- Ky McKeon
Key Returners: Mamadi Diakite, Jay Huff, Kihei Clark, Braxton Key
Key Losses: Ty Jerome, Kyle Guy, De’Andre Hunter, Jack Salt
Key Newcomers: Casey Morsell, Tomas Woldetensae (JUCO), Kadin Shedrick, Francisco Caffaro (Redshirt)
***Editor’s note: Francesco Badocchi has left the team.
Outlook: Following a historic defeat to 16-seed UMBC in the 2018 NCAA Tournament, head coach Tony Bennett presumably sought out Satan and made a deal with the devil in exchange for a 2019 National Championship. To win a title, a team needs to be very good and have a considerable amount of luck, which is exactly what Virginia, the definition of “Team of Destiny”, was and had last season. UVA’s run to the title was, objectively, nothing short of a mathematical phenomenon. Per KenPom, in the Elite Eight, the Hoos had a 9% chance to beat Purdue when they trailed by three with 16 seconds remaining. In the Final Four, UVA had a 4% chance to beat Auburn when it trailed by four with 17 seconds remaining (and it took a missed double-dribble, a foul on a three-point shooter, and Kyle “Ice Water” Guy to make that win happen). And, against Texas Tech, Virginia had an 11.7% chance to win when it trailed by three with 22 seconds remaining. By my primitive calculations, the chances of Virginia winning all three of those games in the manner it did was just .04%. WOW.
I’m not chalking up UVA’s championship all to chance. Tony Bennett has built a powerhouse in Charlottesville and deserved every bit of that National Championship. If nothing else, UVA’s win silenced the (incorrect) critics that screamed how UVA’s style of play could never win a title. This year, it may surprise people to find the Hoos this high in our rankings, but much of this preseason ranking is a testament to the program. Virginia has long been a team that is greater than the sum of its individual players, and that should be the case in 2019-20. Three All-Conference players depart from last year, but Bennett has plenty of incoming talent and veterans looking to assume larger roles.
The departures of Kyle Guy, Ty Jerome, and De’Andre Hunter are most concerning from an offensive perspective. Below shows the offensive impact of each player when they were on the floor versus when they sat. The numbers are eye-popping:
For this reason, the 2019-20 version of the Hoos remind some of the 2016-17 squad that “only” made the Tourney as a 5-seed following the departures of Malcolm Brogdon and Anthony Gill. This is understandable, but there’s reason to believe this year’s team will still be a force on offense.
Much like Bennett’s pack-line defense, UVA’s offense is much more about system than it is about personnel. Virginia was the country’s slowest team last season and has ranked in the bottom five of adjusted tempo each of the past six seasons. This is due to the Hoos’ style of “mover / blocker”, an offense that revolves around methodical half-court execution that looks to get a clean, open look each and every time down the floor. In short, the “mover / blocker” offense features two or three “blockers” (usually big men) whose job it is to set screens in an effort to free the “movers” (usually guards) for open looks. Screens are often “down screens” for movers set up around the block. Movers can either “curl”, “pop”, or “fade” off these screens and the blockers will react accordingly. Below, Kihei Clark’s defender jumps over the top of the screen, so Clark executes a perfect fade for an open three:
And here, Jerome curls around his screen as his defender trails…
Because this system is so much about feel (i.e. when to pop / fade / curl or when to break from the expected pattern), passing, and moving off the ball, the offense is less reliant on dribble-drive and isolation, which can make up for a lack of individual star power.
This type of offense also requires shooting. UVA ranked 8th in the country in 3P% last season and Guy, Jerome, and Hunter all shot at or above 40% from deep. Shooting reinforcements this year come by way of the recruiting path. Top 100 freshman Casey Morsell and top 10 JUCO recruit Tomas Woldetensae each come in with sharpshooting reputations. Morsell has every indication of blossoming into the next great Virginia guard; he’s a gifted scorer and defender and already has the build to compete in the D1 ranks. Expect Morsell to start immediately and play a crucial role in Bennett’s offense. Woldetensae knocked down 47.6% of his three-point attempts and scored 17 PPG at Indian Hills last season; he’s a smooth, 6’5” wing that seems tailor-made for Bennett’s methodical half-court attack.
Morsell and Woldetensae will need to contribute right away, because outside of sophomore guard Kihei Clark, UVA’s backcourt is thin and unproven. Originally committed to UC Davis, Clark was UVA’s unsung glue guy last year, starting 20 games and playing 26 minutes per game. Though small in stature, Clark is big in heart and constantly busts his ass on the floor, a trait every coach in America wants in a player. Clark had the luxury of playing off the ball last year running alongside Jerome, but he’ll almost certainly be handed the reins in 2019-20. While not as sure with the ball as Jerome was last season, Clark was an effective game manager when given the chance and proved to be a threat from outside the arc.
Bennett doesn’t need a large rotation to execute his style of play, so it’s very possible Clark, Morsell, and Woldetensae occupy the lion’s share of minutes at the two guard spots. Sophomore Kody Stattman and freshman Justin McKoy, a former Penn State commit, could all compete for minutes, but nothing in Bennett’s history suggests he’ll feel forced to play them.
The Cavalier frontcourt is a well-known entity. Mamadi Diakite, Jay Huff, and Braxton Key each played key roles on the National Championship team last season and now look to lead the Hoos in 2019-20. Diakite returns after flirting with the NBA Draft; his stock rose after turning in a brilliant NCAA Tournament in which he played 32 MPG and averaged 10.5 PPG / 8.2 RPG / 2.7 BPG. The 6’9” forward’s role should expand this season as he moves from daytime to primetime. Offensively, look for Diakite’s number to get called more, especially with his burgeoning shooting ability from the mid-range and beyond.
Defensively, Diakite is already one of the best shot blockers in the nation – last year he ranked #1 in the ACC in block rate.
Huff has as good a chance as any player in the country to go from unknown to household name. The 7-footer saw limited floor time behind Jack Salt, Diakite, Hunter, and Key, but was extremely effective when given the opportunity. He’s a unique player (an “Under 900” guy, see Jim’s article describing that here) that plays the 5, blocks shots, rebounds, and hits threes at a high level. Virginia scored a ridiculous 1.20 PPP when Huff graced the floor last season.
Key, formerly of Alabama, played intermittently last season, starting a game one night and sitting on the pine another. He shined against Texas Tech on the biggest stage in college basketball, scoring 6 points and grabbing 10 boards and will contribute in the rebounding, facilitating, scoring, and defensive departments. At 6’8” with plus athleticism, Key can play either the 3 or 4 and guard multiple positions on the defensive side of the ball.
Similar to the situation in the backcourt, Virginia’s frontcourt depth is full of mystery. Top 100 freshman Kadin Shedrick and redshirt freshman Francisco Caffaro are Bennett’s only options past Diakite, Huff, and Key. Shedrick is still pretty raw and likely won’t see too much playing time in year one. Caffaro, however, could fill a role similar to Huff’s in 2018-19. Last summer, Caffaro made the All-Tournament First Team at the U18 FIBA Americas tournament, representing Argentina. A year on the bench at Virginia can do wonders for a player’s development, so Caffaro and his 7’0” 230+ lb. frame could be ready for action this season.
Virginia’s bread and butter is defense. Last season, the Hoos ranked 5th in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency rankings and have finished in the top five, five of the past seven seasons. Bennett runs a “pack-line” style of defense, which means his defenders form a “shell” just inside the three-point arc. Following the Final Four victory over Auburn, Bennett described the goal of his defense is to “build a wall” between the opponent and the basket. This defense is designed to slow opposing teams down, disallow shots near the rim, and force opponents to shoot tough, contested long-balls. Scoring inside against Diakite and Huff within the confines of a pack-line will be nearly impossible and offensive rebounds should continue to be hard to come by. UVA’s defense is well-coached and disciplined, and like its offense is worth more as a unit than its individual parts. Expect the Hoos to have one of the nation’s stingiest defenses in 2019-20.
Bottom Line: Since 2014, Virginia has been a staple among college basketball’s top ten teams. While the Hoos lose a ton of production from last year’s championship squad, Tony Bennett has plenty of firepower to take his group back to another Dance and compete for another ACC title.