Reigning national champion Virginia’s returning players for the 2019-20 season combined for 48 starts last year, at most, after junior guard Kyle Guy, the 2019 Final Four Most Outstanding Player, announced Monday that he’s keeping his name in the 2019 NBA Draft.
The Cavaliers were certainly going to lose redshirt sophomore forward De’Andre Hunter, a surefire top-10 pick in June’s draft, and Guy’s backcourt running mate Ty Jerome made it clear in his early entry announcement that he’s keeping his name in the draft.
But there’s a reason Virginia opened as the early favorite to win the 2020 national championship, according to Caesars Palace, and multiple way-too-early preseason top 25 rankings slotted the Cavaliers among the top five for next season.
By returning for his senior year, Guy would’ve been a preseason First-Team All-American and a name included in speculative National Player of the Year discussions, but now Virginia Head Coach Tony Bennett will have to replace his three leading scorers – Guy (15.4 ppg), Hunter (15.2 ppg) and Jerome (13.6 ppg).
Each player started every game he played last season – totaling 113 of Virginia’s 190 starts in 2018-19.
Virginia’s fourth-leading scorer, Mamadi Diakite, who forced overtime with his buzzer-beating jumper against Purdue in the Elite Eight, also declared for the NBA Draft, so if he gets favorable feedback and remains in the draft, the team’s leading returning scorer would be senior guard Braxton Key, who averaged 5.7 points per game as a bench player who played roughly 20 minutes per game last season.
Gone, too, is fifth-year senior center Jack Salt, who started 29 games last season before moving to a reserve role for the last five games of Virginia’s national title run. At risk of sounding cliche, Salt was responsible for the “little things,” like setting screens to free Guy, Hunter and Jerome in Virginia’s blocker-mover offensive sets, clogging the paint as a big body on the back line of the Cavaliers’ pack line defense and keeping possessions alive with his offensive rebounding.
That long-winded explanation of Virginia’s personnel losses goes to say that the 30-win, ACC-winning, No. 1 seed-earning ‘Hoos that have been one of the most consistently elite programs in college basketball in the last six seasons are (likely) due for a step back in 2020.
And that’s OK.
Virginia’s national championship predecessor, Villanova, provides recent proof.
The Wildcats lost their top four scorers from their 2018 title team to the NBA and despite returning two fifth-year seniors in Phil Booth and Eric Paschall, and enrolling a top-10 recruiting class last fall, ‘Nova won 10 fewer games in 2019, earned a No. 6 seed and lost in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
And the ‘Hoos don’t have the proven scorers returning on the level of Booth or Paschall, or have an inbound top-10 recruiting class. The Cavaliers’ 2019 class currently ranks 27th, according to the 247Sports Composite rankings, and it’s headlined by four-star recruits Kadin Shedrick and Casey Morsell.
If we assume Diakite returns to Charlottesville, you can pencil in Kihei Clark, Braxton Key, Diakite and Jay Huff into Virginia’s projected starting lineup for next season.
Clark, the diminutive true freshman point guard who arguably made the play of the tournament when he tracked down Diakite’s tipped rebound in the waning seconds against Purdue before firing a crosscourt pass to the forward for the game-tying jumper, will run the show on offense.
His assist and turnover rates (16.4 percent/19.5 percent) have a long way to go to match Jerome’s ball-handling and creation last season (32.6 percent/13.3 percent), as does his 34 percent 3-point shooting, although he was 11-of-27 (40.7%) from deep in his final 12 games last season.
Who plays the 2 and how efficiently he plays the position are maybe the most important questions for Virginia’s 2020 season, especially given the massive shoes Guy vacates at the position.
That’s why 6-2 shooting guard Casey Morsell, ranked as the No. 61 prospect nationally in the 2019 class, is a crucial addition and a player who’s worth watching closely. He averaged 15.6 points per game as a senior at St. John’s College (Washington, D.C.) High School, according to MaxPreps.
Besides Clark, Key and Virginia’s early draft entrants, the only other guards on the team’s roster last season were freshmen Kody Stattmann (1.7 ppg in 4.1 mpg) and Jayden Nixon (a preferred walk-on), and sophomore Marco Anthony, who recently appeared in the transfer portal.
If Virginia does have a starting backcourt of the 5-9 Clark paired with the 6-2 Morsell, the ‘Hoos would make up for it with a physically imposing 3 through 5 in the 6-8 Key, 6-9 Diakite and 7-1 Huff.
Huff was a 45 percent 3-point shooter last season on a limited 31 attempts, but it suggests the potential for him to be a valuable floor spacer – at least because of the threat of him shooting threes, even if his 3-point percentage falls off as he shoulders a larger usage rate on offense – for a team that loses three knockdown outside shooters in Hunter (43.8% on 105 attempts), Guy (42.6% on 282 attempts) and Jerome (39.9% on 198 attempts).
One of the lazier and frankly, untrue, narratives about Virginia is that the ‘Hoos have been “unable to get a basket when they need one.” Don’t confuse scores in the 50s and 60s with inefficiency.
The Cavaliers finished last season with the second-most efficient offense in the country with a 123.4 adjusted efficiency. So even if Virginia’s offense used an average of 21 seconds per possession, the second-longest in the country, the Cavaliers could score with the best of them.
However, some of the critiques of Virginia’s offensive system and play style might have more merit next season if Clark experiences some growing pains in his transition to full-time point guard.
That brings us back to the Villanova Wildcats and the national champions before them that lost as many key contributors as Virginia did this offseason.
North Carolina lost four of its top five scorers from its 2017 title-winning team and while the Tar Heels had enough talent to earn a No. 2 seed in 2018, they won seven fewer games and were upset in the second round of the tournament. After winning the ’09 title, North Carolina missed the 2010 NCAA Tournament.
So did UConn in 2015 after it cut down the nets in 2014 and Kentucky in 2013 after winning in 2012.
Don’t be surprised if Virginia’s 2020 season looks more like its 2017 (23-11, No. 5 seed) or 2013 (23-12, missed the NCAA Tournament) seasons, than one of the four seasons in the last six in which the Cavaliers claimed a No. 1 seed in the tournament.
With three open scholarships for next season, Virginia’s roster — which is currently in flux as the early entry withdrawal deadline looms on June 10 — likely will change before the end of the summer.
Key, who began his career at Alabama, was a valuable addition last offseason, and Bennett could hit the transfer market again, flash his national championship ring and bring a veteran wing or two to Charlottesville.
Virginia has already been tied – at least in rumor – to Marquette transfers Sam and Joey Hauser, two of the top five transfers this cycle who could theoretically join Huff as part of a really big, 3-point shooting frontcourt in the 2021 season after sitting out with a mandatory redshirt year in 2020.
Regardless of who’s wearing a Cavaliers jersey next season, Virginia’s program expectations will need recalibration — if only for one year — but that leaves the door open for Tony Bennett and UVA to potentially embark on one of their most impressive seasons in Charlottesville if they can climb into the top 10 and contend for yet another ACC title.