Nothing can top the result of the 2018-19 Virginia basketball season, because it ended with a national championship. And for a while, I figured nothing would be able to top the craziness of that season either, with the way it ended with one heart-stopping thriller after another in the NCAA tournament.
But then this year happened.
For a large portion of the campaign, the Wahoos had one of the nation's worst offenses, really terrible 3-point shooting, and were still quite good, because the defense was, of course, awesome. The team was also winning close games, by three or fewer points, at a quirky and insane rate, putting UVa fans on the edges of their seats again. And then, just as the offense and team as a whole was rounding into form and becoming really good and possibly great, the plug was pulled on the season. Because of the coronavirus pandemic, the ACC tournament was canceled, and finally, the NCAA tournament followed suit. Virginia, which finished the regular season on an eight-game winning streak and captured victories in 11 of its last 12 games, did not get a chance to defend its crown. No team won the NCAA tournament.
So this was officially the craziest year.
But after some time to reflect and digest the season, it is time to put a bow on it by handing out some awards/evaluations, as I have done each season since the end of the 2012-13 campaign, though I did find some primitive grades I gave out at the end of 2011-12 on my blog. This is my first year publishing this piece on Hoos Place.
For a trip down memory lane, here are last year's awards.
OK, let's dive in.
MVP: Kihei Clark. I went back and forth on this. This decision was nearly as tough as choosing one of the Big Three last season. Mamadi Diakite will be honored in this post, but I'm going with Clark as the MVP. As you'll notice in the "Past MVPs" list, I apparently lean heavily toward point guards, though Malcolm Brogdon was more of a shooting guard who played point guard sometimes. Anyway, point guards must be really important to Tony Bennett, a former point guard himself.
Bennett said on multiple occasions after games that no one was asked to do as much as Clark night in and night out. He said that after wins and losses. No one had as much on his plate. Sometimes, Clark was the only scorer besides Diakite. Clark had some bad games, had games with lots of turnovers, but he rounded into form, exceeded expectations, took better care of the ball down the stretch run of the season, and also developed a clutch shot, hitting huge ones against Virginia Tech and Louisville. He also hit the winning free throws against Miami. He would drive to the hoop multiple times per game, often getting his shot blocked. But the 5-foot-9 Californian was relentless, attacking again and again. He was the heartbeat of the team. Even Diakite called Clark the "heart" of the team after the win against Louisville, adding that "people don't realize that." In addition to expanding his offensive skill set, Clark kept up his demanding style of on-ball defense and finished the season ranked 18th nationally in minutes played per game (37).
Clark improved offensively probably more than anyone expected, finishing second in points. Here are his stats, with this year, followed by last year: points (10.8, 4.5), assists (5.9, 2.6), rebounds (4.2, 2.3), field goal percentage (37.5, 35), 3-point percentage (37.5, 34.1), and free throw percentage (87.6, 82.5). That's more assists per game than Ty Jerome last season, and with fewer weapons around him than Jerome had. And yep, Clark could've easily been given the "most improved" award, too.
Past MVPs: 2013: Joe Harris. 2014: Malcolm Brogdon. 2015: Brogdon. 2016: Brogdon. 2017: London Perrantes. 2018: Devon Hall. 2019: Ty Jerome.
Most improved: Diakite. So, this is where putting some versatility in your awards can help. For the second straight year, I'm going to put Diakite in this space. I also heavily considered him for MVP. Diakite was the focal point of many defenses, but he rose to the occasion. He went from being a role player to THE guy on offense. He decided against entering the NBA draft a season ago and returned to work on and hopefully improve his 3-point shot, and that's exactly what happened. He surpassed my expectations as the team's leading scorer. I did not think his averages would be as high as they were. Here are his stats, with this year, followed by last year: points (13.7, 7.4), rebounds (6.8, 4.4), assists (0.6, 0.3), blocks (1.3, 1.7), field goal percentage (47.8, 55), 3-point percentage (36.4, 29.4), 3-point attempts (55, 17), and free throw percentage (75.4, 70).
As you can see from his stats, he sacrificed some efficiency on the offensive end, but he became a more well-rounded player with his ability to hit 3-pointers. And I'm sure having a target on his back didn't help matters as defenses keyed on him. He finished the year by scoring in double figures in 12 straight games, a stretch in which he averaged 14.75 points and notched two double-doubles. He hit the game-winning shot against Duke. He also came up large in the victory over Florida State, recording 19 points and nine boards. He scored 20 points (40 percent of UVa's output) in the win over Notre Dame, hitting the tying shot to send the game to overtime, and he scored the first two points of the extra session on two free throws.
He was also pretty entertaining in press conferences and oh, he did hit that shot against Purdue as a junior. I'm pretty sure he's fine with not being MVP in this post.
Past most improved: 2013: Akil Mitchell. 2014: Brogdon. 2015: Darion Atkins. 2016: Perrantes. 2017: Jack Salt. 2018: De'Andre Hunter. 2019: Diakite.
Best surprise: Jay Huff. Specifically, Huff putting up 15 points, 10 blocks, and nine rebounds against Duke, a stat line not seen around UVa since Ralph Sampson roamed Grounds. And OK, I had to find a way to get Huff in here, too, because there was an argument to be made for him being most improved. His stats this year, followed by last year: points (8.5, 4.4), rebounds (6.2, 2.1), and blocks (2, 0.7). After spotty performances throughout the season, he finished with a bang, scoring at least 11 points in his final three games, which included the Duke masterpiece. He also almost had a double-double against Miami, when he weirdly scored Virginia's first 17 points, then no more after that. He had nine boards.
Past best surprises: 2016: Hall. I've only handed this award out one other time, in 2016, and that's because there were no freshmen who significantly contributed, so I made the "best freshman" award the "best surprise" award, and gave it to Hall.
Best glue guy: Braxton Key. I can't write this entire post without mentioning Key. He may not have been the best offensive player, the best defensive player, or the most improved. But Key never wavered in his role, which was to be a quiet leader, tough as nails, play solid defense, and grab rebounds. He was sort of the Jack Salt for this season, except with a better offensive game. Key is the kind of guy who does a lot of little things right, and you don't notice him. There were a few times this season, though, when he probably should not have shot a 3-pointer, and he was a little sloppy with turnovers. But that can be forgiven. He's a national champion, and his block of Jarrett Culver's shot at the end of regulation in the national championship is one of the more underrated plays of the tournament run. Because what if the shot had gone in? Thank you, Braxton!
Past best glue guys: First time officially giving out the award, though Salt and others would've been good candidates.
Most disappointing: Casey Morsell. Like in 2016, there won't be a best freshman award given out this year. It was Morsell's for the taking, but he came up short. Fair or not, there were enormous expectations on Morsell going into his true freshman campaign. Personally speaking, I was salivating at the thought of Morsell driving to the hoop, shooting around 35 percent on 3-pointers, and locking down perimeter players with excellent defense. He was able to do the last one quite a few times and will be called upon to do that more as his career goes on, but he was nowhere close to fulfilling the other two roles.
Morsell averaged 4 points, 1.7 rebounds, and 0.7 assists, and shot 27.7 percent from the field and 17.6 percent from beyond the arc. He was solid at the line, shooting 85.7 percent. His best game came early in the season against Arizona State, when he led the team with 19 points and went 7 of 12 from the field. He pretty much rescued the 'Hoos from a loss in that 48-45 win. He also scored 10 points against Navy and 10 points at North Carolina, where he went 2 for 2 from beyond the arc, part of a four-game stretch from Feb. 11-22 when he went 4 for 8 on 3-pointers. But in the final four games, he quieted down again, combining to shoot 1 for 6 on 3s, and he didn't score twice. He finished the year recording two points against Louisville. The good news is he did show flashes of potential, just not as many as he should've. He has lots of room to improve on offense, and I think he will take a big leap forward in 2020-21.
Past most disappointing: 2013: Jontel Evans. 2014: Atkins. 2015: Evan Nolte. 2016: Jarred Reuter. 2017: Darius Thompson. 2018: Huff. 2019: Marco Anthony.
Best win: Florida State at home. Ah-ha! Gotcha here! You probably thought I would pick Duke, and of course, that wouldn't be a wrong answer. A victory over Duke is always special, the Blue Devils have had our number recently, making it sweeter, and Huff did go off in that game. Nor would picking Louisville be wrong. It's always nice to win on senior day, and well, that ended up putting a nice cap on what was the end of the season and the end of a winning streak. But I went with the 61-56 victory over FSU because the Seminoles were the highest-ranked team Virginia beat, No. 5, and they were the outright ACC regular-season champions, and I'd say, the conference's best overall team. So that qualifies as the best win to me. Plus, that was at the beginning of the season's closing stretch, and the Cavaliers were coming off of a shaky performance against ACC cellar dweller Wake Forest and a loss at home to N.C. State. That close victory over a top-five team really catapulted everybody -- fans and players alike -- into the belief that this team could be great and could come up clutch. What followed was a 7-0 stretch in games decided by three or fewer points.
Past best wins: 2013: Duke at home. 2014: Duke in ACC tournament final. 2015: Notre Dame on the road. 2016: Iowa State in Sweet 16. 2017: UNC at home. 2018: Duke on the road. 2019: Purdue in Elite Eight.
Worst loss: Boston College on the road. Purdue shellacked the Wahoos by 29, but we kinda deserved it after what we did to them in 2019. South Carolina was looking like a bad loss for a while, also, but the Gamecocks surged to an 18-13 record by the end of the year. The Eagles went 7-13 in the ACC and 13-19 overall, and were without two of their best players in that contest. The Cavaliers, who fell 60-53, should not have lost to them.
Past worst losses: 2013: Delaware at home. 2014: VCU at home. 2015: Michigan State in NCAA second round. 2016: Syracuse in Elite Eight. 2017: Florida in NCAA second round. 2018: UMBC in NCAA first round. 2019: Florida State in ACC tournament.