(Photo – Erin Edgerton – Daily Progress)
Now that the 2019-2020 basketball season has come to close, it’s time to look back on the year that was. Here are my five takeaways from this season and heading into next.
The returners stepped up
With the departures of Jack Salt, Deandre Hunter, Ty Jerome, and Kyle Guy, Virginia entered the year with only four players who’d played any real minutes at the Division One level in Mamadi Diakite, Braxton Key, Kihei Clark, and Jay Huff. Those four were tasked with carrying an otherwise extremely inexperienced team. Fortunately, each of them stepped up. Combined, the four of them scored 74% of the team’s points, and grabbed 70% of the team’s rebounds. Diakite became a consistent go-to scorer, Huff developed as a ball screen defender, Key thrived in his swiss army knife role, and Clark became a dependable starting point guard who was relied on to run the offense.
The newcomers struggled – for the most part
But looking past those four, there wasn’t much to be celebrated. The only bright spot was Tomas Woldetensae’s ridiculous ten game streak of 45.8% three-point shooting. Outside of Woldetensae’s late season shooting, there wasn’t much encouraging play. Granted, all these players were essentially in their first season playing Division One basketball, so they’ll all still have opportunities to grow, develop, and have phenomenal careers at Virginia. Realistically, it wasn’t expected that all three of Hunter, Jerome, and Guy would leave for the draft, and Marco Anthony’s transfer had the same affect, as it forced guys who, otherwise, may not have been relied upon so heavily to play significant minutes this season.
Looking into the numbers, Morsell and Stattmann shot 17.6% and 26.9% from distance, and despite that phenomenal ten game streak, Woldetensae still only converted on 36.1% of his three-point attempts, as he struggled for the majority of the season. There also wasn’t much play-making from those three, combining for a measly 2.5 assists per game. Neither Francisco Caffaro or Justin McKoy really broke through either, playing 7.5 and 7.4 minutes per game, respectively. I don’t mean to criticize these players too heavily, and maybe expectations were too high for some of them, but they all have significant areas of their game to improve upon moving forward (which is to be expected for such inexperienced players).
Kihei Clark is this team’s leader
Only in his second year on Grounds, Kihei Clark established himself as this team’s leader for the foreseeable future. He was tasked with filling the shoes of NBA first round draft pick Ty Jerome, and had very little help in the backcourt. As that primary play maker, Clark thrived, as his assist rate jumped from 16.4% to 37.7% (13th in the country). He also improved his three-point shooting, up from 34.1% to 37.5%, and on eleven more attempts. Even more impressive, Kihei did it all while playing the 20th highest minutes rate nationally (% of possible minutes played) at 91.7%, only sitting on the bench for 101 total minutes in a thirty-game season. The only legitimate concern with Clark’s play this season was his turnover issues, averaging 3.5 per game. For him to hit his full potential, and for next year’s team to as well, he’ll have to sure up his ball control. Hopefully, Clark will also get more help handling the ball in the back-court than he did this year to take some of that pressure off.
With two more years of eligibility, Clark is the team’s presumptive leader and will be tasked with meshing the newcomers and the returners together. He’s already made massive improvements in his game, and he should continue in that upwards trajectory.
Two big losses
With the sudden end to the 2020 season, that also concludes Braxton Key’s and Mamadi Diakite’s college careers. They leave the program as National Champions, and will both be looking to play professional ball. Diakite has signed with agent Gary Durant, and has a real shot at being drafted in the second round of the NBA Draft. Key’s situation is much more uncertain, but he still has a shot to get picked up as an undrafted free agent and potentially play Summer League (if there even is going to be Summer League) to try and get a job in the G League.
If the NBA path doesn’t work out for them, they’ll each look overseas, and should get significant interest. With their departures, they leave two massive holes in the Virginia basketball program, both as leaders, and key frontcourt pieces, especially on the defensive end.
Help is on the way
Fortunately, help is on the way in the forms of fifth year senior transfer Sam Hauser, redshirt first year Kadin Shedrick, and soon to be first years Jabri Abdur-Rahim, Reece Beekman, and Carson McCorkle. Hauser should immediately step into Diakite’s starting spot in the frontcourt, but Key’s spot as the starting small forward and the backup power forward is up for grabs. Abdur-Rahim will be in competition for that starting role, and Justin McKoy should be in line for those rotational minutes at the four.
But despite all the hype for the new guys, the experience and savvy the program is losing in Key and Diakite will be hard to replace. Both are well drilled in the packline defense, and are comfortable in Bennett’s offensive system. It will likely take time for the newcomers to adapt to the Bennett system, but there’s significant reason to be optimistic about next season.
All in all, a 23-7 season, considering what this program lost, is a great season. It’s shame that it came to such a sudden conclusion and that the team didn’t have the opportunity to make a run in the postseason, but winning eight straight games to end the season isn’t such a bad thing. Diakite and Key each had phenomenal send offs, and guys like Clark and Huff stepped into roles that they’ll look to expand on moving forward. The future is bright with for the program, as Bennett brings in the 12th best 2020 recruiting class (via 247) nationally, and the team welcomes Sam Hauser to the court after his red-shirt year following his transfer from Marquette. Hopefully, by the time March 2021 rolls around, the ‘Hoos will be gearing up for another deep tournament run.