Defending champs back for more
Virginia authored arguably college basketball’s greatest redemption tale in 2019, winning the national championship one year after suffering the sport’s ultimate first-round upset.
The biggest names from the squad that delivered that title? Ty Jerome. Kyle Guy. De’Andre Hunter. All three left school early for the NBA Draft, a mass exodus of guys going out on top. That means that this year’s version of the Cavaliers will look decidedly different.
Still, UVA doesn’t figure to play much differently. The Cavaliers have Tony Bennett’s defense-first approach and experienced players in Mamadi Diakite, Braxton Key and Kihei Clark. To that core, Bennett has added a few intriguing pieces, including junior college transfer Tomas Woldetensae and four-star recruit Casey Morsell, both guards.
At a Glance
HEAD COACH: Tony Bennett
2018-19 RECORD (ACC): 35-3 (16-2)
2018-19 POSTSEASON: NCAA: Beat Texas Tech 85-77 in the National Championship Game
G Kyle Guy (15.4 ppg, 4.5 rpg)
G De’Andre Hunter (15.2 ppg, 5.1 rpg)
G Ty Jerome (13.6 ppg, 5.5 apg)
C Jack Salt (3.7 ppg, 3.7 rpg)
Virginia doesn’t have another player with the two-way abilities of Hunter. Center Jack Salt was a senior who brought leadership and toughness to the floor and was a solid rim protector at the back end of the pack line. But Salt was limited offensively and slowed by a balky back late in the regular season. Virginia brings back the rest of its championship frontcourt, including the 6'9" Diakite. Diakite, who blocked a team-high 63 shots last season, tested the NBA Draft waters but ultimately decided to return to UVA, where he is emerging as a force at both ends of the floor.
Diakite is likely to be the centerpiece of Virginia’s offense, though his frontcourt mate, Key, could be a breakout player this season. Key was a highly regarded transfer from Alabama who was content as a role player last year. But he has the all-around game to become a key contributor as a senior. He averaged 5.7 points and 5.3 rebounds last year after scoring 12.0 points per game as a freshman with the Crimson Tide.
This could also be the put-up-or-shut-up year for the tantalizingly tall and talented Jay Huff. Huff’s minutes were inconsistent again in 2018-19 and, by the time Virginia reached the Sweet 16, the 7'1" Huff was little more than an afterthought. Still, in big regular-season games against Duke and Louisville, Huff showed the offensive versatility that keeps fans holding out hope he can play a larger role.
Bennett also redshirted forward Francisco Caffaro and only used Francesco Badocchi in a limited role. Both could become impact players this year.
Virginia will be hard-pressed to replace the veteran poise and long-range shooting of Jerome and Guy, who were both comfortable taking 3-point shots from well beyond the arc. The diminutive Clark proved his mettle as a freshman last season. A steady ball handler and tenacious on-ball defender, Clark needs to elevate his scoring game some this season, but he still figures to be the leader of the UVA backcourt. He won over his coaches with his pesky defensive style and won over teammates with his toughness, returning from wrist surgery in just nine days.
Morsell, a four-star prospect, has a chance to contribute — and possibly start — early on, and Woldetensae will give the Cavaliers an experienced player at the shooting guard position. A backcourt of Clark, Morsell and Woldetensae will be different than last year’s with Clark, Jerome and Guy, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be effective.
Virginia doesn’t look loaded for another national title run in 2020, but the Cavaliers aren’t about to fall off the national scene, either. Assuming Diakite, Key and Clark improve as anticipated, and Morsell and Woldetensae can make an impact in ACC play, UVA looks to be a top-15 program again this year. The names will change, but the style and pace remain the same — the style and pace that won last year’s national championship.
Postseason Prediction: Sweet 16
ACC Prediction: 4th