Junior guard/forward Braxton Key, redshirt sophomore forward/center Jay Huff, and true freshman point guard Kihei Clark have answered one of the key concerns facing Virginia basketball heading into the 2018-19 season: Depth.
The 7’1” Huff showed flashes of his potential last season, but he only played in 12 games. Moreover, he missed significant offseason work due to shoulder surgery last spring. Clark, meanwhile, impressed last summer and in preseason practice, but no one knew how the first-year point guard would perform on the major D1 level. Last October, when Key was granted a waiver by the NCAA allowing him to play immediately, Virginia fans could breathe a little easier.
Key transferred to UVA last summer, following his sophomore year at Alabama, where he started 47 of 60 games in two seasons. The 6’8” wing gaining immediate eligibility was a boost to the Cavaliers on several fronts, including depth, experience, versatility, and athleticism. Despite getting the official okay from the NCAA late – the announcement was made on October 22, just over two weeks until the season started – the former 4-star prospect out of Oak Hill Academy started UVA’s first five games. He has since primarily come off the bench, nevertheless remaining a very important piece in Tony Bennett’s 8-man rotation.
“Whether you start or come off the bench, when you’re on the court you’re on the court,” said Key, who is averaging 21 minutes per game and has seen double-digit minutes in all but one game. He has played all 30 games this season. “The main focus is on how I can help my team win. Score when needed. Defend. Make sure my guy doesn’t score. Rebound. Do all those things.”
Rebounding and defense have been Key’s calling cards, as he is averaging a team-best 5.5 rebounds per game and has totaled 31 steals (second on the team behind Ty Jerome) and 18 blocks (third behind Mamadi Diakite and Huff). Offensively, Key is averaging 6.3 points per contest. While he is only 16-of-54 from 3 (29.6%) on the year, Key has made five of his last 12 from beyond the arc, including crucial baskets in victories at Virginia Tech (February 18) and at home against Louisville (March 9). His 2-of-4 performance from 3 in Blacksburg was especially important considering Key had made only one of 13 in the previous eight games.
“Big,” Key said of his 3-point shooting performance at Virginia Tech. “I mean, it helps out a lot. Being able to hit shots like that, it definitely gives you some relief and helps your confidence, but I always believe every shot’s going in. I really don’t get too boggled down if I miss a couple of shots or not.”
Developing chemistry with his new teammates as well as having to learn UVA’s Pack Line defense on the fly was a challenge early. Heading into postseason play, “I just feel in a really good rhythm,” Key said.
It took some time for Huff to become a consistent part of Virginia’s rotation. In UVA’s first 14 games, he did not play in three (Wisconsin, Maryland, South Carolina) and averaged nine minutes per game in the 11 games in which he did appear. Then came Virginia’s road matchup with Clemson on January 12, when the skilled big man provided a second-half offensive spark for the Hoos and helped turn a close game into a 20-point blowout. Huff finished with 11 points on 4-of-5 shooting and seven boards in the win over the Tigers.
This game seemed to be a turning point for Huff. From Clemson on (16 games in total), he has averaged 11.6 minutes per game and has played in every game. If the last five games are an indication, Huff’s role is growing, as he has averaged 16.4 minutes per contest.
Defensive improvement is the biggest reason why Huff has carved out a consistent role. He has provided more rim protection for Virginia, as evidenced by his 24 blocks. Most notably, though, his being on the floor helps UVA’s offense. Huff is averaging 5.1 points per game; however, he has proven to be a big threat inside and out, showing off some tremendous dunks as well as a sweet 3-point shooting stroke.
Last Saturday, Huff made two crucial 3s in the second-half to help UVA surge to a victory over Louisville. He wound up with nine points in the game. He was equally as important in the win at Louisville, scoring 12 points as UVA overcame a 12-point second-half deficit.
“I’ve always been very confident in my 3-point stroke, and then with lobs I feel like if somebody tosses it up close to the rim I can typically get at least a hand on it, put it in somehow,” Huff said of his abilities on offense. He credits his shooting stroke to his father, Mike, who coached him in high school. “So yeah, I definitely feel confident on offense.”
The Durham (N.C.) native is excited about having a consistent role heading into postseason play.
“It’s a good time,” Huff said with a laugh. “It’s exciting.”
And then there is Clark, who like Key has played in all 30 games. The true freshman point guard is averaging 25.5 minutes per game, earning 12 starts along the way. He has had some growing pains, but Clark has provided consistently terrific on-ball defense and is third on the team in steals with 22.
All three players stepped up big for Virginia in the regular season, helping the Hoos achieve a 28-2 record that included a share of the ACC regular season title. They’ll now be counted upon to do the same in the postseason, beginning with the top-seed Cavaliers run in the 2019 ACC Tournament.
More with Key and Huff
Key on how the team’s chemistry has developed throughout the season …
“We’ve all bonded very well. We were here [this Monday night] until about 11:30, just watching games, playing cards, playing video games, whatever we were doing. We’ve all bonded really well. We all get along for the most part. On the court, as you get more reps offensively and defensively you get more comfortable and I feel very comfortable right now.”
Key on De’Andre Hunter being projected as a lottery pick in the upcoming NBA Draft …
“I believe it. He’s one of the best players in college basketball in my opinion. He does it all. He does offense, defense. Not many guys do both sides of the ball like he does. For him to play as hard defense as he does and then to be able to score 15, 16 points a night is very difficult.”
Key on Virginia’s mindset heading into the postseason …
“We’re trying to focus on what we can control, and that’s ourselves. Whatever happened last year, we’re not focused on that.”
Key on the ACC Tournament …
“I think this could give us some momentum. I know we won it last year so there is probably going to be an X on our back going into it, but I think we’re ready for the challenge. Everyone’s focused. Everyone seems ready.”
Key on the experience he had in last year’s NCAA Tournament, when Alabama beat Virginia Tech in an 8/9 matchup before taking on Villanova …
“It’ll help out a lot. You kind of know what to expect. Definitely, the pressure’s on. You’re in 40-minute territory. You lose, you go home. We don’t want the same output as last year.”
Huff on what the team can improve upon heading into postseason play …
“I think rebounding is a big thing. We’ve been typically pretty good at it, but just every game we have to remind ourselves to tighten up and make sure we stay where we’ve been. Other than that, just getting ready.”
Huff on the offensive contributions of others besides the “Big 3” of Guy, Hunter, and Jerome …
“Obviously those guys are ridiculously talented scorers and that sort of thing, but there’s days where defenses are going to focus a lot on them and they can just dish it off to us. We do our job.”
Huff on the team’s mindset heading into the postseason …
“We’re excited for all of them, really. Both tournaments. We go into every game kind of the same way. Just one game at a time. So I think we prepared the right way for these and I think we’re excited, obviously. I think we’re confident as well.”