Virginia Basketball Media Day Recap: Reigning NCAA Champs Feature Fresh Faces

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Virginia Basketball’s National Championship banner is front and center in JPJ.

Virginia men’s basketball media day had a distinctly different feel from previous years, for several reasons. First and foremost, the program is no longer chasing national championship glory. The Cavaliers are the defending national champions.

“Just wanting to defend our title,” Key said, discussing the program’s motivation heading into this season. Last year, a determined Cavalier squad was focused on overcoming the historic loss to UMBC in the 2018 NCAA Tournament.

“We know we’re going to get everybody’s best shot,” Key continued. “We know that we lost three guys to the NBA. We lost Jack [Salt]. But that’s no excuse. Teams don’t see it that way. We know the X is going to be on our back and we have to come ready and prepared every game.”

In addition, UVA is defending its national title with a team that looks much different from the one a year ago. The “Big 3” of Ty Jerome, Kyle Guy, and De’Andre Hunter did not return for their final year of eligibility. While Jerome (Phoenix Suns), Guy (Sacramento Kings), and Hunter (Atlanta Hawks) are living their NBA dreams, Virginia is left to replace the talented trio’s leadership and production (61.9% of the team’s scoring in 2018-19; at least one of the three either led the team or tied for the team lead in scoring in 37 of 38 games; all three averaged over 30 minutes per game).

There are certainly some key (no pun intended) returnees and contributors from last year’s squad, including Key, senior forward/center Mamadi Diakite, sophomore point guard Kihei Clark and center Jay Huff. However, for the first time in what seems like forever, Virginia will count heavily on fresh faces and inexperienced returnees. Even the experienced players will be counted upon to play new and bigger roles.

There is talent and potential for the 2019-20 Cavaliers, but there is also more uncertainty than we’ve seen in a while in Charlottesville as the Hoos prepare for their season opener at ACC-foe Syracuse.

“I think a number of factors [lead to the uncertainty heading into 2019-20],” Virginia head coach Tony Bennett said. “We have not started on the road in a conference game ever. Always playing against a team like Syracuse that’s a little more unconventional, though pretty much you know what they are going to do unless they’ve changed it, I think is challenging in that regard. And then the newness of our team. The lack of experience of quality playing time for the majority of the players. Those two things would be a situation that we haven’t experienced here since I’ve been here. Maybe my first couple years, but those were not conference games on the road, so combining those two does create uncertainty without a doubt against a high-level team.”

UVA’s roster includes three seniors in Key, Diakite, and the redshirting transfer Sam Hauser, two juniors in Huff and junior college transfer guard Tomas Woldetensae, two sophomores in Clark and guard Kody Stattmann, a redshirt freshman in Francisco Caffaro, and three true freshmen – guard Casey Morsell, combo forward Justin McKoy, and forward/center Kadin Shedrick. A young team has meant “our practices have looked a little different at times” with “a little more teaching,” said Bennett, who adds that the team “has shown improvement from where we started and I think there is a lot more improvement there.”

Leadership-wise, Bennett has turned to his upperclassmen to help bring the young players along.

“We have two guys that played significant minutes – Kihei, who’s really only a second-year, sometimes I look at him as our grizzled veteran, and Mamadi,” Bennett said. “And then after that there was Braxton, and then Jay was some. Those are our four biggest veterans or returners, so I think you rely on the guys that have the experience. And then it’s just through opportunities – getting thrown in the fire, so to speak – where you’ll learn and you’ll grow as it happens. Of course no substitute for experience.”

Delving deeper into the production Virginia will have to replace from its Big 3, you’ll find that Guy, Jerome, and Hunter combined for 245 of the team’s 321 made 3-point field goals in 2018-19. That’s 76-percent of the team’s 3s. For now, 3-point shooting is definitely a question mark for this year’s Cavalier team. What the Hoos do return, though, is size, rebounding, and interior scoring ability.

In a reserve role the 6’8” Key led the team in rebounds and rebounds per game in 2018-19, while the 6’9” Diakite was fourth in total rebounds. Huff is 7’1” and has added weight and strength in the offseason. Coach Bennett mentioned that we could see all three players could be on the floor at the same time.

“Offensively, we’re going to be focusing more on getting inside,” Key said. “The 3-ball was really good to us last year. This year probably play more inside out, using Jay, Mamadi and myself posting up, getting inside, getting fouls, and just trying to get easy baskets. Hopefully that will open up the 3-ball for us.”

Enough talk about offense. As always, the Pack Line defense defines this program, and Coach Bennett updated on how the new players are progressing in terms of learning the system. As this team tries to find its way offensively, having a lockdown defense could be more important than ever.

“The thing that comes over time defensively in any system is, we talk about it a lot, is less thinking, more anticipation, being more continuous,” Bennett said. “Those are two really important words in any quality defense, that they can anticipate things and they play through stuff. When either you don’t have the reps or you’re a little uncertain, you either react more or hesitate. Not much defense is reaction nowadays. That’s why I think Syracuse’s zone has been good. When we’ve been at our best defensively it’s the ability to read things quickly and be that anticipatory team. Those things are coming and they’re certainly working their hardest at it, and some of those guys will get opportunities.”

November 6 is now less than a week away. The Cavaliers have questions. Two preseason scrimmages have helped them learn more about themselves. Next Wednesday’s season opener in the Carrier Dome will clarify things even more.

“We still got another week to go,” Clark said. “I think we’re coming along nicely. I think we’re trying to learn each other’s game’s more and get the chemistry down as best as possible up until that game. We’re just going to keep working every day and get as best as we can before that first game.”

WORTH QUOTING

Mamadi Diakite seems to be relishing in the chance to be a leader on this year’s Virginia basketball team. He’ll be counted on as a leader and top player on both sides of the court. ~ Photo courtesy Matt Riley/Virginia Athletics Media Relations

Coach Bennett on Mamadi Diakite’s offseason improvement

“He’s really improved,” Bennett said. “He’s worked very hard. I think he’s improved really all areas of his game. I think his shot is better. He’s scoring better. He’s a bit more continuous. He’s always been athletic and can protect the rim. I think he understands that there will be some more opportunities for him and trying to lead better. This is his last year. All of the experiences that he’s had, from having to be patient early on, having to be a big part of certain games, conference games, NCAA tournament games, and then going through the experience in the spring/summer of the draft process, all that has improved him.”

“I’m excited for him,” Bennett added. “I think he has worked hard. He’s always full of life and energy, and I know he wants to lead this team to the best of his abilities.”

Coach Bennett on the newcomers

Shedrick – “He’s rangy, mobile, shot-blocker. Pretty good motor on him. He’s just got to get stronger. I think it’s 7’5” or 7’4” wing span, so he’s one of the longest wing span guys. Those guys are so active and I think he’s just, like I’ve talked about with other guys, he’s just scratching the surface.”

McKoy – “Real good motor. He’s continuous. He’s physical, he’s aggressive. He just plays really hard and works. Six-foot-seven and fairly long arms. He’s had some good stretches. Not afraid. Again he’s got an aggressive nature and he’s not afraid of contact.”

Morsell – “Casey obviously was highly touted. I think he could be a good two-way player. I think he can guard the ball and he’s learning our system defensively. He’s not afraid to step up and take shots. He’s going to be good. I like the assertiveness of those guys, and you’re going to have to be that way if you’re going to play.”

Woldetensae – “At times shows beautiful feel and he has the ability to make some 3s. He brings some depth in the backcourt, which we need.”

True freshman walk-on point guard Chase Coleman – “Chase Coleman has done a nice job in practice and in our scrimmages. He’s very quick,” Bennett said. “I’ve thrown him in there in scrimmages to sure our experience and he’s done a nice job.”

Key, Diakite, and Clark on the development of the new players

“They’re all really talented in what they do,” Key said. “Justin, Casey, Kadin, Tomas. I think they’re all capable of getting minutes this year, so we’ll see what the lineups look like on November 6.”

“Their ability of being coachable and their ability of wanting to play so much, and the competition during every practice,” Diakite said. “I think they came here to play. They’ll still keep learning. We’ll see how the season goes because they haven’t faced that experience yet.”

“Coming along nicely I think,” Clark said. “They’re going to make mistakes. They’re only first years, but they like to work so I think that’s a step in the right direction. They just got to continue to work hard and don’t put their head down when they make mistakes.”

Key on his mindset coming into the season. A sixth-man type last season, Key should be a starter and will be called upon to shoulder more of a scoring load in his final year on the collegiate level.

“My mindset is always the same,” Key said. “Just go out there and compete, be the best teammate, player that I can be for my team. There will be a lot more opportunities for me to score and be more of a threat offensively, but with that comes a lot of responsibility so I have to use it the right way. Be a leader, I’d say at the end of the day is the main thing. Giving the younger guys, guys that aren’t used to playing in big situations – we open at Syracuse, so that will be interesting. Just trying to keep guys calm, cool, collected.”

Offensively, Key’s focus has been on “finding spots where I’m comfortable. Last year it was very sporadic, not really knowing when I was going to play or how many minutes and trying to figure out how I can score. This year you’ll see a lot of similar things from last year. I’ve worked on my shooting a lot. It has gotten a lot better. Finishing around the rim has gotten a lot better, so I think this year will be the total package.”

Tomas Woldetensae on his development since arriving at UVA.

“I’m improving, slowly. I should be more patient,” Woldetensae said. “I get a little bit stressed by the fact that I’m not where I wanted to be, but it’s just a path that I gotta keep moving forward.”

Kody Stattmann on the impact of the addition of Kirk Penney to the Virginia coaching staff

“It helped me a lot and the team also because he knows so much about the game,” Stattmann said. “He has played all over the world. He was actually one of my favorite players growing up, so having him here has been real exciting. He’s a shooter and he’s been teaching me things he used to do and teaching a lot of the other guys what he used to do to get open and stuff like that. He’s been a really good addition to the team and I’m really happy he’s here.”

Casey Morsell on the leadership of Diakite and Huff

“Don’t be afraid to mess up, Morsell said, relaying the advice he has gotten from Diakite. “Just always play your game. He said that’s one of the things that held him back, trying to make the perfect play every time. You’re not always going to be perfect.”

“Jay is just a good leader in our locker room,” Morsell said. “Just a great teammate in terms of communicating, doing favors for everyone. He really just looks out for everyone.”

Casey Morsell is expected to play a significant role for Virginia basketball as a true freshman. The former St. John’s (Washington, D.C.) star says he is ready for the season opener at Syracuse. ~ Photo courtesy of Matt Riley of Virginia Sports

Morsell, Stattmann on being ready for possible significant roles in 2019-20

“I feel ready,” Morsell said. “I had a good feel based off our first two scrimmages. This is what you work for. I just want to be ready and make sure I’m prepared.”

“I guess last year I didn’t have much confidence in myself and I was a bit homesick, being so far away and just getting used to the college groove,” Stattmann said. “This year I’ve come in with a little different mindset. I’m definitely ready, yeah.”

Shedrick on who has impressed him this preseason

“Definitely Mamadi,” Shedrick said. “His offensive game is very much improved. And then, Kihei, as well. I think he has been shooting pretty well and he has been playing good defense. He’s been finishing well. They’ve both looked good. Jay. I go against Jay every day and that’s not easy.”

Key on opening the season against an ACC team in Syracuse

“I like it,” Key said. “I think it gives a bit of excitement. I think it’ll be great moving forward for the conference.”

WORTH NOTING

Mamadi Diakite looks bigger and stronger and seems more confident and relaxed than in past years. He says he learned how to be a leader and how to improve by going through the NBA pre-draft process. Examples of his leadership to the younger guys includes taking Morsell aside and teaching him the Pack Line, taking younger players to lunch, and just being there in general for all of the Cavalier players.

Francisco Caffaro took a deep knee to the thigh and is currently out. Coach Bennett said the 7’0” Argentinian had to have a procedure to “relieve some things.” A timetable for his return is not in place, but when he does return Bennett likes his physicality and toughness, two things UVA lost some of with the departure of Jack Salt.

– Bennett likes the improvement Jay Huff has made in the strength and weight departments this offseason. Bennett says the team will need Huff’s offensive talents and believes the skilled 7’1” post will have his opportunities this season.

– Bennett praised Sam Hauser’s competitiveness, saying the Marquette transfer guard/forward and 2018-19 second-team All-Big East selection wants to win on any team he’s on. Bennett compared having Hauser on the Green Team to the years when Anthony Gill and Malcolm Brogdon were redshirting. Hauser makes practice much more competitive. Bennett also likes what he sees from Hauser from a leadership perspective, noting he’s getting more comfortable and sharing things with younger players.

Kadin Shedrick may redshirt this season. The 6’11” post from North Carolina looks physically impressive but still needs strength according to Bennett. A final decision on this has not been reached.

– Last season the Hoos went on a whitewater rafting trip as a team. This year’s team went to an Escape Room. Kihei Clark said his group was out first, though they didn’t beat the hour deadline. They exited after one hour, 17 minutes.

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