottery, and show recruits that you can indeed come to Virginia, play crawl ball, yet still make a successful early leap to the Association. If Bennett imposes an artificial limit on Hunter's offense, he'll be imposing an artificial limit on his own future recruiting ability. 16-1 is bad enough, we now need to systemically begin to flip the narrative on our style of play that suppresses recruiting... and that begins with Hunter on offense in 2018-19.
1) Stay Healthy. Sure, this is a reference to the ghosts of postseasons past. Clearly Hunter’s wrist injury came at an inopportune time a season ago, as did Justin Anderson’s injury in that 2014-15 season and Anthony Gill’s against Michigan State in the 2013-14 Sweet 16 matchup. But this also has to do with the roster makeup this season. The starting five might be the best of recent memory, but the bench is shaky. A three-star, 5-foot-9 freshman point guard will likely be the first man off the bench in the backcourt (I’m expecting fellow freshman Kody Stattmann to redshirt), and sophomore Marco Anthony – despite an impressive 10 points last season against Louisville – doesn’t have the upside of either of the former two. In the frontcourt, Badocchi is an unknown offensively and Jay Huff has yet to show the defensive consistency necessary to earn meaningful minutes (Key’s waiver remains TBD). Long story short, the starting five needs to remain healthy if this team is going to get where it wants to go – a Final Four.
2) Emergence of at least two scorers off the bench. All that said, while the bench won’t carry this team, some players will have to emerge. This equation got a lot easier when Key got his waiver. Someone is going to have to spell the starters, even if it’s only for a few minutes per game. I trust Bennett enough to know whoever he puts on the floor will be at least serviceable – if not above average – defensively. The question then shifts to offense. I’m looking for at least two guys that can come in and provide scoring when asked. That might not be the difference against a Duke and UNC where star power wins, but that depth will help the team grind through the middle-of-the-road conference games against the likes of Clemson, Boston College, and others.
3) Be willing to get creative offensively. No coach is perfect, not even Tony Bennett. While the mover-blocker offense can be effective at times, other times it goes stale. In situations when that happens (which it will multiple times during the season), Bennett needs to be more willing to move away from it. This point alone could be the theme of a long discussion, but it really comes down to whether Bennett will look to exploit matchups where someone on the floor has an advantage. The obvious name is De’Andre Hunter, whether it’s against a smaller wing on the perimeter or a slower big in the post. But it also goes for Ty Jerome against a smaller guard and Mamadi Diakite in the post. Whether or not this leads to points for the player with the ball in his hands or the opportunity for an extra pass for Guy in the corner or cutting to the hoop, Bennet needs to be more willing to open the offensive system and allow his talented players to exploit matchups. That might make the difference in a game or two, especially the important one.
1) The "right" health at the "right" times. You can't expect to go through an entire basketball season without any injuries. It's possible but unlikely. Somebody important is going to miss some games. The key is who and when. Lose one or two important players for segments of the season and have everyone healthy in March? You're golden as long as you were able to win enough games to get to March. This team has less "margin-for-injury" than some past teams - but of course those teams had their injuries late. Cannot have that this year.
2) Mamadi Diakite and Ty Jerome eliminate the dumb fouls from their games. In a six-game stretch late in 2017-18, from Georgia Tech through Clemson in the ACC Tournament, Diakite scored 9 points three times and 10 points twice. He started to show a consistent ability to generate offense on post moves and face up drives into the paint from the short corner area. We all know what he can do defensively. But he needs his fouls available for challenging shots in the lane, not being late on hedges or the other silly fouls he committed with regularity. Diakite being able to give 25 good minutes per game is crucial to maximizing the Hoos' season, and that won't happen if he's in foul trouble from a lack of focus.
As for Ty Jerome, he's my pick for ACC Player of the Year, but he can't be getting into foul trouble in a critical game. Although he cut his foul rate down substantially, he still had some high foul games. What would have happened had he picked up that fifth foul at Louisville? Picking up the third foul early in the second half was an issue a couple of times, too. The foul trouble experienced by Isaiah Wilkins and Devon Hall in the first half was a big factor in the fate that befell the Hoos that day.
3) Tony Bennett showing strategic flexibility. Virginia might have to lean on two players who are not built to fare well in the base defense run by the team last season. Since 2015-16, the defense has gradually morphed from one that eschewed switching on screens to one that does it frequently. With Devon Hall, Ty Jerome, Kyle Guy, De'Andre Hunter, and Isaiah Wilkins dominating the minutes, that is a strategy that can be employed without worrying about egregious mismatches, because any one of those players can at least credibly guard just about any player on the floor for at least a few seconds. But the last thing we want to see is Kihei Clark getting switched onto Tyus Battle. And part of the reason Jay Huff could not get on the floor last year was because he is ill suited to hedge and recover, reminiscent of Mike Tobey before him. Does Bennett, as Jason Williford suggested in a summer interview, "tweak some things on defense" to help those players get on the floor?
And on the other side of the game, did you know UVA has two of the best players in the country on isolation plays? De'Andre Hunter converts 1.1 PPP on isolation, and Ty Jerome is even better at 1.14 PPP. Both of them grade out at 92% for Excellent. Jerome is great at finding spot-up shooters on pick-and-roll plays. With these two players, the Hoos are adding Braxton Key, who is best at driving to the basket and not much of a shooter. At times Virginia showed different things offensively, but as the season wore on, it was more and more mover-blocker, and in the NCAA Tournament the offense was notable for its lack of effort at exploiting mismatches, even when the opponent blew up the screening action. If Virginia is going to maximize its roster, the game plan is going to have to be flexible enough to play to the strengths of the players.
1) Key gets his waiver. I believe this is the difference between a 4 to 6 seed in the NCAA Tournament & a 1 to 3 seed. - I'm on record that the Hoos reach the Final Four if Key gets his waiver. So this one is pretty self explanatory.
2) Jay Huff and Mamadi Diakite get and stay on the court. Huff’s development heading into ACC play and Mamadi’s maturation make the team longer, deeper, more versatile, and harder to defend. Learning to play D without fouling will be the biggest challenge and area to grow for each. - Huff and Diakite are both talented offensively. But they're incredibly foul prone. Earlier I outlined how Mamadi was the most foul prone player on the team. Jay Huff was the second most last season (5.3 fouls per 40 minutes and 8.8 fouls per 100 possessions). The team cannot take advantage of their offensive talents if they can't stay on the court to begin with.
3) Credible reserve minutes from Kihei, Marco, or ideally Kihei & Marco. Use the gimme games to flesh this out so that by ACC play one or both don’t actively hurt you on the floor. We have to avoid running Ty and Guy into the ground by March and this is the most obvious path. - We have an idea who the reserves are in the frontcourt and on the wing. But there's no one to give Ty Jerome and Kyle Guy a breather but Kihei and Marco unless the Hoos try to steal minutes with Dre or Kody at guard. Ideally both Marco and Kihei come through and contribute successful bench minutes, but at least one is a must.
Maize and Blue
1) Tune it out on the road. The ACC is the ACC and the road is a nasty place. Turn it up to eleven this season; everyone, and especially the heathens in Blacksburg and Durham, will be sure to remind the players a thousand times exactly what historical event happened last year (which I’ve officially decided to make a habit of referring to in the most roundabout and oblique way possible at all times.)
2) Find secondary scoring. UVA didn’t have much of it last year and couldn’t figure out how to generate any on short notice with De’Andre Hunter missing. The Hoos return a big three of Jerome, Guy, and Hunter; there’s a long list of possibilities for some scoring punch outside them that includes (but is not limited to) Jay Huff, Mamadi Diakite, and Braxton Key. UVA has to be able to take two of the big three off the court and still know they can put up points.
3) Play angry. You’ll notice two outta three of these keys here really have nothing to do with X’s and O’s. Tony has that part locked down. By now, we should be past the point of worrying about whether this or that player can learn the finer points of the pack line. Tony’s ability to impart his wisdom is no longer an issue. The question now is all about mindset. That one time, the team looked shell-shocked. It’s not enough anymore to just be technically proficient and relatively resilient; to take the next step, the best thing this team can do is see the letters B, U, C, and M (maybe not in that order) on every jersey they look at, and figuratively punch the wearers in the mouth with everything they do. And maintain that mindset for six months.
1) Make the 4-spot a legitimate face-up threat. Spacing was my operative word when I did a post-mortem on last season a few months ago. As defenders get more athletic and teams follow UVA's lead to pack defenses in tighter, the need to be able to stretch defenses is more important than ever. Tony has continually modified how he deploys his 4 depending on his personnel, with Mike Scott, Anthony Gill, and Evan Nolte helping unclog the paint by being face-up threats, either wide or in the high post. The last couple of years, we've used small-ball lineups to accomplish this, Hunter being the prime example, but Devon in 2016-17 as well. This year, if the guard depth doesn't allow us to go small often, the Mamadi and Huff have to be green lit to play a face-up game, and they need to do so enough to get into a rhythm and to force defenses to honor it, fixing spacing and opening up the paint for the drivers and for the 5-man. And about that 5-man...
2) Feed the 5 on the blocks. Spacing doesn't just mean utilizing the perimeter with most of your players. It also means utilizing the paint. We haven't had a good low-post game since Tobey graduated, and that needs to change, if for nothing else than to keep defenses honest and off-balance. Jack, Mamadi, and Jay, whenever they're manning the 5-spot, need to be aggressive scoring off the blocks. And the guards need to be aggressive feeding them.
3) Don't run the starters into the ground. Part of it is keeping the starters fresh for March. Part of it is that guys like Jay Huff, Marco Anthony, and the freshmen need reps to play through mistakes and build confidence. The season will rise and fall not just on the top 5, but on the bench as well, and those reserves need their minutes even in tight, meaningful games.