It is now the end of May and the 2019-20 Virginia Basketball roster is most likely complete. A scholarship is open, but no known candidate to take it and make a difference in 2019 is available. We have heard of interest in one or two potential reclassifications from 2020, but none that would be likely to come to Virginia or to break into the rotation. Knowing who the Hoos will have allows us to begin analyzing the talent and projecting things like lineups and prognosis - and color me excited. I think we have a fabulous roster and expect a great season. It will "be a down year" from 2018-19 but when you win over 30 games, the ACC regular season and the National Championship, there is only one kind of year possible the following year (I guess equal is theoretically possible but we live in the material world). But I think it's going to be great fun watching this new group of Cavaliers develop and compete, and I think they are going to give us some great moments and achieve tremendous things. As a "rebuilding year" I expect this one to be better than 2016-17.
Make no mistake - this is a very talented team, one of Bennett's most talented. I don't expect it to maximize its potential to anywhere close to the degree the 2018-19 team did, for various reasons, but I do expect it to be more formidable than most people expect. Why is that? Because when you tote up the list of "question marks" about a Tony Bennett team entering a season, you have to expect at least 80% of those questions to receive positive answers, and if 80% of this team's question marks are answered in the positive, this is going to be a very good team.
If players never left early for any reason, the only loss from last season would be Jack Salt. With a senior backcourt of Ty Jerome and Kyle Guy, a redshirt junior De'Andre Hunter, returning rotation stalwarts in a senior Mamadi Diakite, a senior Braxton Key, and a sophomore Mong00se - "Yippie-ki-yay Kihei!" Clark, the redshirt junior Hoonicorn Jay Huff, all joined by the next every-dimension stud Casey Morsell, and twin towers Francisco Caffaro and Kadin Shedrick, the Hoos would have to be the odds-on favorites to repeat (although one shudders to think of Duke's roster in this hypothetical world).
But we don't live in such a world, and in the world in which we live, roster turnover is inevitable - especially following a national championship.
Out With the Old
Jack Salt - From senior starter to situational reserve, Jack transitioned out of the limelight during 2018-19. He played very little in the NCAA Tournament, making crucial contributions when he did. His PTSD-inducing screens, strong positional defense and occasional stunning displays of "I didn't know he could do that!" plays will be missed. Never a scoring threat and often relegated to the bench by internet coaches, Jack made the offense and defense better by improving the productivity of his teammates. He was the quintessential force multiplier.
Ty Jerome - Almost nobody had any clue how good he was going to be as a college player when he was coming out of high school, and almost nobody has a clue how good he is going to be as an NBA player now that he is coming out of college. But as a college player, Jerome was sensational this season. Who was a better point guard in college? Fuck the All-American and All-ACC awards, what point guard in America would you want running the team other than Ty Jerome?
Kyle Guy - If there were better shooters in the NCAA than Kyle Guy, you could count them on the fingers of one hand and still be able to flip someone off. And, of course, Kyle was way more than just a shooter. He was a tough rebounder and defender, and he was willing to take the ball into the paint when the defense sold out to run him off the line. With all the tangible things he did, it may be that Kyle's biggest contribution was the impact he had on opposing coaches. They were determined not to let their players forget about him for three seconds - for good reason, because whenever they did, he dropped a bomb on them.
De'Andre Hunter - Crazy how life can go. In little more than a year Hunter went from a diffident kid needing confidence and with a brother publicly campaigning for him to transfer out to a decorated National Champion and Bennett's first NBA lottery pick. When it had to be someone beating the opponent one-on-one, Dre was The Guy. Whether it was locking up another lottery pick or pouring in 22 points after halftime, Hunter was a legitimate superstar.
Marco Anthony - The lone signee in November 2017, Marco was a 6-6 high school big guard who shrank to 6-4 when he got to UVA. He needed those two inches, and was never able to get into the rotation at UVA. He transferred out after the season in a move that surprised nobody.
In With the New
It's hard to remember that we were already adding three players this year because last year's team lacked depth. Before the season, the biggest question mark was whether we would have any guard depth (funny how some things have not changed), and a lot of people didn't feel too good about relying on Kihei Clark to be that depth. After a hectic spring, Tony Bennett is bringing in FIVE new players, and adding five to the active roster. Francisco Caffaro joined the program last spring but redshirted. He will almost definitely step into the rotation. Sam Hauser is joining the program this spring but will redshirt for his transfer year and step into the starting lineup next year. The other four players join the program and the active roster. Two of those came aboard after the end of the NCAA Tournament.
Francisco Caffaro - The 7-footer from Argentina signed with Virginia last year out of the Australia NBA Academy. It was a whirlwind courtship, as Virginia came into it late and stole him away from St. Mary's, Nebraska and Georgia Tech. Caffaro had a fantastic performance in the 2018 FIBA America tournament, helping Argentina qualify for this summer's FIBA U-19 World Cup with some big-time scoring performances against five-star recruits on the USA, Canada, and Dominican Republic teams. Francisco has a scorer's mentality in the post and the frame to be an imposing defender - although he didn't show it in the FIBA tournament. Comparisons to Jack Salt are off-base and based only on size and strength. Caffaro is twice the scoring presence and half the defensive presence Salt was. Think of him more like Mike Tobey than Jack Salt if you must compare to former Hoos.
Casey Morsell - A fringe top-100 prospect when Tony Bennett first targeted him as the top priority 2019 recruit, Casey steadily climbed the charts until now he is consensus top 50. Morsell is an absolute stud, a true Bennett winner who will slide right in and perpetuate the culture of guys who bust their asses off and on the court around the calendar. He's listed as 6-2 but he has long arms and a short neck, making him more like a 6-5 guy with the arms of a 6-7 guy than a 6-2 Kyle Guy. Expect Casey to play a huge role from day one and to eventually inherit the Brogdon-Hunter mantle of perimeter stopper. Coincidentally, he also will be the next all-around offensive producer like those guys, a player who can bury the three or take it to the rack. He's just a tough bastard and a Brogdon-Jerome winner.
Kadin Shedrick - Tony Bennett charged into the Kadin Shedrick recruitment and ended it quickly. Within two or three weeks of first contact, Shedrick had committed not only to a scholarship from UVA, but to the family. He was all in right away, and like most Bennett recruits, saw his ranking skyrocket. He opened eyes on the summer AAU circuit then had a dominant senior season of high school - including a massive Battle of the Big Men with Isaiah Todd, a la Sampson-Ewing, which turned out pretty close to the same way. Shedrick is a monster on defense and an aggressive, capable scorer around the basket who also is developing his ability to shoot from outside and drive it. He comes in as one of the best big man prospects of the 2019 freshman class. With Mamadi Diakite coming back to school, I expect Kadin to redshirt, which he has said he is perfectly willing to do. After a year or two of development, expect huge things out of Kadin, with NBA possibilities.
Justin McKoy - If Shedrick had not jumped on Tony Bennett's offer and stuffed it in his pocket last summer, McKoy might have signed with Virginia in November instead of Penn State. Bennett discovered McKoy while recruiting Shedrick - both from North Carolina they played on the same AAU team for a stretch - and really liked his game. Things were moving forward toward an offer to McKoy when Kadin took the last scholarship. When it became obvious that Hunter's scholarship would be open for 2019 and McKoy decommitted from Penn State, Bennett jumped in with an immediate offer and fullcourt press. It was clear that the staff had identified McKoy as their top target for Hunter's scholarship. Justin got on the radar with his AAU play last summer, then blew up in the John Wall high school tournament in December. Forget his actual rankings, McKoy is a legit stud. When he became available this spring, UNC and NC State offered immediately, and Roy Williams made a personal effort to get him. It was too little, too late, and listening to McKoy talk the fit with Bennett's culture shines through vibrantly. McKoy is a true wing, a long 6-7 with a good stroke and sound handle who is a two-way player and will compete with Morsell for the title of Workout Warrior.
Tomas Woldetensae - Getting ACC-capable replacement for the guards Jerome and Guy was a huge challenge given the lateness of their scholarships opening. The magnitude of the challenge is proved by the coaches going the JUCO route. Bennett has not made use of JUCOs in the past, and UVA has rarely signed them. Tomas is the rare JUCO whose academics are UVA-capable. As a hooper, he's a shooting guard who can play point. He played point his first year at Indian Hills, then switched to shooting guard. He played the same role in their offense as Guy played in UVA's: the one opposing defenses chased all over the floor because if you left him alone, it was three points. 47%. That's what he shot from the arc. And he gets it off fast. With his size - 6-5 - and ballhandling, he can give minutes at 1-3, but he will fit most naturally at the 2. With Morsell and Clark, he should give UVA three capable guards, which is enough to win a national championship.
Sam Hauser - The transfer from Marquette becomes the sixth member of the 2016 Final RSCI rankings to come to UVA. The first five conspired to bring a national championship before three of them bolted to the NBA. Hauser was #94 in that consensus ranking, and had three fantastic years at Marquette where he was a career 44% three-point shooter. He's a very good player who will almost definitely find himself in the starting lineup in 2020-21, but as a transfer, he will not be part of the 2019-20 rotation. What he will do is give the rotation players fits in practice as part of the scout team.
Five players left and six players came in. They join six holdover players, four of whom were part of the rotation in 2018-19. When it got down to crunch time, however, Coach Bennett went mainly with six players: The Big Three, and the returning three of Mamadi Diakite, Braxton Key and Kihei Clark. The departed Jack Salt and the returning Jay Huff played regularly in the regular season and early rounds of the NCAA tournament, but hardly got off the bench as the Cavaliers advanced deeper into life-and-death territory. The triumvirate of Diakite, Key and Clark bring back invaluable experience and walk into every gym this year as The Champs.
Mamadi Diakite - Thanks to Mamadi, they're the Cardiac Cavs even in the offseason. He waited until literally the eleventh hour to announce that he was returning to school for his final year. Mamadi is coming off a sensational NCAA Tournament in which his defense and rebounding were crucial, and he even chipped in a few baskets here and there. Nothing too big or dramatic, mind you, just 10.5 points per game. Now he is back and capable of having a DPOY season and expanding his game. On defense he is a rim protector and a player who can cover a lot of ground and disrupt offensive formations. On offense, he has become an excellent rim runner who can also execute some post moves and shoot from the outside - although both of those areas need major improvement. His screening is underrated, meaning he is a very good P&R picker. Because UVA's backcourt is so thin and inexperienced, Mamadi will be more important to the offense as a scorer than to this point in his career.
Jay Huff - This is the year for Jay to step to the front and be the centerpiece of the team. Last year we saw in real competition what he had shown in flashes against cupcakes the year before: moments of dominance, where he strung together threes, dunks, blocks and defensive rebounding. This year we need him to do that for starter minutes. I'm looking for him to step into the starting lineup and become the focal point of the offense. Most of the production from last year's offense is gone. Those points will have to be found somewhere, and the only experienced option is Jay. It's time for the coaching staff to exploit the full arsenal of Jay's abilities. Will Tony continue the tactical flexibility he showed last season and embrace perimeter offense from one of his big men? Jay is a devastating spot up shooter and explosive Pick & Roll/Pop man. He's a fundamentally sound, versatile offensive player and I would run my offense through him at the top of the key. Defensively he is a force in the paint and needs to be allowed to stay there as much as possible. Since he stopped trying to block everything in sight he has been more effective protecting the rim. He needs to keep bringing that foul rate down. If Jay is going to make a run at the NBA it needs to start now, with an improved work ethic. But it also needs Tony to continue his adaptation away from a coach who fits his players into a system to one who fits the system to his players.
Braxton Key - In his first year after transferring from Alabama, the former top-50 recruit played an important role on a national championship team, and his role will only get bigger. He showed himself to be a smart, tough player who is really good at everything except putting the ball in the basket, where he often struggles. He played mostly in the four spot, but will probably be at least as much a wing as a four this year. He has the ball-handling and physical abilities to be effective on the wing, but his mediocre three-point shot and often-puzzling failure to finish will need to be overcome. Still, with the team being stronger in the post than on the perimeter, expect Key to swing to the wing. His leadership and ball-winning will be as important to these Hoos' success as anything else.
Frankie Badocchi - It is the third year in the program for the son of Italian and American parents who split time between the two countries growing up, and we still don't know if he will be a participant at the ACC level. Frankie has a lot of great tools but has to learn the game. After a redshirt year, Frankie earned spot minutes last year and did a few nice things. He hit a three, grabbed some rebounds, moved around on defense and showed the athleticism and ball-winning abilities that attracted us to him. One of Frankie's problems is that he plays a crowded position, as he is a four. He doesn't have the skill set to play on the wing, so his ability to compete for time is somewhat limited. But he has the tools to become an Isaiah Wilkins with better offense around the basket.
Kody Stattmann - When you lose three perimeter players you were not able to recruit to before they left, you end up with a a lack of depth. That's the situation Virginia faces, and Kody Stattmann could be a big part of the solution if he can prove himself to be an ACC player this year, his second in the program. Kody probably should have redshirted last year, but he didn't, and now we can only hope that the experience he did gain last year will help him develop over this off-season. He was a lights-out three-point shooter before college, and although he did not hit a high percentage of them as a freshman, he shot with confidence and showed a knack for exploiting close outs to get to the paint for fouls or finishes. His offense would be a help, but he has a long way to go defensively. He thought of going back home but has decided to stay the four years. If he can become a Nolte-like defender, his offense will be a boost to the team's fortunes.
Kihei Clark - What more can I say about the Mong00se? He came in with no fear and wound up capping a surprisingly impactful freshman campaign with an outstanding NCAA Tournament performance that included perhaps the most astonishing play in NCAA Tournament history. He did it all with aplomb and tenacity. It was that tenacity that earned him the nickname. Now as he approaches his sophomore year as the undisputed floor general, he shows that he will work as hard and lead as much in the offseason as he does during the season.
.@ClarkKihei set the tone for how hard we competing in summer school. He’s sitting down every possession and contesting everything like it’s the Final Four. Everyone learned FAST you ain’t getting nowhere off the bounce playing high. #CPSA #LowestManWins #NoStrapsNoRings #TMC pic.twitter.com/AJ3VypDAPb— Clint Parks (@ClintParks05) June 1, 2019
Kihei's challenges for this season will be two-fold: 1) To increase his scoring and start showing some of that ability to take over a game that he showed in high school and AAU ball, and 2) to remain effective when opposing coaches begin to focus game plans on him.
Musings On What It All Means
Tony Bennett has an exciting blend of talent to work with this season, in a group of young men who must be a joy to coach. It seems likely, however, that it will be a tough challenge to maximize the effectiveness of that talent to the degree that the 2018-19 team and some previous teams maximized their potential, for a variety of reasons:
1) Much of the talent is very young, and even more of it is completely inexperienced in ACC play. Caffaro and Woldetensae are a little older than the incoming freshman, but neither of them has played a game in the ACC or high level college basketball. They both have an edge over the incoming freshmen, but are behind even Badocchi and Stattmann, who at least played against ACC starters, albeit briefly and in games that were in hand. Shedrick and McKoy, in particular, are very talented young men who have a great chance of being high-level college players and even possible pros, but all of that is in future years. In 2019-20, Shedrick is likely to redshirt and McKoy is likely to have uneven minutes and a lot of rough moments as a true freshman in the toughest league in the country. Shedrick is behind Diakite, Huff, Caffaro and Key. McKoy is behind Key, and will be competing with Stattmann, Morsell and Woldetensae for perimeter minutes.
2) It is a blend of skill sets that fits awkwardly within the traditional Bennett system, and maximizing it will require him to adapt even farther from his comfort zone than he did this past season, in what I believe was the best coaching job of his career. Finding enough offense is going to require him to do at least one thing that he traditionally has not liked to do: rely primarily on true freshmen, run almost exclusively a ball-screen based offense, and/or build the offense around perimeter big men. For the last two years, the offense has been centered around the triumvirate of Guy, Jerome and Hunter. Others contributed on the periphery, but those three usually provided the bulk of the scoring, in some games each of them scoring more than the rest of the team combined. New players are going to have to become the foundation of the offense.
Look at the list of candidates and you see the dilemma: Diakite, Clark, Key, Huff, Morsell, Woldetensae, Caffaro, McKoy. Diakite is poor in the post. Clark and Key are limited. Morsell, Woldetensae, Caffaro and McKoy are all completely unproven. Huff is also poor in the post, but has the only proven scoring weapon on the team with his three-point shot and rim running. Diakite does his best work rim running off of Pick & Roll or guard penetration.
The Sides offense works best when it is run by experienced wings against underclassmen defenders; it works worst when run by underclassmen wings. This year's team is even less equipped to run an effective BM offense than was the 2016-17 team, which produced some of the most horrific offensive shit shows of the Peak Bennett Era. Woldetensae looks to have the stuff to be pretty good at it, but even Kyle Guy had frequent issues before last year.
Your best scorer is the 7-foot three-point shooter Huff whose frequent defensive issues have limited his playing time. Your point guard and starting center are best in the Pick & Roll. Your wings either can't shoot or are inexperienced. The roster is more attuned to drive-and-kick and pick-and-roll/pop than you've ever had. Do you design your tactics to use that, or do you stick to what you are comfortable with? The history of this past season indicates that we will see more CBS (or CBSBM as I have come to call it) and less BM.
3) The talent blend, being short on wings and long on big men, presents a challenge to the system on the defensive end as well. Your best offensive lineup is Diakite (maybe Caffaro), Huff, Woldetensae, Morsell and Clark, and that is not your best defensive lineup. Because the team is big heavy, it has to deal with the challenge of wing 4s. The perimeter is heavily inexperienced, and the Packline is a very difficult defense in which to excel for inexperienced players. Because it relies so heavily on cohesion, reads and communication, it is extremely vulnerable to breakdown when those things are absent, and those things are grown over time. Does Tony adjust the scheme in some way to simplify it or to allow Jay Huff to excel to the point where you can build your offense around him?
I'm excited as hell for this year. This is the start of a new era. The departing players leave behind an incredible legacy (see StLouHoo's amazing article on the Exodus), and we have a whole new group. Even much of the returning talent is really new. Kihei and Braxton and Kody and Francisco were only with that group for a single year, and for all of them their best days are in the future. They provide the bridge, they take the culture they learned from The Champions and transmit it to the six guys who come in with their own ambitions. This is Bennett Era Four (the Formative Years, The Rising Years, the Peak Years, the Carrying Forward Years), and once again a group of fantastic young men will be molded by a group of great teachers and leaders into a team that will be fun to follow for its fans, who will be more than happy to say "fuck the haters" who think Bennett's teams are boring.
My way too early prognostication? Top third of the ACC, top 15 nationally, and playing in the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament.