The confetti has been swept up. The 2019 NBA Draft declarations have been made. The churn of college basketball is never-ending, and the defending NCAA champion — Virginia — is not exempt. Things are changing in Charlottesville, where much of the core of this past season’s magical national title run is moving on.
Guards Ty Jerome, De’Andre Hunter and Kyle Guy will not be returning, and forward Mamadi Diakite might be joining them in the draft pool, too. Center Jack Salt’s eligibility has expired, and guard Marco Anthony has entered his name in the NCAA transfer portal.
The Cavaliers will have several new faces next season to fill those holes, but over the coming weeks, The Daily Progress will take stock of the team’s returning scholarship players, and look ahead to how they can contribute in the future.
First, we looked at Kihei Clark. Today we evaluate Braxton Key.
» Position: Guard/Forward
» Year: Senior
» 2018-19 averages: 5.7 points, 5.3 rebounds, one assist, 0.6 blocks
The most influential moment of Key’s season doubled as one of the most important of Virginia’s campaign. With the NCAA Tournament championship game tied at 68, Key blocked Raiders guard Jarrett Culver’s jumper at the end of regulation to force overtime.
Key was on the floor when the buzzer sounded on Virginia’s national title, having scored the final four points of the 85-77 victory. It was a deviation from Key’s regular minutes pattern, but offered a glimpse into his standing in Coach Tony Bennett’s eyes.
A transfer from Alabama, Key started the season in the starting lineup but soon found himself as the Cavaliers’ sixth man. Though mostly relied on for his length — he led the team in rebounding — Key delivered some notable shooting performances in ACC play.
He scored 20 points in the team’s 65-52 win over then-No. 9 Florida State, shooting 7-for-11 from the floor and prompting Seminoles coach Leonard Hamilton to label him the Cavaliers’ “X-factor” afterwards.
About six weeks later, Key sunk a pair of rhythm 3-pointers late in the team’s 64-58 win at then-No. 20 Virginia Tech, breaking what had been a trying slump.
“It was a relief,” Key said of his performance afterwards.
Key’s moments of shooting bliss were euphoric because of what preceded them — weeks of lackluster performances. Prior to hitting the pair of long balls at Virginia Tech, he had shot 1-for-13 from long range over his past eight games.
And the performance against the Hokies didn’t stand as a definitive turning point. Key’s production and playing time continued to waver in the postseason; he played seven minutes in the team’s Sweet 16 win over Oregon and one minute in their Elite Eight win over Purdue. He scored two points in 10 minutes of play in the team’s national semifinal win over Auburn, but did grab two rebounds and block one shot.
With guards Kyle Guy, De’Andre Hunter, Ty Jerome and forward Mamadi Diakite having all declared for the 2018-19 NBA Draft (Diakite has left open the possibility of returning to UVa), Key will likely get more playing time this coming season. He’ll aim to replicate the production of his freshman campaign, when he averaged 12 points for Alabama and tested the NBA Draft waters in the offseason.
Already an established defender and rebounder, the 6-foot-8 Key can take his value to the next level by working on his 3-point stroke. Virginia led the ACC in 3-point shooting (40.9 percent) this past season, and the mass exodus at the top of the depth chart means there will be plenty of shots to be had.
Many expect Virginia to regress in 2019-20. Some are calling it a ‘rebuilding’ season. As the lone returning senior, Key can flip that narrative with a career-defining campaign.