The Virginia Cavaliers men’s basketball team begins their title defense on Wednesday, November 6th at 9pm on the road at Syracuse. Before the 2019-2020 men’s basketball season begins, WUVA Sports analysts Patrick Carey, Heather Thomas, Stephen Mallozzi, and Christian Guynn took some time to answer some of the most pressing questions for Tony Bennett’s team this season.
Who is your breakout player for the 2019-2020 season?
Patrick Carey: Mamadi Diakite. The college basketball world learned Mamadi’s name after his buzzer beater to beat Purdue a year ago, but they will know it well after this season. With the Big Three gone, Diakite will be asked to do more on all sides off the ball, but particularly on offense, where the Hoos figure to feel that absence the most. Diakite will return to being the shot blocking presence he has been in the paint for most of his career, and his scoring should increase significantly from the 7.4 points he averaged a year ago as he becomes the focal point of the offense. In UVA’s Blue-White scrimmage, Diakite showcased a newfound ability to shoot the three and his post moves looked smoother than ever. Don’t be surprised to see the 6’9 power forward put together a monster season in his final year and even make an outside push for ACC Player of the Year.
Heather Thomas: Braxton Key. Virignia’s lineup makes it hard to choose just one breakout player for this season. However, Key’s average of 12 points a game at Alabama prior to transferring to UVA cannot go unnoticed. In addition, his ability to play in rotation last season not only strong defensively, but also putting up shots proves he has what it takes to be an essential player in the coming season. With the recent departures of three of the team’s key players in Kyle Guy, De’Andre Hunter, and Ty Jerome, there is plenty of space for Key to get in a rhythm this season and show his talent all over the court.
Stephen Mallozzi: Kihei Clark. You may already know his name thanks to his involvement in “the play”, which helped the Hoos knock off Purdue en route to the championship. Otherwise, last season Clark’s numbers were nothing special, averaging just 4.5 points, 2.3 rebounds, and 2.6 assists per game. But Clark will have a much more significant role this year, as he will be taking over Ty Jerome’s starting job at point guard. Clark is a studly on-ball defender, a solid playmaker, and has improved as a three-point shooter, meaning he has all the tools necessary to be a star this year. When you put all of this together, it makes the role of the 5’9 second-year guard all the more important, as his growth may very well determine the direction of the 2019-2020 season for the Hoos.
Christian Guynn: Jay Huff. The 2019-2020 season for Jay Huff will really prove whether he lives up to the hype that has been following him ever since he stepped foot on grounds. The seven-footer walks around this fall semester with some obviously added weight that will hopefully give him more presence in the paint. This post-presence is an intangible that is more important for this new team than any stat line. If Jay Huff steps up in a big way it will give some much needed time for UVA’s new guard to get adjusted. With the raw talent and size that Jay Huff has, it is only a matter of time before everything clicks and he is a force to be reckoned with and gains some much deserved name recognition outside the ACC.
UVA was predicted to finish 4th in the ACC. Is this overrating/underrating the Hoos or is this a fair prediction?
Patrick Carey: I think Virginia slated to finish fourth is a fair assessment. While it’s somewhat shocking for them to be this low considering Tony Bennett’s recent ACC success, when considering the departed players from last year’s roster, it’s tough to place this team over the likes of Duke, UNC, or Louisville. As the new core of players gets acquainted to the college game and Bennett’s system, there will certainly be some kinks to work out before this team reaches its full potential. UVA’s defense will keep them in games against even the top dogs of the ACC but look for them to be a bit more inconsistent and drop a few more games than they have in the past en route to a fourth-place finish.
Heather Thomas: I would have to agree that Virginia finishing 4th in the ACC is likely. While Tony Bennett and the program are coming off of such a historic victory for the program, we must consider the loss of the three token players from the previous season. It will take a few games for Virginia to figure things out dynamically, but I have high hopes in Bennett and the talent on this team. As far as competition at the top of the ACC, it is also fair to bet on Coach Mike Krzyzewski and the Duke roster as well as UNC and Louisville, as it stands right now. With that being said, Virginia’s defense has been known to show up at times when its most important, and I’m excited to see what that’ll look like this season.
Stephen Mallozzi: I have to say, I think fourth in the ACC is underrating the Hoos here. Virginia has a plethora of up and coming talent, and I think we’ve seen time and time again in college basketball: coaching is key. We still have one of the best coaches in the nation, Tony Bennett, at the helm. You can’t forget either, Bennett has had a vast amount of success within the ACC over the course of his career, something that can not be discounted when considering this prediction. Not to mention, UVA still has plenty of guys who can make magic happen on the floor, including the likes of Mamadi Diakite, Braxton Key, and the aforementioned Kihei Clark. Sure, there will be growing pains. Sure, it might take a little time to reach the full potential of this roster. But in the end, I think the Hoos play well enough to outpace their fourth place prediction in the ACC.
Christian Guynn: I hate to be that guy, but it has to be said, it might be a little overrated. Coach Tony Bennett has built this program on the mindset that you stay and develop to be the stars that we all know and love. With our big three gone and only a few young players that got any real minutes last year coming back, I am just not sure they can handle, or even fathom, the insurmountable task that lay before them. Returners Braxton Key, Mamadi Diakite and Kihei Clark need to step up in a big way this upcoming season for fourth to be feasible. Maybe I am not giving them enough credit, but I don’t think it would be a stretch to argue that a lot of their success on the court last season was due to the attention that teams gave the Big Three. I hope and wish for better but I am just not sure the Hoos can deliver again this year after such a fairytale ending last year.
What should be the benchmark for a “successful season” as the Cavaliers take their victory lap this year?
Patrick Carey: Considering both last year’s national championship and the fact that this appears to be a bit of a rebuilding year for the Hoos, I’m looking more at specific games to be a benchmark for success this year. The Hoos play home and home ACC matchups with UNC and Louisville, and get Duke at home this year. If they could steal 2-3 of those games, I think this year could be considered a success. In terms of season long goals, I’d like to see the Cavs finish above or better than their predicted fourth in the ACC and earn a four seed or better in the big dance.
Heather Thomas: A benchmark for success this season for Virginia will be hard to define this year, as the program is coming off of the most success it’s ever had. Considering the roster this year and how they are ranked preseason, if they can remain undefeated in the first eight games going into UNC, that would be incredible. I think at that point they will have set themselves up for great success. Otherwise, I think a goal for the team should be to end the regular season in the top tier of the Atlantic Coast Conference.
Stephen Mallozzi: Well, the “benchmark” (meaning where the bar is set for the Hoos) is winning another national championship. Personally, while I think the Hoos have an outside shot at it, I do not believe they repeat this season. Now, as for what I personally would call a successful season, would be returning to the tournament and making a run into the elite eight. Anything at or above that level for me would count as successful, especially when you consider that many see this season as a growth and development year for UVA.
Christian Guynn: This season is simple for the Cavaliers: finish near the top of the ACC, make a push to get into the second weekend of the NCAA tournament. The first few games of the ACC schedule this season will be pivotal to accurately gauging the success the Hoos might achieve this season. Total wins and losses shouldn’t drop too much this season, but the success of the Cavaliers will ultimately rest on whether they can squeak out those close ACC games later in the season. Nonetheless, fans should expect nothing less than a small tournament run, but not to be upset if they don’t get anything more.
Which game before New Year’s will be most telling of the UVA’s potential this season?
Patrick Carey: Look for the game at Syracuse to be the most telling for UVA’s success this year. The Orange will employ their trademark 2-3 zone, a defense against which UVA has experienced highs, like their 26-point win a year ago in which they made 18 three pointers, and lows, like their loss in the elite eight in 2016. The zone forces offenses to make plays through the high post and hit shots from outside. After the loss of a ton of shooting from last year’s offense, this game will demand the Hoos to figure out where the outside shooting will come from this year, and whether or not the offense can run smoothly with Mamadi as the focal point, as the big man should get a lot of looks against the zone. The defense will be there this year as it is every year, but this trip up to the Carrier Dome will tell fans a lot about how the offense will work this year, and how effective it can be.
Heather Thomas: I am looking to the Purdue game on the road to be the most telling for Virginia’s potential this season. At that point in the season, the team will have played seven games and should have worked out some of the kinks and hopefully having gelled together as a team. This will be the point of the season for me to see what they can do going up against Nojel Eastern, Matt Haarms, Trevion Williams and the rest of Purdue’s returning squad, who finished second in the Big 10 last season. This game is sure to be an emotional one as well, as the last time these two teams met was during March Madness last year in a thrilling Elite Eight game, going into overtime, and ending with Virginia advancing to the final four. This storyline, along with the point in the season at which this game is played, makes it an important game for both teams, and in my opinion, a game of examination for Virginia’s potential in the rest of the season.
Stephen Mallozzi: I’m going to go with the UNC home game here. UNC is, in my opinion, the best and most well rounded team in the first half of UVA’s schedule. That in its own right would make this a critical game, but it also needs to be considered that UNC is a huge ACC rival. How UVA fairs against this ACC foe will likely show what levels of success the Cavaliers will achieve in the conference overall. UNC is year in and year out one of the best teams in the country, and generally, you can really tell what sort of material a team is made of once they play a gritty, tough, and extremely talented rival such as the Tar Heels.
Christian Guynn: Home against UNC will be the most telling for the Cavaliers and the ACC. If the Cavaliers edge out a win against UNC, it puts them in a three horse race for the regular season ACC title, something all fans of basketball should wish for. Last season, the Cavaliers were dominant in the ACC, but this game will show fans if they get the exciting ACC race from two seasons ago with Duke, UNC, and UVA all trading loses. UNC at home will be the Cavaliers biggest test of the first half of the season. Whether the Cavaliers play well against an extremely loaded UNC team will be a barometer for ACC play and, ultimately, UVA’s postseason position. I for one, cannot wait to be there hoping the Cavaliers pull off the victory.