(Image – Ryan M. Kelly – Getty Images)
As a matter of fact, it seems as if college basketball might actually be happening this year. As such, it’s about time to start gearing up for the 2020-2021 college basketball season. Sure, there’s a world where, a month and a half into the college football season, everything goes pear-shaped. But for now, we’ll proceed as if, by late-November, we’ll all be rejoicing at the glorious sound of shot-clock buzzers.
Once again, this Virginia men’s basketball team appears to be a legitimate national championship contender. The up and down, inconsistent performances of last season are likely behind us as a more experienced team will be taking the floor in JPJ. Additionally, the team will add three highly-touted first years in Jabri Abdur-Rahim, Carson McCorkle, and Reece Beekman, along with a promising redshirt first year in Kadin Shedrick, and a ridiculously intriguing talent in Marquette transfer Sam Hauser.
But, despite all the hype, there are still a number of critical potential weaknesses that this team will need to address and overcome if they’re going to be serious title contenders.
Weak(er) interior defense
First off, the departures of Mamadi Diakite and Braxton Key leave a gaping hole in the defensive front-court. Frankly, their experience in the system and individual abilities carried the team at times last season, and without their collective help defense, it’s going to be that much more critical that the perimeter defenders are able to hold up their end of the bargain.
But, to make up for the loss of those two a number of frontcourt players will need step up. Perhaps most notably, Jay Huff will need to be a defensive leader in his fifth year on Grounds. Last season, he showed growth defending ball screens, while also displaying his shot-blocking proficiency. But now that his individual defense is less of a concern, it’s time for him to take on the role as the leader of the defense like Diakite, Key, Salt, Atkins, and Mitchell did before him. It’s a tall task, but he’s the best candidate for such a job.
Sam Hauser will also need to prove that he can, at the very least, survive in the packline. He’ll make his impact on the offensive side of the ball, so as long as he isn’t a detriment to the team defensively, there shouldn’t be any issues. Additionally, second years Caffaro and McKoy should provide defensive stability off the bench.
An inconsistent rotation
This season there will likely be twelve players in Virginia uniforms who will be legitimately fighting for regular minutes. With two point guards (Clark and Beekman), three shooting (or combo) guards (Woldetensae, Morsell, and McCorkle), three wings (Stattmann, Hauser, and Abdur-Rahim), two power forwards (McKoy and Shedrick), and two centers (Huff and Caffaro), this roster is jam-packed.
Over the last few years, Tony Bennett hasn’t played that deep of a rotation. In fact, the last time Virginia played more than an eight man rotation (seven in ’19-’20, seven in ’18-’19, eight in ’17-’18) was the 2016-2017 season when Bennett played ten players on a regular basis. Of note, that team finished the year with the program’s worst record of any Wahoo squad since 2013 and three players transferred out of the program after the conclusion of the season.
Of course, a deeper rotation doesn’t directly correlate with an unsuccessful season. But it is apparent that this team will require more pure management from Tony Bennett than his teams have over the last few seasons. Hopefully, a handful of players will step up and solidify their spots in the rotation. If not, we could see some messy rotational patterns as the season progresses.
Lack of a shut-down wing defender
Another result of Diakite’s and Key’s departure, is that this team lacks a surefire shutdown defender on the wing. Last season, Diakite and Key traded off guarding players like Jordan Nwora, Anthony Lamb, and Wendell Moore. This season, it’s unknown who’s capable of filling their shoes.
Of the possible options, there are a number of guards who are obviously too small (Clark, Beekman, Morsell, and McCorkle), a few wings who aren’t quick enough to guard the most elite opponents (Woldetensae and Stattmann), and a few guys who probably lack the experience and aren’t sound enough defensively to fill the role (Hauser and Abdur-Rahim).
That leaves us with the front-court players. Of course, Caffaro and Huff will be concerned with guarding their fellow centers. But, both Kadin Shedrick and Justin McKoy are intriguing prospects. Shedrick is likely still a year or two away, but his athleticism appears to be tantalizingly similar to Diakite’s. McKoy struggled to find the floor last season, particularly in ACC play, but that was more a result of the players ahead of him than any sort of weakness defensively. McKoy is both agile enough and big enough to guard elite wings like Jalen Johnson and Scottie Barnes, so he’s my bet to replace Key and Diakite in that role.
There’s also an argument that Casey Morsell could spend time guarding bigger wings. He may be on the shorter side, but he’s got the bulk, wingspan, and technique necessary to guard bigger players.
At the end of the day, replacing Diakite and Key on the defensive side of the ball is going to be the biggest question mark for this team. But, if Bennett and the ‘Hoos can mitigate the impact of these shortcomings, they’ll be well on their way back to national contention.