With the big exodus of NBA talent and the Hoos' fortunes dependent on a number of new faces, expectations for this season are being set a little lower than they have been the last couple years. Of course, these expectations are all relative, as they're still orders of magnitude higher than they were a decade ago, but still most Hoo fans recognize the target this year is a little less ambitious than the "Final Four Or Bust" mentality of the recent era.
With that said, there are still some focus areas that are going to disproportionately drive Virginia's prospects. However you want to define success for the upcoming season, we wanted to look at the key factors that are going to make or break that success. Our writers each weighed in on what they personally consider to be this year's keys to the season:
1) Jay Huff. I cannot perform even the most cursory analysis of the Hoos' offensive potential without coming back around that Jay Huff is the key. He is the one player on the roster with "gravitability", a term coined by Jimmy Dykes in the Louisville home game. He draws people and is the one player on the roster who can be expected to create space for his teammates with his presence on the floor. If Tomas Woldetensae is able to get a high enough volume of shots and keep his 3FG% above 40%, he will be able to start filling that role once coaches have enough tape to believe that he is a threat a la Kyle Guy. Until then, only Huff is going to attract that kind of attention from opposing coaches. UVA will not be successful if Jay does not average double digit points.
2) Instant production from Casey Morsell and Tomas Woldetensae. If these guys are not ready to be ACC workhorses from day one, the Hoos are sunk. Fortunately, Casey looks like the most day one-ready freshman Bennett has ever had, and Woldetensae is a third-year college student who was successful at the highest JUCO level. Those guys usually are strong D-1 players.
3) Mental toughness. There are going to be some rough patches. Keeping the confidence level up will be crucial.
1) What does the offense look like? Is there a more obvious answer? We won the national title because we finally got the offense right and had the weapons to outscore opponents in big games. With the proven offensive firepower getting paid professionally in Phoenix, Atlanta, and Sacramento now, it's a whole new world in Charlottesville.
The three most proven returning scorers are all college bigs with stretch ability. Mamadi, Braxton, and Jay have all shown flashes inside and out but consistency will be the key for them. And will we try to do most of our scoring with that trio near the paint? Or will they have the green light to try to score at will from the perimeter?
The two newcomers on the wing will need to, and be expected to, provide a punch on offense. If Woldo's shooting translates from the JUCO level, he and Morsell could provide a sneaky good combo. Morsell is a fearless player and may be a pretty good fit with the CBS offensive sets if he gains Tony's trust with the ball in his hands.
2) Who are the secondary ball handlers? It's a given that Kihei will have the ball in his hands a ton. We feel good with him as the primary ball handler although pressure defense with size could bother him. That's why there's a need for secondary ball handlers.
Morsell and Woldo will obviously be tasked with helping and that's a natural given their pedigree. But then that's where things get a bit dicey. Here's where I wish we had found a way to use our open pre Frankie departure scholarship on another guard or wing.
Of the remaining options on the roster, it's clear that Braxton Key is going to have help out in this area. And frankly, I'm perfectly fine with that. He acquitted himself fairly well in that role last season.
In the right scenario, Jay Huff might not be a bad pressure outlet either as long as he's strong and decisive with the ball after receiving a pass.
But is there anyone else? Kody Stattmann? Justin McKoy? Chase Coleman? Jayden Nixon?
1) We get NCAA tournament Mamadi Diakite. If Diakite can keep up his play and be more like last year’s March Madness version of himself and less like the Diakite that tends to get lost at times, watch out. Diakite is hopefully feeling motivated to be a lead dog and drive up his NBA draft stock, so there’s plenty of incentive for him to want to continue to improve.
2) Jay Huff gets unleashed. We’ve seen flashes in each of his first two years, a few more last season than in his redshirt freshman campaign. It is time for Bennett to trust Huff and let him sink or swim with major minutes. Huff has the shooting ability, the driving ability, and the length to bother opponents on defense. He needs to improve his rebounding, endurance, and overall defense. It’s time for him to put it all together and show what he can do and become a star.
3) Braxton Key steps up his offensive game. Jabri Abdur-Rahim isn’t arriving at Virginia until next season, so Key is the closest approximation to De’Andre Hunter the Cavaliers have right now. Key came to Virginia with a similar repertoire to Hunter, but his offensive game wasn’t as refined. Key already led the team in rebounding last year despite finishing sixth in minutes, and he’s a solid defender who can guard multiple spots. He won’t be as good as Hunter on offense, but if he can make a jump, that would really help the team in replacing some offensive firepower.
Also receiving votes: Clark becoming a bona fide leader and more of a consistent scoring threat; Morsell or another freshman being better than expected and playing a large role; Woldetensae stepping in as a viable ACC backup point guard
1) A balanced philosophy. Specifically, off the court. There are few holdovers from last year, and their leadership will be absolutely crucial - not just for this year, but to leave a legacy behind. Believe it or not, culture is passed down through the players. The culture that won a championship while staring down a history-making loss is one of the strongest and best that college hoops has seen - and it's going to be the job of the holdovers to pass it along. But at the same time, they have to keep a fire burning and let the new guys - who don't have a championship ring - allow their own desires to shine through. Complacency has to be rooted out whenever it rears its head, but the foundation of the program has to stay as solid as ever. Tony will be Tony, and that will be half the job - but new faces always take their cues from their peers on the court.
2) Woldetensae. It's no secret that the frontcourt is the area needing the most attention. We know what Kihei can do and we can even be reasonably sure what we'll get out of Casey Morsell. Woldetensae (whose name, sooner or later, I will stop unconsciously trying to spell with two N's) needs to provide an outside shot that opponents respect, and be good for maybe 12-15 minutes a game. Otherwise, the backcourt depth is thinner than workhouse gruel.
3) Packline adjustments. To the actual line itself. The three-point line moves further back this year, in an effort to spread the floor. This puts Tony a little bit between a rock and a hard place. Does he move the masking tape and allow the floor to be spread, or does he risk leaving three-point shooters just that little bit more open? The smart money is on the latter, but that means defenders will have to be even sharper than before on their rotations and switches.
1) Master the "Jumbo Lineup." Virginia's strength is in its frontcourt this season. Braxton Key, Mamadi Diakite, and Jay Huff are three of Virginia's most critical returning pieces (all upperclassmen), and they're bolstered by an intriguing trio of rookies in Justin McKoy, Francisco Caffaro, and Kadin Shedrick. Contrast them with UVA's backcourt, where only pass-first PG Kihei Clark returns with D-1 experience, and serious questions about depth behind Clark, Morsell, Woldetensae, and Stattmann.
Virginia has found a lot of success over the last season and a half by playing De'Andre Hunter and Braxton Key, two perimeter-oriented forwards (Dre especially), at the 4-spot, essentially going with only one traditional, paint-oriented big at the 5-spot at a time. But necessity may dictate Braxton or McKoy playing some time at the 3 spot, and to cover down on depth, UVA needs to be able to play two traditional bigs together without suffering (a) offensive constipation like we saw at times in 2017 and 2018 or (b) defensive lapses guarding small lineups.
Mamadi and Jay present a unique option here, as Mamadi has the athleticism to guard smaller, perimeter oriented 4s, while Jay can stretch the floor on offense and unclog the paint in a way most traditional 2-big lineups don't. If Jay and Mamadi can play effectively together, and Braxton and/or McKoy can effectively ball-handle as a third perimeter player, then UVA can win with a jumbo lineup and mitigate the depth concerns at the guard spot.
2) Find consistent guard scoring. About the guard spot, though. It's not just the depth that's a concern, it's scoring acumen. Surely we'll want to get our big men as involved in the scoring as they've been since 2016 (when Gill and Tobey were both serious offensive threats). But college basketball is still a guard-dominated game, and the Hoos will need some of their traditional guards to emerge as a reliable scoring threat for those days that the bigs either go cold or get too much defensive attention.
Kihei Clark had the occasional breakout scoring game but it's not his rep. Woldetensae filled it up as a gunner at the Junior College level, but will that translate to the ACC? Stattmann, also a gunner on the international level, needs to prove he can hang in D-1 American ball. And Casey Morsell is only a freshman, and when was the last time we saw a true freshmen really emerge as a consistent scorer for the Hoos?
Maybe it's by committee to some degree, but Virginia will want to enter the season knowing who of its guard rotation it can trust to reliably get buckets. The sooner someone emerges, the better.
3) Win the games we're supposed to win. We're going to take some lumps this year, no way to sugar coat it. We're thin and young at the guard spots and in a guard-driven game, that's going to manifest when we play better teams, especially on the road. That makes the margin for error much thinner if the goal is still to get enough wins for an above-average NCAAT seed.
So Virginia can't afford slip ups against non-conference mid-majors or against ACC bottom-half teams. In the 2015-16 season, UVA sleep-walked in losses to George Washington, Georgia Tech, and Virginia Tech, but that was ultimately okay because the team was elite enough to go beat the pants off a lot of other teams and still end up a top seed. This year, we can't count on proven guys to bail us out of a hole record-wise if we start dropping "should-win" games. There are enough teams that UVA should out-execute but nonetheless have the talent to spring an upset if we're off, both mid-majors like Vermont and league upstarts like Pitt or Wake. Certainly, knowing we're in a rebuilding year, absolutely everyone is going to come hungry to get some revenge on the champs after the last 6 years of us owning the league.
1) Unleash Jay Huff. This is pretty obvious. We lost 2/3 of our scoring to the NBA. The points have to come from somewhere and the greatest potential for development comes from the Hoonicorn. Three summers ago I was at a Norfolk Tides (minor league) ball game and it was UVa Day and the guest of honor was Malcolm Brogdon. He threw out the first pitch and signed autographs. When it was my turn, I asked him which of the players of that 2016 class was going to have the greatest impact on the team, and he responded that it would be Huff. Bennett has brought him along slowly with lots of baby steps, but it is Jay's turn now.
Huff has true three-point range, and explosive first step, and in the lane, he can be a true rim protector. The word from summer camp and early practices is that Huff has gotten stronger and that he was very active in the Blue - White game. Last summer he was nursing an injury and his practice time was limited. This summer he's had the full session. If Huff can approach anything like what Cavalier Nation hopes for him, we're going to be an explosive team.
2) We're going big. There are only three guards on the roster. Three. One is a five footer, one is a rookie, and one is a JUCO transfer. Bennett tipped his hand last year, when from Day One, he gave Kihei Clark starter's minutes. Bennett wants to play three guards. Whether it's Blocker/Mover or Continuity Ball Screens, both are pattern offenses that (usually) pair a big with a not-big. The not-bigs have to run a lot more. And as I've said, we only have three guards.
Bennett's known this fact about the team since the day Kyle Guy announced he was going pro. He's had all spring and summer to figure out what modifications he's got to make and he knows that the spine of the team is going to be Huff, Diakite and Key, with Caffaro and McKoy thrown in as well. If Key is able to handle the 3, that leaves room for both Huff and Mamadi to play which makes us very big.
3) Casey Morsell. I've had time to think about this and I've come to the realization that Morsell is going to get the biggest opportunity to shine as a freshman that any player has had during the Bennett tenure. Yeah, Bennett gave the keys to the UVa bus to London Perrantes as freshman, but he had Brogdon and Harris in the backcourt. The Mong00se walked into a starter's responsibilities, but again, he had Guy and Ty Jerome. I love Kihei, but Morsell is going to have to be "The Guy" from the get-go. He's going to have to score and he's going to have to be a lock down defender under the extended 3-point regime. It's a lot to ask. But he played in one of the best scholastic leagues in the country. He should be as prepared to shine as the numerous one and dones that have graced UNC and Duke.