Ordinarily I'm not a big fan of grades articles because I consider them presumptuous, only minimally analytical and editorially lazy. But hey, I can be as presumptuous as the next guy, my brain is tired, and I'm feeling lazy right now, so here is a grades article.
Mamadi Diakite - Mamadi leads the team in scoring and is the only Wahoo to consistently shoot well from the outside. In some of the early games, he was a real leader and has done some great work defensively. But his intensity has tailed off of late and despite his 12 points against North Carolina, I wasn't impressed with his effort. Against Purdue, he packed it in mentally in the second half after getting extremely frustrated. While his 45.5% three-point shooting is fantastic, his two-point FG% is an unacceptable 46.8% because he has fallen back into taking way too many two-point jumpers: 44% of his attempts are 2PtJs and he is hitting a miserable 31% of them. He's htting 46% of his threes, yet they account for only 22% of his shots. Not only is he taking too many two-point jumpers - a consistent weakness in his game - and inefficient in post-up play - another consistent weakness in his game - but he's not even doing the fundamentals of a UVA big man very well that he excelled at last year. He is only average on Cuts and Pick&Roll Roll Man after being Excellent at both last year and is Poor on Offensive Rebound putbacks. Finally, he is only hitting 69% of his free throws after being an 80% FT shooter last season. Virginia needs Mamadi to quit showcasing his jumper for the NBA scouts and get back to excelling as a rim runner and free throw shooter.
Braxton Key - I am not going to give Braxton an incomplete despite him missing the last three games with the broken wrist, because he was doing A work up until then. The struggles in the last three games - particularly Maine and Purdue - can be traced directly to not having their senior leader and heir to The Zay spirit. Braxton was averaging 10.3 points and 8.3 rebounds when he went down, and supplementing that with Excellent defense. He has played both on the perimeter and in the post and his defense and rebounding have been crucial in both areas. His 21.8% DReb% leads the team and is only slightly off last seasons's 23.5%. He's been doing his job on the boards, and it is the rebounding that Virginia most sorely misses. No way do the Hoos get out-rebounded by Maine with Braxton on the floor. While his three-point shooting has been poor, I never expected anything more from a guy who has never done better than 1 out of 3 in his career, and he has dramatically improved his finishing inside the arc. Whereas in his first three years finishing was always an adventure, Braxton is hitting 71.4% of his shots at the rim and a surprising 41.7% of his 2PtJs. His shot distribution is also solid, as 2PtJs account for only 24% of his attempts, with 42% being at the rim. Expect Braxton back for Stony Brook.
Jay Huff - In his "my turn" season, Jay has disappointed me a little, although that has as much to do with my high expectations as with his play. After logging 8.8 and 9.3 minutes per game his first two seasons, Jay is playing 24 minutes this season. It is a massive increase in role, and his overall numbers are pretty damn good. His Kenpom ORtg of 116.8 leads the team by far and is top 10% nationally, as is his PPP as measured by Synergy. His defensive numbers are strong as well, with a 20.2 DReb% that is top 10% nationally and second only to Braxton on the team, and his 8.8 block percentage is top 50 nationally. He grades out "Very Good" on Synergy's defensive ratings, with a surprising "Good" on post defense, where he is giving up 0.7 PPP despite getting pushed around by a couple pretty good post players. His hedging and rotations have looked very good in my grading. His fouling is WAY down to only 2.6/40. He definitely has improved over last year and is an integral part of this team's success, and yet... and yet... I want more. Specifically, I want more threes. For a guy who hit 45% of his threes last season, Jay's 29% this year is disappointing. He doesn't look confident in his shot selection most times. The biggest weakness in Jay's performance this season, however, has been in being strong with the ball. He's going up soft way too often and is having the ball taken away from him on a regular basis. He hustles his ass off and his footwork is usually very good, but he still needs to be tougher with the ball.
Tomas Woldetensae - The JUCO gunner raised his grade a whole grade level with his performance against UNC. After a couple of F games against Maine and Purdue, Tomas came back very strong in his last game. It was not just hitting 3/4 from three and for the first time showing glimpses of the 47% shooter he was in community college, but it was even more the hustle and toughness he showed in his floor game. His piss-poor screen defense in previous games cost the Hoos big in the Purdue game and could have been just as fatal against Maine had those jackoffs been able to hit open threes. It appears that getting benched for the walkon and whatever Tony had to say to him away from the cameras worked, because Tomas started to look like a real Virginia Basketball player against UNC. If that game marks the start of him being a consistent three-point threat and his baseline level of hustle and defense, he's going to be a huge part of the rotation going forward and this team is going to get a lot better. Even just one real three-point threat from a perimeter player will open things up for everyone else.
Kihei Clark - Life is a bit more complicated without Ty Jerome and Kyle Guy around. Jerome continues to teach and advise, but from afar through the wonders of modern communications technology. His jump shot would be way more help, but that is gone forever. Kihei is now the guy running the show, playing 34 minutes per game and expected to be the floor general, the point of the defense, AND the veteran leader - as a true sophomore. How often we forget that he is just a sophomore, until he reminds us with a mistake that shocks and affronts us because it is so unexpected. But those mistakes and struggles SHOULD be expected. He is a sophomore. A lot of his struggles can be put down to that, and a lot more to the lack of proven scoring threats around him. Others, however, stem directly from his limitations, as his lack of height has been a persistent issue. He has mostly excelled on defense and only rarely has a team been able to capitalize on a size difference. Most recently, he owned Cole Anthony, straightup pwned him, Mong00sing the 2020 NBA Draft Lottery pick into more turnovers than field goals and assists combined. Toss in one more statistic and Anthony's 6 turnovers matched his field goals (4), assists (0) and steals (2) COMBINED! That's pwnage. Kihei has been up and down with his three-point shooting, but his overall percentage of 34% is right where he was last season. He was the player I most expected to be affected by the longer three-point line, and it does seem to have impacted him. He has really suffered inside the arc, however, as his two-point percentage has actually dropped from freshman year, from 36% down to 31.7%. Teams are refusing to step up when he penetrates, because he wants to pass first and they know that they can still disrupt his shot by contesting after he is committed to the shot. He's not looking for the shot early enough when he gets into the lane. The defense's ability to play the pass and still take away his penetration shot combined with the lack of any outside shooting threat from the wings has thrown a blanket over Virginia's pick-and-roll offense, in which Kihei thrives. His P&R Ball Handler rating is "Very Good", while the team's P&R Roll Man offense is "Excellent."
Overall, Kihei has done very well and is having a good season as he steps into the lead role. His rise in minutes from 26 to 34 does not adequately convey the change in role. Going from 26 minutes as a triggerman for three NBA talents to 34 minutes as the floor general of a team with no established wing threats is a colossal step up. In all the intangibles, Kihei has been up to the task. It remains to be seen whether his size limitations will be too much to overcome given the size of the task. His backcourt mates could really help out by starting to hit shots.
Kody Stattmann - Like Kihei, Kody Stattmann is doing pretty damn well for a true sophomore being asked to take on an exponentially bigger role than he had last year. He's also been kidnapped by aliens and replaced with an automaton. The Kody Stattmann who came to UVA from Australia was the best shooter at Adidas Nations before college and garnered comments like "He can shoot the piss out of the ball" and "can't guard his own shadow" from teammates in preseason practice before his first year. The player on the floor this year, however, can't shoot his way out of a piss puddle and has the highest Synergy defense rating on the team at 98%, giving up a paltry 0.378 PPP! So wait, it's his DEFENSE that is keeping him on the court? o.O? To be honest, I really like what I see in Kody's game this year. All the right numbers look like you want them to - except that pesky little 3FG%. Oooffffff 11%. His 2FG% is a respectable 46.7%, including 58.3% at the rim, which is strong for a perimeter player. His shot distribution is also what I like to see, with only 9% of his shots being 2PtJs and a healthy 36.4% at the rim. Rebound a bit better and shoot the three the way he is supposed to be able to shoot it while continuing to develop his overall floor game and Kody can be a very good ACC player. It's important to remember that he is an international player about whom StLouHoo warned before he ever put on a UVA uniform that we needed to give three years. We're less than halfway to that point. Kody can't get the grade his floor game deserves because of that three-point shooting.
Francisco Caffaro - Throughout the first few games leading up to Purdue, the Argentinian big man looked like a defensive liability while showing nothing on the offensive end, but he showed some positive play on the defensive end in that Purdue debacle blew up into a real force against Carolina with by far the best defensive and offensive performance of his young career. For the first time since coming to UVA - and this includes his performance in the World Cup last summer - Francisco showed us what he had previewed at FIBA America U-18 oh so long ago. Big Papi's first several games would have earned him at best a D, which would not be fitting given that it was a lack of D primarily responsible for such a low grade. But his work at Purdue was C-grade and he brought his A-game to the Tar Heels. If he plays like he did against Carolina going forward he will have a big opportunity, because he scores as many PPP on post-ups as the other two centers combined (albeit on a smaller sample size so far). He won't be out there stretching defenses and pulling rim protectors away from the basket with his three-point shooting, but Virginia could use a guy who can rebound, finish strong around the rim and be an imposing physical presence. He could be particuarly prominent if Tony decides to run a lot of Sides, because that offense is far more effective with a strong post-up presence, and both Diakite and Huff have failed at being that.
Casey Morsell - We all know how ugly the offensive numbers are. Synergy has Casey rated one of the worst offensive players in D-1 (5%), and there's no running away from that. Watch him play and you will be convinced he's a much better player than his numbers indicate, but right now, he is what he is: a true freshman who works hard, plays pretty smart ball - and cannot shoot. Casey would help himself by shooting fewer threes, but his too-high 56.2% of shots from three is not entirely by choice. If the defense knows you're not going to hit the three, they are going to lay off to take away the drive and those pump fakes don't work. So the paradox is that the key ton increasing that 19% of shots at the rim might be hitting more threes. He has at least started to show real confidence in his two-point offense, and after an atrocious start is bringing those percentages up. Casey can help himself by focusing on what he does well: shooting off the dribble to his right. Doesn't matter the range, it seems he just hits when he is dribbling right. Get yourself moving right and use the dribble, and when you're alone in the gym work on that crossover dribble for when they start overplaying the right. On defense, Casey is not quite as good as his Synergy rating would tell you (0.623 PPP for "Excellent") because that rates his on-ball defense and there is nothing to grade how he does away from the ball. He's a work in progress - as is to be expected from a true freshman - as his foibles on off-ball screens contributed to both ASU and Purdue getting open shots. He also gets lost in help from time-to-time and has been known to lose track of his man away from the ball. He reminds me an awful lot of De'Andre Hunter, who used his length exceedingly well to be an on-ball stopper and cover up his weaknesses off the ball. Casey already is a credible stopper who deserves a fair bit of the accolades for Cole Anthony's shitshow performance. If Casey were hitting 33% of threes, his grade would be a full letter grade higher.
Justin McKoy - It's not fair. Justin has not produced as much as Casey or Francisco, but he's going to get a higher grade. He has been a consistent positive factor on the floor on both ends with his hustle and nose for the ball. It's not just "energy" or "physicality" because unguided those things don't create good basketball plays - merely high foul totals. Justin is not fouling excessively - 3.9/40 minutes keeps you on the floor and is pretty damn good for a true freshman - and is already a good defensive player and ball winner. Probably because he doesn't see his role as being to score, he has done the best of all the new players of staying within himself, which has kept his offensive numbers from plunging into the depths with his colleagues. Only Caffaro and walkon Jayden Nixon shoot less frequently. He has played mostly as a blocker, but has seen some time as a mover (although his job as a mover appeared to be to run across the lane once then stand in the corner until the shot went up). He looks slated for the combo forward position as Braxton's understudy.
Chase Coleman - The recruited walkon has been a real part of the rotation and has done a great job. He defends like Kihei and shows a lot of confidence in his offense. He should be able to give a few minutes per game in relief of the Mong00se.
Jayden Nixon - It said a lot when Jayden came off the bench in the first half against Purdue. He was out there because the scholarship wings were not doing their job. Nixon is not at all a scoring threat on offense and his ballhandling is suspect under pressure, but he gets to the right spots and his defense is credible. If Tomas continues to show like he did against the Heels, look for Nixon's heels to stay tarred to the bench.
Lineups/Substitutions - One of the benefits of having little depth is not having to make a lot of decisions with lineups and substitutions. However, this season has presented Tony with some challenges here as players have had injuries and illnesses, and there has been some lack of differentiation between players at similar positions. Unlike 2016-17 when I consistently disagreed with such choices, I have largely thought the right players were on the floor. Also, I think there has been a great fit between the players on the floor and the tactical systems chosen. The one criticism I have had, however, has been a few stretches where we have had odd combinations on the floor - two walkons at the same time, too many brand new players at once, mostly - and I felt it hurt the performance. The late first half collapse against Purdue was one such time, and then when the Hoos showed some life in the second and cut the lead to 14, a couple substitutions broke up the group on the floor and again reduced the experience and ballhandling level. In the first half against Maine, another odd lineup stopped the momentum when the Hoos had been slowly, grindingly pushing the lead to double digits. I believe some of these questionable substitutions were the result of Tony's Two Fouls Policy.
Player Development - As young as this team is, it is impressive how cohesive the defense has been and how competently the offensive sets are run. Tony has not dumbed down the offense much that I can see, and not at all the defense, and this young group has not been out there making glaring mistakes or blowing obvious assignments. True freshmen Morsell and McKoy really seem to get it. Redshirt freshman Caffaro has made visible in-season progress. True sophomores Clark and Stattmann look like grizzled veterans. Stattmann's development from "can't guard his own shadow" to statistically the best individual defender on the team is startling and a credit to player and coaches. The true veterans, also, have shown improvement in their games as well. Key's grasp of the defense is greatly improved over last year and his two-point game is light years ahead of earlier in his career. Huff is a much better defensive player now and is able to defend and produce for long stretches without losing effectiveness. His ability to make a quantum leap in minutes played has been critical to the team's success.
Game Planning - This Virginia team has done a better job than some past ones in the first few minutes of the game and the second half. That can be one indicator of the game planning. Another is how well opposing players perform compared to how you might have expected them to. I've thought that the primary reliance on Continuity Ball Screen has been the right choice given the personnel, and that the defensive assignments were appropriate in general (the exception being the Purdue game when I would have had Stattmann on Sasha instead of Morsell).
Tactical Adjustments - In watching the games and breaking down video, I have not noticed any times when I felt some kind of adjustment needed to be made and it was not (other than the Purdue matchup noted above). Even when the opponent was going on an extended run, either I saw adjustments being made or couldn't think of anything to do. The one real tactical disagreement I can recall was when we doubled Garrison Brooks 6 feet outside the lane twice in the Carolina game. At times I have noticed either a shift in offensive set, a defensive assignment change, a substitution, or perhaps a shift in post doubling or ball screen coverage that improved performance. In particular, switching Morsell onto Remy Martin seemed to let the cognac out of his bottle, and going to Sides with Caffaro against Carolina was brutally effective. All-in-all, I have had much less to quibble with over game planning and tactical adjustments these last two seasons than in earlier ones when I thought Tony was too rigid in several respects.
Motivation - Motivating the players, not Tony's motivation level. I've never had any issue with the apparent motivation level of Tony's players, and overall I greatly admire his motivational themes and techniques. He rarely relies on self-limiting or negative themes or methods, rather choosing uplifting or self-actualizing themes and good teaching methods. This is not to say that I don't think he yells at his players, because I've never thought yelling at players was in and of itself a negative or harmful motivational tactic - what matters is when, how, why and message content. This team has come into the season with a purpose and has played that way. I am going to give the coaching a pass on the two games where effort level was in question for a couple of reasons. The main reason is that those two games coincided with Braxton Key being lost to injury. Chop off my right arm and I'm going to have a moment of confusion, disorientation and despair before I get moving in the right direction again. The second reason is that this is a very young team and for at least half the rotation that Purdue game was the first time they had first-hand exposure to an atmosphere like that. If you listened to our podcast with Isaiah Wilkins (the last twenty minutes or so), you heard a first-hand account of how that can impact a player on the court. The third reason is that it was swiftly and effectively addressed after the Purdue game. The team came out refocused and a more appropriate intensity level against Carolina. I don't know that it gets talked about enough, but I think Tony is the best motivational coach in the business.
This team gets an A+ from me. Each of those players with an individual grade below that gets upgraded to an A+ right here now, because as a team they have been better than I expected, and they have been so great to root for. The energy and spirit they display on the floor is so wonderful. You can see how bought in they are, the unity and the passion, and despite the embarrassing shooting performances, they just keep grinding and charging ahead with a remarkable esprit de corps. This is shaping up to be one of my favorite Virginia Basketball teams.