It’s been over two months since the Virginia men’s basketball team cut down the nets in Minneapolis for the first time in school history. The weight has finally been taken off of Cavalier fans who thought they would never get to experience their team reach the mountaintop – with a title in tow, we all finally got to relax and enjoy the moment.
Now that we’re less than 150 days away from starting over again, it’s time for the hardcore fans to get stressed. (Not that we ever aren’t).
It’s going to be a season full of excitement and nerves for a new-look Cavalier team. Gone is the scoring, clutch genetics and leadership of the Guy-Jerome-Hunter Big Three, leaving several key veterans and a host of raw talent behind to build on what occurred on April 8th.
While this unproven team may not look championship-caliber on paper, make no mistake – Tony Bennett will be preparing for a repeat. Elite programs are expected to stay in the title mix every year, and that’s more than possible under Bennett, who has reloaded and found success year after year in Charlottesville.
The dynasty window is open for a couple years if the Hoos can cut down the nets once more. Why not start striving this year?
Much work will have to be done, but here are five stats that pretty much must improve for the Cavaliers to put themselves in position.
Diakite’s scoring average
Bennett got a major boon to next year’s roster when Mamadi Diakite announced his return at (literally) the 11th hour before the NBA Draft withdrawal deadline. Diakite was the Hoos’ safety net during the NCAA Tournament, providing an interior-scoring spark when the guards were struggling from long range; but this year, he will become a focal point of the offense.
Bennett hasn’t had a big man this poised for a scoring breakout since Anthony Gill, who was the second option behind Malcolm Brogdon from 2014-2016. Gill was an absolute beast on the low post, using his size to muscle to the basket and quickness to create space. He averaged 13.8 points his senior year, shot 58 percent from the field and pulled down 2.2 offensive rebounds per game to keep possessions alive.
Now, on paper, Gill and Diakite are very different players in terms of offensive skill. Gill was great at post-ups because of his anchoring size and aggressiveness. Diakite, meanwhile, graded as Below Average in post-up offense last season, per Synergy Sports. He prefers coming off the pick-and-roll, where Synergy placed him in the 94thpercentile of offensive players last season.
Mamadi will need to get better in this department to become the lynchpin of the offense, but more chances with the ball in his hands may help. Last season he ranked fourth usage rate and shot attempts, but if given similar chances to Gill – who averaged almost nine shots per game as a senior – Diakite could thrive while still being his efficient self. He made 70 percent of his shots at the rim last season, comparable to Gill’s senior year production.
It’s also no secret that Diakite wants the green light to shoot the three-ball, though it may not be his best asset. He graded as Below Average on spot-up attempts shooting last season, and ended up going 0-5 in his attempts during the NCAA Tournament. There are signs of improvement, however, as a recent video that circulated from an NBA workout showed him lighting it up from beyond the arc (which, let’s be honest, made us pretty nervous in the days before the withdrawal deadline).
Don’t expect Bennett to change his offensive scheme to allow Mamadi to let it fly often, but there could be perimeter opportunities for him popping off of screens. We’ve seen Jay Huff utilized similarly – hovering on the perimeter rather than cutting after setting a screen to get an open look – and Virginia has a sure-fire ballhandler next season in Kihei Clark who can deliver those quick passes.
Scoring in double figures seems inevitable – and necessary for success – in Diakite’s senior season, but putting up Gill-like output will give the Hoos a bona fide star to lean on in making another title run.
Key’s Three-Point Percentage
The Hoos’ title hopes were fully set in motion when Braxton Key’s waiver request for immediate eligibility was granted. The Alabama transfer helped smooth the transition at the forward position after ACC DPOY Isaiah Wilkins graduated, showing he could immediately defend and rebound at an elite level.
One area where we didn’t see Key thrive often was shooting. He shot only 30.5 percent from beyond the arc during the season, having several mini-droughts throughout the ACC slate. Though he wasn’t a great shooter in his two years with the Crimson Tide, Bennett’s offense got him clean looks on the perimeter pretty frequently. He made less than 30 percent of unguarded catch-and-shoot tries; for reference, De’Andre Hunter made over 40 percent.
It is Hunter’s absence that will really create a need for Key to improve his shot. Hunter provided most of the three-point spark out of the three and four positions to complement the guards, and beyond Key there’s not much depth that can replace the shooting right away. Sophomore Francesco Badocchi or freshman Justin McKoy could find a key role as a floor stretcher if they show a good shooting stroke, but neither can be counted on with limited to no college experience.
Fortunately, Key won’t be asked to be a primary shooter in Bennett’s offense; Hunter averaged less than three attempts per game despite leading the team in knock-down percentage. However, Key must emerge as a complementary shooter that can bury his open looks for the offense to function at a high level. Part of it may be a confidence issue – we can remember how relieved he looked after making two triples during the game at Virginia Tech – and thus may be alleviated with more time in the offense and less pressure. He has the maturity and ability to emerge as a solid shooter – putting that on the floor is the final step.
Clark’s Assist-to-Turnover Ratio
Few predicted Kihei Clark to be the fastest emerger out of the 2018 class, but he turned in a very solid first year as a Cavalier. He had his fair share of doubters (me included, for a while) because of some shooting struggles and inability to match up with bigger players, but an indispensable tournament run proved just how valuable he was to the team.
The departure of Ty Jerome magnifies Clark’s value by a lot. He will be the only returning ballhandler with any shred of experience, and will be counted on to command the floor in most big moments. As the primary distributor for the offense, he’ll have to improve his ball security and decision making to match Jerome’s expertise. While Jerome ranked fifth nationally with 3.31 assists per turnover, Clark put up a 2.49 ratio.
For a first year ball-handler in the ACC, 2.49 is still pretty damn good – it’s a better clip that Jerome put up his second year. To fully replace Jerome, though, Clark will have to show he can make a big leap. He may not have quite been ready for the entire load last season; he turned the ball over six times against Miami, the only game Jerome did not play in because of a back injury.
Clark has the experience and ability to make the leap and become Virginia’s next great floor general. If he can continue to slow down the game and develop a high-IQ with the ball, the Hoos’ offense will develop all the more smoothly.
Huff’s Fouls per Game
The player seemingly every Virginia fan wanted to see more of last season, Jay Huff showed in limited time what he could be capable of as a full-time player. Virginia’s unicorn showed he not only had the offensive pop to dazzle with his three-point shooting and thunderous dunks (see: his two buckets in the Round of 32), but he could also defend at a high level. He held opponents to under 0.7 points per possession last season, the second best of any rotation player on the team.
So why didn’t we see more of him? The same reason we didn’t see Diakite as much in 2017-18 – he was still a foul machine. He averaged 1.5 fouls in under 10 minutes per game, which extrapolates to 6.3 fouls per 40 minutes of playing time.
There’s obviously some upside to keeping a player like Huff in despite some foul trouble, but that’s now how Tony Bennett rolls. Bennett has not tolerated playing big men who have a fouling problem until they show more discipline, akin to Diakite’s development as a defender. Diakite’s 5.6 fouls per 40 minutes shrank to 3.9 last season despite a large increase in playing time, showing he had developed into a smart defender.
Ultimately, Huff needs to be on the floor for Virginia to be effective on both ends early next season. His offensive floor spacing and post defense will be key tone-setters for the team, but only if he can avoid being slowed down with fouls. This may come with building the stamina to improve his decision making on the court, or by fixing some of his positioning down low; but either way his ability to stay on the floor will be the major X-factor for the team’s success.
Minutes from the 2018 Class
Though there’s a lot of excitement around the new class of players Bennett is bringing in this season, especially for four-star recruits Casey Morsell and Kadin Shedrick, the players with some team experience could be even more useful in re-tooling next season. Australian guard Kody Stattmann and Argentinian center Francisco Caffaro both learned from the bench last season, but the emergence of at least one of them will be crucial towards ushering in a new era.
There’s been some noticeable buzz around Caffaro since the last offseason after he dominated in FIBA U18 tournament for Argentina, with his highlight tapes showing many glimpses of potential. As a rim-running center that looks like the logical heir to Jack Salt, Caffaro factors in as a strong complement to Huff’s floor stretching big-man presence. Bennett will probably slide Caffaro in as his wall on the post if he shows he can defend, but the redshirt freshman can be especially helpful as a post-scorer, a niche Huff and Diakite haven’t shown a consistent ability for. He'll bring some stability to the teams if he develops before the season as a traditional Bennett-esque, screen-setting big man, and his offensive pop could make him a crucial mainstay in the rotation.
Stattmann has also made a mark on the international circuit, helping lead Australia to a U18 Asia Championship last summer before starting at UVA. While a little less hyped than Caffaro on paper, Stattmann can help fill arguably the team’s biggest void heading into next season in shooting. He’s been touted as an elite three-point shooter through his international career, but likely lacked the experience and athleticism to contribute in that department last season (albeit among a pretty crowded backcourt). Stattmann can play a pretty important dark horse role as a shooting guard next season, if he can use his experience to gain minutes early on. Add in transfer Tomas Woldentensae, who shot above 40 percent in the JUCO ranks last season, and the Hoos may have a succession plan from Jerome and Kyle Guy’s marksmanship in the backcourt.
Whether you call next season rebuilding, retooling, reloading or anything other creative word with that prefix is irrelevant to Tony Bennett and his team. The Hoos have the same goal every season as an elite college program, and that’s to be the last team standing in early April. While the odds may be a bit more slim in life immediately after the Big Three, some key improvements can help put the team in striking distance of a title once again. Don’t sleep on the National Champions to take those steps towards title contention in stride once again.
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