It's been a little more than two months since Virginia won the national championship. It's amazing to sit back and think about how the team's tournament run unfolded, especially the last three games. It's still unbelievable to think that so many things had to go right for the Wahoos to win the title, and they did. For the first time, it felt like Virginia was the one getting the breaks.
Against Purdue, UVA had a 9% chance to win with 5 seconds left.— Danny Neckel (@DNeckel19) June 6, 2019
Against Auburn, UVA had a 4% chance to win with 0.6 seconds left.
Against Texas Tech, UVA had a 11% to win with 13 seconds left.
Virginia won all three.
I keep forgetting how crazy that was. pic.twitter.com/dOoQo52ZnS
Looking back at my lookahead for the 2018-19 season, almost everything that needed to happen for UVa to have a chance at the title did happen. Reading back over that post almost gave me the creeps. 😄
A lot has happened to the Cavaliers since that magical Monday night in April. The team is going to look very different next season. Before I get into that discussion too much, let's look at the biggest offseason headlines thus far for UVa and also do some shameless promoting of some of our posts:
-- If you missed the post, a week after the victory over Texas Tech, I looked at 15 plays that defined the championship game.
-- Just a week later, players began to announce their draft intentions. In this post, StLouHoo did a deep dive into the decisions of De'Andre Hunter, Ty Jerome, Kyle Guy, and Mamadi Diakite.
-- Also a week after the big victory, three-star forward Justin McKoy committed to the 'Hoos, picking them over North Carolina and other schools. And mid-April was also the first time UVa fans learned that Sam and Joey Hauser were transferring from Marquette and Virginia was near the top of their lists. Plus, guard Marco Anthony said he was transferring.
-- On April 26, I released my annual season-ending awards and evaluations.
-- On May 29, Sam Hauser said he was coming to UVa, while his brother decided on Michigan State.
-- And finally, after 11 p.m. on May 29, with only about 40 minutes to spare before the deadline, Diakite revealed he had decided to return to UVa for his senior season and taken his name out of the NBA draft. That's great and all, but Valentine wrote that as long as Tony Bennett is back, the team is going to be OK.
There is still one scholarship open for next season, so it's possible Virginia could sign someone or grab another transfer. But the dust has settled enough to look at some storylines, so let's dive in.
How will Virginia respond to winning the crown? The challenge for this coming season couldn't be any more different than last year's, when I posed the question, "How will Virginia respond to the loss to UMBC?" The Cavaliers had the ultimate motivation after embarrassing themselves in front of the nation and used it accordingly. Now, they have the double hit of being defending champions. Sometimes the tendency can be to rest on your laurels once you've climbed to the top, so Virginia will have to fight that. And after many seasons of not putting the final capper on the argument as the country's best team, the program broke through. The target on the players' backs and on Bennett's back will be even bigger now as teams further dissect what he's built and how to beat it.
I can't do anything about the target. Virginia will continue to have to fight off teams' best shots. But I don't think the first part will become a factor. First, let's not underestimate Bennett's competitiveness. Behind the calm demeanor and nice-guy attitude burns a fire to be the best. Bennett has firmly inserted himself into the best-coach-in-the-sport debate with the first title. Multiple crowns will get him a seat at the all-time table. Only 15 coaches have won more than one. Second, I think the turnover on the team will help with the tendency to rest. Last year's team won the title, but The Big Three have moved on and there's room for a new batch of players to emerge and lead, plus Diakite should be motivated to have his best season.
What will the critics think up next? Critics of Virginia's "boring" style of play still exist even though it played three of the most exciting NCAA tournament games in history. Some say Virginia got lucky, and yes, it did, but what champion of any sport doesn't have luck involved in its run? And it wasn't the Cavaliers that couldn't rebound Jerome's missed free throw at the end of regulation against Purdue. It wasn't the Cavaliers that bumped into Guy as he attempted his 3-pointer against Auburn. And when given the opportunity, Hunter seized it in the championship game vs. Texas Tech, draining a series of 3s in the second half and overtime to lead the Wahoos to the promised land. The fact is Virginia led each of the last three games comfortably and blew those margins. Fans were watching their worst nightmares come to life. But Virginia recovered each time, just in time, to win all three, and that took intestinal fortitude and courage, which originated from the UMBC disaster. The critics this season and in coming seasons will say Virginia got lucky and will never be able to win another. But the trophy the program does have will never be taken away, and I'd be a little surprised if, as long as Bennett sticks around, another one won't come at some point.
How will the rule changes affect UVa? There's a continual push over the past decade to make the college game more like the NBA game. As such, the NCAA adopted two changes that will take effect in 2019-20. The 3-point line has been pushed out from 20 feet, 9 inches, to 22 feet, 1¾ inches, which is what is used in international play. The NBA arc is 23 feet, 9 inches from the basket around most of the arc and 22 feet away in the corners. The other change is that if a team rebounds its own miss, the shot clock will reset to 20 seconds instead of 30, which will quicken the pace of the play.
For the arc change, Virginia had one of the best 3-point defenses in the country. With the arc being farther out, that's farther for UVa's players to travel to close out on shooters. But the longer distance could make the shot a little harder anyway. It also helps to pull apart the Pack Line a little, which will give teams more room to operate on offense, and that's the kind of reasoning that seems specifically targeted at teams like UVa that love to pack the paint. So how might Bennett adjust the defensive spacing? Will the Pack Line move out a tad? Will it stay put, with Bennett deciding to sacrifice a little bit of 3-point defense? He's probably looking at the change as another challenge to test his defense and is eager to figure out the best way to run his system.
Virginia's offense could be affected, too, especially next season, with Hunter, Jerome, and Guy all gone, all of whom were great shooters. But Virginia typically is a good 3-point shooting team, and I think that will eventually be the case again, even if not immediately, just because of the offense the team runs and through Bennett's ability to recruit shooters.
I don't think the shot clock change will greatly affect UVa. It will increase the number of possessions in games, but we already saw the clock change from 35 seconds to 30 recently, and some people thought that would hurt UVa, and it didn't. It just made offenses have less time against the Pack Line, and Virginia still crushed opponents.
How will Diakite perform in his redshirt senior season? If the big man from Guinea increases his scoring and rebounding at the average rate he has over his first three seasons, he would average 9.2 points and 5.3 rebounds. But there's reason to believe he'll be better than that. Remember, he really stepped up his game in the NCAA tournament, posting 10.5 points, 8.2 rebounds, and 2.7 blocks per game after recording averages of 6.8, 3.7, and 1.5 in the regular season and ACC tournament. With a lack of proven scorers returning, and the hunger he likely has to prove he is a viable NBA prospect, I expect to see numbers closer to his March Madness performance.
Here's a refresher of who the other scholarship players on the roster are for next season other than Diakite (7.4 ppg, 4.4 rpg, 1.7 bpg), with 2018-19 stats if applicable, in order from most seniority to least:
-- Senior forward Braxton Key (5.7 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 0.6 bpg)
-- Senior forward Sam Hauser (14.9 ppg, 7.2 rpg, 2.5 apg; ineligible due to NCAA transfer rules)
-- Redshirt junior center Jay Huff (4.4 ppg, 2.1 rpg, 0.7 bpg)
-- Junior guard Tomas Woldetensae (17.3 ppg, 2.8 rpg, 2.5 apg at the junior college level)
-- Redshirt sophomore forward Francesco Badocchi (1.4 ppg)
-- Sophomore guard Kihei Clark (4.5 ppg, 2.3 rpg, 2.6 apg)
-- Sophomore guard Kody Stattmann (1.7 ppg, 0.6 rpg)
-- Redshirt freshman center Francisco Caffaro
-- Freshman guard Casey Morsell
-- Freshman center Kadin Shedrick
-- Freshman forward Justin McKoy
Will this be Jay Huff's year? There's a need for scoring, and there's a need for 3-point shooting. Huff can do both and electrify the crowd to boot. If not now, when? If Huff is ever going to gain a firm foothold on consistent playing time in the program, next year is the year. If he has a great redshirt junior season and displays all of his tools and what he's truly capable of, he might not be around for a fifth season. It's up to Huff and Bennett how this plays out. He seems capable of being a star, and a bunch of offense has left for the NBA. Can he be consistent on defense, better on the boards, and keep up his endurance? Those seem to be the only obstacles keeping him off the floor, because he's the entire package on offense, and I'm not sure he'd even have to spend a lot of time in the post with Diakite, Shedrick, McKoy, Caffaro, and Badocchi down there. More: In this post, Seattle makes the case that Huff is on the brink of stardom.
Who will be the team's leaders? Like Virginia's most successful teams, this one should have a good mix of personalities. Diakite is one of the obvious choices to be a leader as a fifth-year player. I don't think he will dominate huddles and meetings, though. Even as a fourth-year player this past season, he sometimes had to be pulled aside and talked to after making mistakes, something Guy did for him on a consistent basis. Diakite also has too fun-loving of a personality to be a *serious* leader. I think Clark will take over that role from Jerome as the point guard and on-court coach. We've already seen Bennett's belief in Clark through some freshman growing pains, and now he will take over the reins even more. Just as he does with opponents, Clark won't be intimidated by his older and bigger teammates and will do a little barking if he has to. Diakite will be more of the good cop like Guy. Like Clark did this past season, I also wouldn't be surprised to see Morsell quickly become a leader, given the chance he has to be an impact player from day one. Key will also have a role as a leader, but he's a bit quieter. I expect him to lead by example and with his physicality on the court.
What more can we expect from Key? We knew Key's availability would be crucial (remember, at this time last year, UVa wasn't sure if he'd be eligible right away or need to sit out a year) in making this past season successful, and indeed, he was an important aspect to the championship run. But I'm not sure we knew in what ways he'd be important. I think most of us thought he'd be another offensive weapon, and he was at times, but his biggest contribution was on defense and the boards. In the title game, he grabbed 10 rebounds and blocked Jarrett Culver's final shot at the end of regulation. On the season, he led the team in rebounding despite being sixth in minutes per game. Offensively, though, he posted the lowest scoring average of his career and shot just 30.5 percent from beyond the arc (but that was basically in line with his two seasons at Alabama). To me, Key plays a Hunter style of game with a little more physicality and rebounding skill, but way less offensive skill. With more playing time available, we will get to see how Key develops in his second and final campaign in Charlottesville and see if he can add more offense to his arsenal.
How excited should we be for Morsell? Very. Just read this. It sounds like Virginia is getting the complete package in terms of scoring, making teammates better, intangibles, and a leader. Morsell is a consensus top-75 recruit. For reference, Hunter, Jerome, Guy, and Huff were all top-100 guys, too. In terms of style, in my head, I'm seeing Morsell as a combo of Jerome and Guy but with probably the ability to play better defense than they had as freshmen. He also sounds more explosive than they were coming out of high school. At this point, it would be surprising if he plays four years at Virginia. Expect him to start right away.
Will any other freshmen make an impact? Like Morsell, Shedrick is a four-star guy and should see immediate playing time as a more traditional big man. McKoy is more of a developmental project, so I'm not sure about him yet. But he was good enough to decommit from Penn State and have North Carolina come calling, so he could definitely see time. He's also expected to be more of a forward in the mold of Hunter, Key, or possibly Anthony Gill, and less of a traditional big man.
What will Woldetensae's role be? With Jerome going to the NBA and Anthony transferring, Woldetensae should see immediate playing time as a backup ballhandler behind Clark, and we also know he has the ability to shoot the 3. His versatility should allow him to see a decent amount of playing time.
Will Stattmann and Badocchi take the next steps? Both saw limited playing time this past season, but like everyone else, if they play well enough, there are plenty of minutes available. Stattmann is said to be an excellent 3-point shooter but didn't show it in games last season, hitting just 26.7 percent. He's also pretty skinny at 6-foot-7 and 187 pounds, so I'm sure he's working on his body in the offseason. Badocchi was expected to be a springy forward similar to Diakite, Akil Mitchell, and Darion Atkins, so we will see if he can begin to resemble those players.
Though minutes are available, frontcourt competition will be fierce. Even with the graduation of Jack Salt, there's Diakite, Huff, Badocchi, Caffaro, Shedrick, and McKoy. Whew. Someone is likely to be unhappy with his playing time, but the possibilities are endless about what kind of big man Bennett can put on the court. The only one I haven't discussed thus far is Caffaro, the 7-footer from Argentina who has met countryman and NBA legend Manu Ginobli. Caffaro is known as a bruiser with a little bit of an edge. He redshirted this past season, so he's already had time to learn the system, so that could give him a leg up at first on Shedrick, and as I mentioned above, McKoy might be someone who would more likely back up Key than Diakite or Huff.
Who is Virginia playing? The biggest headline regarding the schedule is in the ACC. The league is shifting to a 20-game slate instead of 18. The ACC Network is launching, and there is a two-day schedule of ACC games on the network to kick off the season -- not just the ACC season, but the regular season in general. That's right, UVa will be headed to Syracuse to open the year Nov. 6, so that is going to be way different than facing a team like Morgan State, Norfolk State, or Radford at home. It will be more important than ever for the team to be ready on opening night. Virginia will also face Syracuse at home and has home-and-aways with Louisville and Virginia Tech, like normal, plus also Boston College, Florida State, and North Carolina. And then at home only, UVa hosts Duke, Clemson, N.C. State, and Notre Dame. On the road only, Virginia draws Georgia Tech, Miami, Pittsburgh, and Wake Forest. You can click here to view the ACC's cycle of 20-game schedules to see how they'll rotate for the next three years.
As for nonconference games, Virginia will host South Carolina, and then also Columbia and Vermont as part of the Basketball Hall of Fame Tip-Off Tournament. As part of that tourney, the Wahoos will face Massachusetts in Connecticut before facing St. John's or Arizona State. The other game we know about was announced a few days ago, and it is a doozy. For the ACC-Big Ten Challenge, UVa will go on the road for the second year in a row and face ... Purdue. Not like those teams have any recent history or anything.
Purdue's stadium announcer is going to have to issue a trigger warning before introducing Mamadi and Kihei.— Phony Bennett (@IfTonyTweeted) June 6, 2019
There's a lot of production to replace, but I remain optimistic about next season. The Big Three are gone, but UVa has leaders ready to take on bigger roles in Clark and Diakite, plus big-game experience and physicality returning in Key. All of those guys were key cogs in winning a championship. Virginia also boasts a 7-foot-1 unicorn hopefully set to be unleashed at 100 percent capacity for the first time, a highly rated freshman class coming in that's highlighted by a dynamic scorer, stiff competition in the post that will make everyone better, and arguably the best coach in the nation. This team will be fine. Sure, the ceiling is probably not repeating as national champion, but I'd be surprised if the Cavaliers don't make the NCAA tournament. I firmly believe the team will be better than the 2016-17 edition that went 23-11 and got blasted by Florida in the second round. If several pieces fall into place, I think a run to the Elite Eight isn't out of the question.