Virginia Basketball: Evaluating hopes of national title defense

It feels like it has already been ages since Virginia basketball capped off its turnaround season from losing to a No. 16 seed with an incredible national title victory in 2019. It has been over 560 days since the Cavaliers cut down those final nets in Minneapolis. Yet, due to the cancellation of the 2020 NCAA Tournament, they enter this coming campaign still the reigning national champions. Thanks to a strong finish to last year, as well as a loaded roster from top-to-bottom, becoming back-to-back champs isn’t out of the question in Charlottesville.

Before diving too deep into Virginia’s roster, let’s first recap last season. Unsurprisingly, the Cavaliers entered the year facing high expectations as a preseason Top 10 team in the nation. Through the first few weeks, they lived up to the hype with a 7-0 start despite playing without departed stars Kyle Guy, Ty Jerome, and De’Andre Hunter. They ranked at No. 3 in the nation on KenPom at this point as everything appeared to be going swimmingly. Their opponents were averaging only 40.3 points per game.

There were warning signs even then, though. The Cavaliers shot just 25.2 percent from three during that opening stretch and averaged 11.0 turnovers per game. Those warning signs quickly turned to real concerns in the following weeks as Virginia started to fall out of the national title conversation and on the wrong side of many bracketologists’ early bubble projections due to a lack of signature wins.

Virginia then rattled off eight consecutive wins, including resume-boosting victories over Duke and Louisville, to end the season. Their record improved to 23-7 (15-5 ACC), their KenPom ranking jumped to No. 44, and bracketologists had them pegged for a No. 7 seed when the NCAA Tournament was canceled. On the whole, it was a down season for Virginia but not an altogether bad one.

The rollercoaster campaign ended on a high note even without the Big Dance, and the Cavaliers will enter 2020-21 with confidence and a loaded roster. Widely projected to return to being a Top 10 team in the country, Virginia is back with hopes of defending its national title. To do that, though, the Cavaliers need to solve their two major weaknesses from last season.

Clark poised to take another jump.

Although perhaps not Virginia’s best player heading into this season, Kihei Clark will be among the team’s top leaders. The rising junior guard started all 30 contests last season and posted respectable all-around numbers while being thrust into a large role. After exhibiting a 12.1% usage rate as a freshman, that number jumped to 22.5% as a sophomore. And while he shot well from 3-point range (37.5 percent), he struggled as a self-creator.

Most notably, he attempted a much higher percentage of his shots inside the arc. That is evidenced below and is shown easier by the fact that his 3-point attempt rate dropped by 19.8%. The problem is that he was inefficient inside the arc both at the rim and on mid-range attempts. Making strides in this area would go a long way in diversifying his offensive impact as he is primarily a passer and low-volume catch-and-shoot contributor right now.

Source: BartTorvik.com

His turnovers also rose considerably (+6.5%) as a sophomore. Considering Virginia allowed opponents to create live-ball steals on 10.9% of possessions last year (330th nationally), turnovers were a team-wide issue and not contained to just Clark. Still, the rising junior making strides in this department would help the Cavaliers solve that issue as the program has typically limited those types of errors in the past.

With all of this said, struggles were expected and he posted an excellent year overall. Perhaps lost amidst his turnover woes, Clark posted a 37.7% assist rate that ranked 13th nationally. On the whole, the 5-9 lead guard performed admirably in a featured role. He averaged 10.8 points, 4.2 rebounds, 5.9 assists per game.

Another major positive is that Clark remained an elite defender despite shouldering a much larger offensive burden. He is a flat-out harassing guard that makes life miserable for the guards that he matches up with night-in-night-out. Head coach Tony Bennett‘s calling card is his defensive scheming and Clark’s ability at the point-of-attack is tremendous.

As far as this coming season goes, Clark should take another step. He should improve offensively with more talent around him and will reprise his major defensive role. The Cavaliers should have better floor spacing this season, and that should allow Clark more space to operate. There won’t be nearly as much pressure for him to create for himself.

Returning “snipers” need to prove it.

For Clark to take that next step, though, he will need help from the guards around him. Casey Morsell (soph.), Tomas Woldetensae (sr.), and Kody Stattmann (jr.) all struggled last season and will hopefully display across-the-board improvements this year. Most notably, they all faced high expectations to fill the ever-vital perimeter shooting roles within UVA’s offensive scheme. And while they were the top three Cavaliers in terms of 3-point attempt rate, their inefficiency on those shots was a major reason for the team’s offensive woes:


Morsell was the biggest culprit in Virginia’s lack of perimeter shooting. He exhibited the lowest 3-point percentage in the entire country among players with more than 70 attempts last season. With that said, though, it is hard to imagine Morsell replicating his futility from distance. His shot form is incredible, and he arrived in Charlottesville with a sniper’s reputation. Freshmen struggles are not uncommon and Morsell could take a sizable leap in Year 2 with the program. The 6-3 sophomore is the preseason favorite to start at the “2” alongside Clark.

Sticking with presumed starters, Woldetensae has a good chance to fill the other wing spot. He started 22 games last season and was arguably Virginia’s biggest X-Factor. During Virginia’s struggle-filled opening three months, Woldetensae shot just 32.3 percent from distance on 3.6 attempts per game. He needs to be more efficient in 2020-21 to be a high-impact player.

Over Virginia’s 11-1 finish, though, he lived up to the “sniper” label that he earned during two excellent JUCO seasons. He shot 39 percent on 6.8 3-point attempts during this stretch. His emergence was a major reason for Virginia pulling away with victories. Now in his senior year, Woldetensae will need to be a steady shooting presence from the wing. For Virginia to compete for the national title, he needs to be more consistent.

Stattmann figures to be one of the first Cavaliers off the bench (at least to start the year). With a few talented freshmen coming in, he might need to prove that he can be a reliable shooter early to avoid seeing his playing time diminish. He was an underrated defender as a sophomore, but his main contribution should come from beyond the arc.

Freshmen poised to be elite sixth men (or starters).

If those returners are unable to step up their games, then Coach Bennett may look to his exciting incoming freshmen. Ranked as the No. 18 recruiting class in the nation, this three-man group features a bevy of perimeter talent. While it is reasonable to recognize that first-year players often need time to develop in Bennett’s system, this class features intelligent two-way players that already boast college-ready bodies.

Jabri Abdur-Rahim is the highest-rated recruit of this group (No. 37 nationally) and could be a legitimate candidate to start in his first season. One of the top scorers on the entire Nike EYBL circuit during the 2019 summer, “JAR” is a 6-7 wing brimming with shooting potential. With replicable and clean shooting mechanics, he is a danger from distance in all major situations (spot-up, off-screen, pull-up) and his shots are difficult to contest. Abdur-Rahim also attacks close-outs well and can beat his man off the dribble with solid ball-handling and finishing ability.

While not known as an elite defender, he has the athleticism and size to thrive on that end. Working with Virginia’s coaching staff will also help in that department. Abdur-Rahim’s offensive ability is there and the Cavaliers will need as much of it as possible. He missed most of his senior season with a foot injury but should instantly provide a scoring punch for UVA.


While there is plenty of hype surrounding Abdur-Rahim, Reece Beekman shouldn’t be overlooked as a potentially vital piece of the puzzle this season. One of the least-discussed flaws on Virginia’s roster last season was a lack of depth behind Kihei Clark. This season, though, Beekman joins the mix and should fill that crucial role behind the All-ACC candidate. A Top 75 recruit in his own right, Beekman is a highly intelligent floor general with an impressively well-rounded game.

He boasts a well-built 6-3 frame, is an aggressive and smart defender, and can fill multiple offensive roles. His change-of-direction off-the-dribble is elite. With four LHSAA 5A state championships in four years, Beekman already heads to college with a winning reputation. He was especially impressive as a senior, racking up averages of 19.4 points, 9.1 rebounds, 9.9 assists, 2.7 blocks, and 2.2 steals per game as Louisiana’s Mr. Basketball. He has a tremendous pedigree and should be an integral part of the bench rotation. Beekman can also share the court with Clark for stretches to help take some of the playmaking burden off the latter’s shoulders.

There aren’t many player-to-program matches that look as promising as this one. Beekman is a great leader, strong defender, and high-IQ performer that should thrive in Charlottesville.


Carson McCorkle rounds out this recruiting class and could see a role as well. The 6-3 guard boasts a sharpshooter’s reputation but comes in at just 184 pounds. He will likely need to add some muscle before contributing in the ACC but could be a key part of the future. He arrives as the No. 147 recruit in the nation and could (at least) provide emergency depth as a talented shooter. Regardless of his role this season, McCorkle is a name to remember for the future.

Sam Hauser: A perfect fit for Charlottesville.

I’ve already mentioned that first-year players occasionally struggle to adjust to playing in Virginia’s sophisticated schemes on both ends of the floor. That has been evident as freshmen and immediately eligible transfers have struggled to live up to exterior expectations in the past. With Marquette transfer Sam Hauser, though, he should be ready to be a star for the Cavaliers after sitting out last season due to transfer rules. An elite sniper with a lengthy 6-8 frame, you would be hard-pressed to find many players as perfect for Virginia’s system.

Additionally, the addition is well-timed as the Cavaliers are looking to replace experienced pieces Mamadi Diakite and Braxton Key in the frontcourt this season. In addition to point guard depth, Virginia struggled without a primary shooting threat last season, and Hauser is capable of filling that role. Although he was never a No. 1 option during his three seasons with Marquette (Markus Howard was there), he has that ability.

In addition to being one of the best catch-and-shoot players in the entire country, Hauser deserves more credit for his self-creation. He can shoot off movement, has a solid handle, can bury pull-up jumpers, and isn’t afraid to use his size in post-ups. With excellent pump-fake usage and patient ball-handling, he plays at his own pace. Hauser should be a major threat in the blocker-mover offense and can be deadly in a pick-and-pop with Clark (or Beekman) as well.

Over his sophomore and junior seasons with MU, Hauser averaged 14.5 points (.478/.442/.886), 6.4 rebounds, and 2.6 assists (to 1.3 turnovers) per game. Virginia desperately lacked 3-point shooting last season and Hauser is proven as a *lights-out* sniper. Returners and freshmen are both expected to provide perimeter shooting for the Cavaliers this season, but Hauser will easily be the team’s most impactful sniper. With his offensive versatility, Hauser should be Virginia’s top scorer.

Many prognosticators have picked Hauser as the preseason ACC Player of the Year for this season. While I do think that might be a bit of a stretch, he is a superb fit in this system. There is a good chance that he leads the Cavaliers in scoring. He is also a smart defender that will consistently position himself correctly. Solid positioning is all that is required given he will start alongside one of the nation’s best shot-blockers.

He huffed, and he puffed, and he became a star.

As good as Hauser projects to be this season, though, he might not even be the best player on Virginia’s roster. Jay Huff perhaps deserves that title. A towering 7-1 center with All-ACC potential written all over him, Huff will be Virginia’s steadying presence in the frontcourt as a senior. While unlikely to lead the team in scoring, he should become a more featured offensive weapon this season while reprising his role as one of the nation’s best rim-protectors.

Throughout last season, Huff averaged 8.5 points, 6.2 rebounds, and 2.0 blocks in 25.0 minutes per game. While those numbers might not jump off the computer screen as elite, few players in the country impacted winning quite as much as Huff in 2019-20. He was a particularly efficient and versatile offensive threat (65.6 percent on 2PA, 35.8 percent on 3PA) while also exhibiting the 17th-best block rate (11.1 percent) in the entire country.

Huff is, quite simply, a perfect fit to be a two-way star in Virginia’s system. I know I’ve discussed “fit” regarding multiple players in this article, but it is just the truth. Coach Bennett seems to always land players that he has a clear plan for how they will be used. With Huff, he is arguably the nation’s top rim-protector to anchor the nation’s best defense and is also dynamite as a “blocker” within their offensive scheme.

With Hauser and Huff, Virginia will boast one of the more versatile, experienced, and talented frontcourts in the entire nation next season. Both will be preseason All-ACC selections and fill vital roles. Hauser can be the team’s primary scorer, whereas Huff will be the Cavaliers’ two-way star.

In terms of depth behind them, three returners are all candidates to see solid playing time. Francisco Caffaro (soph.), Kadin Shedrick (fr.), and Justin McKoy (soph.) are all coming back to Charlottesville after playing a combined 254 minutes last season. With that said, though, there are frontcourt minutes up for grabs with both Key and Diakite departing. All three players are unproven at the collegiate level, but only one or two has to emerge as a capable rotation piece.

Caffaro, perhaps most notably, is a 7-footer entering his third season with the program after redshirting in 2018-19 and playing sparingly last year. He brings plenty of size to the court, and Jon Rothstein compared him to Jack Salt this offseason. True sophomore McKoy (No. 229 recruit) and redshirt freshman Shedrick (No. 68) were both 2019 recruiting additions worth noting as possible rotation pieces this season.

Cavaliers are set to contend for a repeat.

When analyzing the Cavaliers’ outlook for 2020-21, it is important to remember that they were a solid team last season. While it was a down season compared to past seasons in Charlottesville, Virginia still finished in the KenPom Top 50. Coach Bennett’s squad was poised to land a No. 7 seed at the NCAA Tournament prior to its cancelation and they were playing exceptionally well. To put it simply, it will not take some massive improvement for Virginia to emerge as a threat to defend its national title this season.

The Cavaliers lost two frontcourt stoppers in Key and Diakite this offseason, but they should remain an elite defensive team. After all, Virginia has ranked in the nation’s Top 10 for adjusted defensive efficiency in seven consecutive seasons under Bennett. While the Cavaliers may struggle to replace the defense of these two graduated starters, the additions of Sam Hauser and talented freshmen should help the offensive improve dramatically.

Assuming Virginia deploys a Top 5 defense again, it will be up to the offense to reach its ceiling. Turnovers and 3-point shooting were the Cavaliers’ biggest weaknesses a year ago, but personnel developments should lead to better numbers in those categories.

Virginia will boast three All-ACC caliber players (Huff, Hauser, Clark) this season and also vastly improved its depth with returning wings and incoming freshmen. Add in boasting one of the best coaches in the country and it’s easy to be optimistic.

Villanova, Gonzaga, and Baylor will make up the Top 3 in some order prior to Nov. 25, but there is a good chance Virginia slots in at No. 4. If that is the case, the preseason hype will be deserved. Virginia will have a legitimate chance to defend its national title.


Lukas Harkins is a college basketball writer for HeatCheckCBB.com and covers the nation with rankings, bracketology, analysis, and recruiting breakdowns. He is currently a Rockin’ 25 voter and is credentialed media for Butler. He previously worked as one of the site experts at Busting Brackets. Harkins graduated from Butler University in 2019 and majored in Healthcare and Business. Originally from Wisconsin.