Virginia basketball’s national title defense during the 2019-20 season wasn’t always pretty, but it was gritty. Playing at the slowest pace in the country (21.1 seconds per offensive possession), the Cavaliers struggled to shoot the basketball (46.9 eFG%), while dealing with unprecedented turnover issues (20.1 percent) under Tony Bennett.
Despite the offensive woes, Virginia again finished the season with the No. 1 defense in the country. Bennett’s club won 23 games (15-5 ACC), including eight straight conference games to end a short-circuited season.
The 2020-21 college basketball season seems awfully foggy at the moment as the globe and, in our little corner of the universe, college sports world grapple with COVID-19. However, assuming there’s some semblance of a season, UVA will field a strong team: a nice mixture of returning talent and a top-15 recruiting class.
1. With Mamadi Diakite and Braxton Key set to leave, Virginia basketball is out two of the better defenders in the ACC. Any concerns? Or does it just not matter: Bennett prints elite defenses?
Spencer Percy: I think this one matters, and how could it not? This was the best defense Bennett has produced at Virginia. This season very well may have been his masterpiece when you consider the offensive deficiencies the ‘Hoos faced.
The Diakite-Key offensive Nails-On-A-Chalkboard experience got rough in stretches, but they erased all of those misgivings (and then some) on the defensive end. Both players finished the season with top-10 individual defensive ratings, nationally.
Speaking of: guess who finished first nationally in that statistical category. Jay Huff. He was also top-20 nationally in defensive win shares (2.3) and block percentage (11.1 percent). Huff will be the defensive anchor for Virginia next season and Francisco Caffaro should back him up in the middle.
This likely means Bennett will guard ball-screens more conservatively, hard-hedging less. Huff has improved drastically in this area, but he’s not Diakite. I also think next season’s personnel can be more aggressive on the wing. It goes against the Pack Line defense gospel, but don’t be surprised if Virginia pressures the ball and passing lanes more.
I feel good about Kihei Clark and Casey Morsell harassing ball handlers. Sam Hauser has a good frame and should be solid defending opposing power forwards. We’ll see with true freshman Jabri Abdur-Rahim on this end.
(*whispers* JAR has a chance to be the best player Virginia has produced under Bennett. I said what I said.)
Brian Geisinger: Yep, it’s worth noting: in terms of points per possession, this was Bennett’s best defense ever. Virginia ranked No. 1 nationally in both adjusted defensive efficiency (85.1 points per 100 possessions) and raw defensive efficiency. Opponents scored less than 0.86 points per possession against the Cavs.
A big part of that success was this team’s ability to not only defend gaps and pack the paint, but to also send shots in the other direction. Virginia, for the first time ever under Bennett, led the nation in block percentage: 16.5 percent. According to Synergy Sports, UVA held opponents to just 45 percent shooting on non-post-up attempts around the hoop. That ranked No. 4 nationally, just ahead of USC and future lottery pick Onyeka Okongwu.
Key and Diakite were massive here, too. The versatile Key — capable of guarding 4-5 positions — finished his two-year stint at UVA with 2.7 percent steal rate and 3 percent block rate. Diakite, who averaged 2.2 blocks and 0.9 steals per 40 minutes during his career, is an intriguing defensive prospect for the next level. He’s just so long and mobile.
Huff improved in his recovery movements after the hedge; he utilizes his wingspan while tracking back (arms up), an effort to shrink passing lanes.
However, it’s a great point/suggestion on the possibility of defending ball screens more conservatively with Huff, assuming he returns to Charlottesville.
All Jay Huff does is dunk. And hit threes. And sometimes, sweet-ass baby hooks. Also he blocks a lot of shots.
— Phony Bennett (@IfTonyTweeted) November 20, 2019
In the past, we’ve seen teams counter Virginia’s hard hedges by slipping screens — Gardner-Webb in the 2019 NCAA Tournament, plus Duke and Louisville this season, immediately come to mind. In those matchups, UVA adjusted with more drop coverage. Virginia could chose to deploy this as a season-long commitment, though, as opposed to an in-game adjustment.
2. What’s the best way to properly contextualize Kihei Clark’s sophomore season, as he grew as a play-maker?
SP: Great question. The 37.5 assist percentage is more than double what he produced during his 2018-19 freshman campaign. This outpaced the uptick in usage percentage from a season ago, too, so that’s a great sign. The 24.6 turnover rate, however, is certainly cause for concern. Kihei isn’t gun shy to taking chances with pocket passes, lobs and cross-court slingshots.
Bennett gave him even more of a green light this season, knowing there were no other play-makers on this roster. But even by those circumstances, Clark can become more responsible when quarterbacking the offense.
It’s difficult to measure how much of a step forward Kihei actually took due to Virginia’s anemic offense. There was an extra body near the paint with Bennett forced to play two non-shooters consistently, and that lack of spacing was cause for ill-advised decision-making in tight windows.
All this to say: I believe Kihei got a lot better this season. He was able to test the play-making limits of his game, and learn from that.
One month ago today, Kihei Clark buried this game-winner to beat Virginia Tech. pic.twitter.com/wXOyH7NgP1
— Bennett Conlin (@BennettConlin) March 26, 2020
Just know this: running an offense that features Morsell, Abdul-Rahim, Hauser and Huff, all threats from the perimeter, is going to look so much different. The space and creative possibilities that come with it could instantly morph Clark into one of the best players in this league in 2020-21.
BG: This season for Virginia gets back to two things. One, Ty Jerome is a very good basketball player; it can’t be overstated just how critical he was to the offense a season ago — on and off the ball. Secondly, shooting solves everything. The 2018-19 Virginia squad was Bennett’s best shooting club (55.2 eFG%). Kyle Guy, De’Andre Hunter and Jerome all posted effective shooting rates north of 55 percent on spot-up possessions last season, per Synergy.
Without the Big Three, UVA cratered — ranking 291st nationally in effective shooting (46.9 eFG%). This, obviously, complicated matters for Clark. He’s crafty when weaving and probing through defenses with a live dribble, and zippy when rejecting screens on the wing for baseline drives. However, with so little shooting and secondary creation in the lineup, Clark had a mountain of responsibility. Factor in his workload (37.1 minutes per game) and defensive responsibilities, and yeah, it was a lot.
Clark, along with NC State’s Markell Johnson, was one of two players in the ACC to finish the season with 20 percent usage and 35 percent assist rate. Over 94 percent of Clark’s 2-point field goals came unassisted this season, while he also dished out 6.3 assists per 40 minutes.
Point being: his plate was full, which played a role in the turnover spike. Clark was one of eight qualifying ACC players with a turnover rate over 25 percent this season. He turned the ball over 3.8 times per 40 minutes — up from 1.5 per 40 his freshman year.
Clark must be smarter with the pill next season; the addition of Reece Beekman, another gifted playmaker, should help. Hauser doesn’t have the ability to break a defense down off the bounce, but he can isolate and score efficiently from the mid-post, too. Virginia will have multiple avenues to run offense through.
For the second season in a row, Virginia scored better than one point per possession when Clark passed out of the pick-and-roll (1.04), according to Synergy. That number was down from the 2018-19 campaign (1.39 points per possession), but with more shooting on the floor, things could open up in 2020. Bennett showed a willingness to run more spread ball screens this season; with Clark and Huff, that option remains in play.
3. Casey Morsell: what to make of his freshman season? What’s the logical next step?
BG: Let’s start with the positives with Morsell. The 6-foot-3, 200-pound wing has a body that’s ready to play in the ACC. He put that strength to good use on the defensive end of the floor, even while his shot (32.2 eFG%) slumped. Morsell was one of only two freshman in the ACC to finish the season with a defensive box plus-minus of 3 or more. NC State’s shot-blocking bot Manny Bates, a redshirt rookie, was the other.
Morsell also had a moment offensively in the team’s early-season win over Arizona State. This was as confident as Morsell performed all season attacking the hoop.
After a slow start, Casey Morsell broke out vs. Arizona State: 19 points, 2 steals, 6-7 2PA, including 4-4 FGA at the rim. No hesitation, really strong effort attacking off the dribble from the edges of Virginia's continuity ball screen sets. pic.twitter.com/l85hGjWj9A
— Brian Geisinger (@bgeis_bird) November 25, 2019
The offensive glimmers may have been few and far between, but they weren’t entirely nonexistent. You can see the kind of burly, power wing Morsell can be when his confidence clicks.
Unfortunately, that performance was an exception. Morsell and Key became the first two ACC players since the 2014-15 season to attempt at least 50 3-pointers and shoot less than 20 percent on those looks. It’s not so hard to understand this team’s offensive challenges.
This also speaks to why Tomas Woldetensae was such a breath of fresh air for Virginia. Lineups that featured Morsell and Key as the two wings — or movers in the blocker-mover/sides sets — put very little perimeter pressure on opponents.
Woldetensae shot 38.3 percent from beyond the arc in ACC play; he was also one of only 52 players in the country this season to have three or more games of 6+ 3-pointers.
Last 10 games for Woldetensae: 47 3P%, 67 eFG%. Virginia with it's two best offensive performances of the season in that stretch, too: Louisville (1.24 ppp) and BC (1.31 ppp)
— Brian Geisinger (@bgeis_bird) February 22, 2020
It’ll be interesting to see how Bennett can utilize Woldetensae (54.5 eFG% off screens) and Hauser — two excellent movement shooters — together. Safe to say: the blocker-mover offense should have more punch next season.
SP: Morsell just needs to get back to the basics.
During his freshman season, Morsell appeared as if he was psychoanalyzing every step that he took on the floor. It’s understandable: Morsell was a highly-touted 18-year-old freshman coming into a program that had just won a national championship, and also cashed all of its backcourt chips. Morsell was forced into action. He wasn’t ready for that; plain and simple.
If you could ask the coaching staff a year from now would they have redshirted Morsell in hindsight, I’d be interested in what we’d hear. Regardless, I think it’s one of the few missteps from Bennett. But that’s neither here nor there. I only bring it up because not every athlete comes back from the season that Morsell just had (see: relative deprivation): 46-of-166 (27.7 FG%) from the floor and 15-of-85 (17.6 3P%%) from behind-the-arc. He also recorded 26 turnovers to 22 assists.
I have no clue what will happen with Morsell, but next season is extremely important. Most are penciling him in as the starting shooting-guard, but that is anything but a sure thing. Morsell is a very good athlete with an explosive first step. He’s built like an ox. I don’t have much of a feel for his play-making ability; his feel for the game is average, at best. Defensively, there were a few moments that revealed an elite ball-stopper.
What a weird and disappointing freshman year. I just don’t know. We’ll see.
4. Sam Hauser: Expectations for next season? Can he function as Virginia’s offensive alpha?
BG: Virginia has a really good offensive piece with Hauser. A year ago, Hauser was a fringy top-100 NBA prospect for the 2019 draft class. However, he elected to stay in school and transfer from Marquette to UVA; now, after a year in Virginia’s player-development factory, the Cavaliers hold one of the best offensive talents in college hoops.
Hauser can work as Virginia’s talisman. As a junior in the 2018-19 season, Hauser shot 55 percent on post-ups and 50 percent on isolation attempts, per Synergy. Over 61 percent of Hauser’s career long 2-point field goals have been unassisted. From a certain range, he can go get his own shot.
It’s so easy to imagine Hauser fitting into the inside triangle sets that Virginia used to isolate Hunter with two seasons ago; the same can be said for the face-up post touches for Diakite that came out of their continuity ball screen offense.
In terms of range shooting, Hauser is elite. Synergy has Hauser as a career 64.6 percent effective shooter on catch-and-shoot attempts (437 FGA); nearly 90 percent of his 246 career 3-pointers have been assisted on, too. Few players have Guy/Jerome-like off-ball shooting capabilities; however, the 6-foot-8 Hauser has very real upside here.
When Hauser plays the 3, he will see clean looks from deep as one of the movers in Virginia’s blocker-mover offense — running off pindowns and flares. Positionally, he’ll work out of the slot in continuity ball screen looks. Hunter found success here two season ago, operating in the middle of the floor. Hauser has that utility, too.
Virginia can create a serious offensive advantage, however, with Hauser at the 4, especially if Huff is the 5. The Cavs should be able to access 5-out looks on offense.
When UVA goes to its sides/blocker-mover sets, one of the things they like to do is pop one of the blockers out beyond the arc in a two-man game. Hunter was really good at this, especially working in tandem with gravity shooters like Jerome and Guy. Woldetensae and Hauser will make for a nice partnership.
SP: Hauser will be forced to carry a heavy offensive load, there’s no doubt about that. But I think he can share those reins with Clark, who is poised to have a HUGE 2020-21 season. And if JAR’s offensive game comes online right away; well, now we’re cooking with gas in Charlottesville.
Hauser’s ability to breathe fire from deep is going to revitalize Virginia’s offense. He’s never shot worse than 40 percent from deep in a college season — on great volume. Hauser is capable of hitting from the catch, on the move and off the dribble. He’s also had a year to train with Virginia’s staff and learn the system; that’s an underrated aspect here.
Functionally, Hauser will work as the queen on the offensive chessboard — moving in any direction. Bennett will be able to use him as a screener in the spread pick-and-roll, where he and Clark could make opposing defenses look ridiculously silly; Hauser can pop the screen and drain a triple with any amount space, and also punish a hard closeout off the dribble. He’ll also operate as a screener and a runner in Virginia’s blocker-mover/sides system. So many options, and the idea of him inflicting pain on the opposition from all of them is rather easy to envision.
I’m very excited about Hauser’s fit with Virginia next season, and think there’s a chance he’s a key piece in helping this program defend its national title.