Even for a program that’s known for its signature suffocating defense, the Virginia basketball team turned it up another notch this season. The Cavaliers held opponents to a nation-leading 0.841 points per possession and set the best mark of the Tony Bennett era to date in the process.
That stingy effort defensively helped offset inconsistency on offense and propelled he team on a late-season surge that saw UVA win 11 of its final 12 games, including the final eight on the schedule. The Hoos allowed opponents to hit the 60-point mark or better just eight times in 30 games and two of those came in overtime.
The Pack Line scheme is always a team-oriented defense and this year’s edition was no exception, but the senior combination of Mamadi Diakite and Braxton Key played a big part of the success obviously. As a pair of 6’8” and 6’9” forwards that could interchange onto all kinds of assignments defensively, they provided a ton of cover for the overall team’s effort on that end of the floor.
Virginia associate head coach Jason Williford knows that will be hard to duplicate, but the Hoos will still have a good lineup on the floor regardless. In the frontcourt, where Williford works heavily with the forwards and centers, the Cavaliers will pick up Sam Hauser off a transfer-mandated redshirt year while young players like Francisco Caffaro, Justin McKoy, and Kadin Shedrick could begin to see more minutes. That’s alongside Jay Huff, who really stepped into a major role this season for the Hoos.
“Obviously losing Mamadi and Braxton, probably two of our better athletes on the team, we lose tremendous rebounding and some defensive versatility with both of those guys,” Williford said on a UVA video conference Thursday. “I don’t know if we’ll be as good defensively, but with the addition of Sam we’ll be able to stretch the floor, make some shots from beyond the arc. Sam can really shoot it. He proved that day in and day out in practice – boy could we have used that this year. His offense is going to be huge for us. With Kadin and even Justin McKoy having an opportunity to get on the floor and get more minutes – and Papi – those guys are going to have to collectively step up and help defend and more importantly help rebound the basketball.”
That’s a variety of options to work in around and with Huff, who averaged career highs in points (8.5), rebounds (6.2), and blocks (2.0). He shot 57.1% from the floor with 35.8% from 3-point range. He led the team in double-doubles and registered multiple blocked shots in 16 of the 30 games.
Huff seemed to gain steam late in the year. He had two of his four double-doubles after Feb. 1 and narrowly missed two more. He ended the season with three straight double-digit scoring games, two nine-rebound games, and 10 blocked shots as part of a double-double against Duke. Over that three-game span, Huff averaged 14.3 points and 7.67 rebounds with 12 blocked shots and 3 steals in the mix.
Williford said that Huff really dialed up the intensity later in the year and that’s something he can build on as he enters his final season.
“I think what clicked is there was a mentality,” Williford said. “There was an aggressive, assertive mentality that he demonstrated toward the latter part of the year. I just think he has to bring that mindset this coming season. Continue to work in every area and improve in every area, attack getting stronger, but it’s just a mindset. I think his mindset of I’m going to be aggressive, I’m going to attack. He was tremendous in blocking shots down the stretch. He’s just got to have that mentality.”
With Huff anchoring the interior and Kihei Clark entering his upperclass years as the catalyst on the perimeter, the Cavaliers have a pair of bookends to set the tone. They’ll be in search of which lineups and rotations to mesh together with that duo to create the best team for the season. The good news is that the roster appears to offer quite a few options that will give the Virginia coaches flexibility throughout the campaign.
Hauser figures to be a major part of any equation simply due to a proven track record. He’ll be in his senior and only on-floor year with the Hoos, but he already put together some strong work at Marquette prior to joining the Virginia program. He started 97 of 101 games with the Golden Eagles and averaged better than 14.0 points per game as a sophomore and junior. He tallied 14.9 points, 7.2 rebounds, and 2.4 assists per game as a junior. Hauser never made fewer than 63 3-pointers in a season and never shot below 40.2% from 3-point range in his three years there.
In terms of players that already have gone through a year of college, that leaves a combination of players like Caffaro, McKoy, and Shedrick up front with returners like Kody Stattmann, Casey Morsell, and Tomas Woldetensae on the wings.
“Sam’s going to be able to shoot the three,” Williford said. “I think with more minutes, McKoy will be a pleasant surprise. I’m hopeful because he’s a hard worker. Occasionally, we’ll throw it in to Papi and Kadin and let those guys go to work down on the block but I think we’re going to live with Jay and Sam shooting a lot of jumpers. Then we’ve got to hope that Kihei can shoot at his clip and [others can] give us some additional 3-point shooting.”
Williford shared some additional thoughts on Caffaro and Shedrick as well.
“I think Papi just needs time on the floor,” Williford said. “If he can get on the floor and stay out of foul trouble. If he can just get experience of being on the floor and stay out of foul trouble, his aggressiveness and his physicality we need. There are times we just have to have that. I had a chance to work [Kadin] out a lot, especially on game days. He’s just got to bring an aggressive, assertive mentality next year. He’s got some raw skills. He’s got to continue to get stronger. With added strength, which we put some weight on him and he’s gotten stronger, just getting on the floor and going through a little baptism by fire, he’s just got to go through it.”
The ‘throw ‘em in the deep end’ process will apply to the incoming freshmen too obviously as they try to work themselves into the rotation conversation at Virginia. Reece Beekman, Jabri Abdur-Rahim, and Carson McCorkle each received four-star recruiting ratings, but getting up to speed on the demands of UVA’s defense and disciplined approach under coach Tony Bennett can take time. Beekman brings four-time state championship credentials and playmaking ability, Abdur-Rahim is a three-level scorer, and McCorkle will add more shooting to the fold.
There’s no substitute for experience in live action at the college level, of course, and Williford knows that will still be a big part of getting them on the right footing defensively. Like Shedrick coming off a redshirt year, the true freshmen will have to get a taste of it and then work through the ups and downs of development.
“There’s going to be a learning curve for the first year guys for sure. … I think we’ve got a lot coming back. There’ll be some rust on these guys, but I don’t know if it will take as long,” Williford said of getting the defense dialed in without summer sessions. “The first years, they’ve got to go through it. We could be practicing now [but] they’ve got to experience it and go through it. I think you’re much better in our system after your second and third year gaining that experience. So even if they were here, there’s such a big learning curve for how, and Tony likes to use this, how continuous you have to be defensively. They’ll figure that part out whenever we get back to hoops.”
How early the freshmen – or the returning players for that matter – get a chance to work on things with the coaches in person, of course, remains unclear. Due to the coronavirus pandemic concerns, the University shifted to online classes to finish out the spring semester while the NCAA and the ACC cancelled all sports activities. That means the returning players missed the spring individual workouts with the coaches and their weight room work with coach Mike Curtis.
Those players and the incoming recruits will not be allowed on Grounds for summer sessions one and two (those already have been announced as remote instruction only as has the eight-week session that runs from June 15-August 7; session three is still undetermined) either. That means the summer workout opportunities (up to 8 weeks limited to a maximum of 8 hours per week with 2 hours spent on skill instruction) will be missed. The Hoos have a scheduled foreign tour in line later this year too, but the status of that trip is uncertain at this time as well.
For Virginia, who has gained a reputation for player development, not having the on-court time or the work with Coach Curtis is a challenge.
“That’s huge. We take pride in just getting better in the fundamentals of the game,” Williford said. “Not being able to be with the guys on the floor has been difficult. Not having guys in the weight room, attacking the weight room with Coach Curtis has been extremely difficult. We’re making the best of it. Mike has got a program that he sent out to the guys. They’re lifting, [doing] more body weight stuff and whatever they have at their disposal at home, some conditioning and lifting relative to what they have access to.”