The Virginia men’s basketball team opens its national title defense Wednesday at Syracuse.
The Cavaliers’ roster features a few familiar faces, but the role of nearly every player on the team shifts dramatically heading into this season.
After Virginia’s loss to UMBC, the Cavaliers knew they’d have a similar core the following season. UVa’s national title last season was a story of redemption in part because the same cast of characters who had their hearts broken by the Retrievers rallied together to win it all.
This season offers a different narrative.
Three stars are gone to the NBA, and a few important role players from last season will now be asked to carry the load. Tony Bennett has options with how he’ll utilize this roster, and it’s likely he lean on returning players for his starting unit.
Point guard — Kihei Clark is the obvious choice. The freshman played important minutes last season and showed a toughness that can’t be taught. He’s an elite passer and a fantastic on-ball defender. Virginia values defense above all else, so there’s no doubt Clark will slide into the starting point guard spot.
Shooting guard — Casey Morsell, a freshman, makes the most sense in this spot. While he’s young, Morsell is quick and talented. He’s a good shooter who possesses a solid handle. He’s also not built like a typical freshman, and he won’t have trouble playing against physical ACC guards.
Small forward — Braxton Key gives Virginia tremendous versatility. He can defend any position in the frontcourt, and he improved his shooting over the offseason. He’s also an elite rebounder.
“At times, he’s been finishing better,” Bennett said. “He’s trying to lead better. And his experience shows. Like I said, he’s kind of like the Swiss Army Knife. He can do a lot of things well. I think one of his greatest strengths, no matter where he’s playing, is he can get on the glass.”
His teammates have taken note of his rebounding prowess in practice.
“Braxton, coach has said this, he’s one of the best offensive rebounders we’ve ever seen,” Jay Huff said.
Power forward — Mamadi Diakite is a preseason first team All-ACC player, and he’s locked in as a starter in Bennett’s team. After averaging 7.4 points and 4.4 rebounds per game last season, Diakite improved his game in the offseason, developing a three-point shot and polishing other skills.
“He’s really improved,” Bennett said. “He’s worked very hard. He’s improved really all areas of his game. I think his shot is better. He’s scoring better. He’s a bit more continuous. He’s always been athletic. He can protect the rim, but I think he understands there’s going to be more opportunities for him.”
Diakite failed to score 20 points in a game last season, and he only snatched double-digit rebounds in one contest. Expect him to reach 20 points more consistently, and he’s likely to record a few double-doubles this season.
Center — Jay Huff’s size makes him an ideal center for this team. He added muscle over the offseason, which he said he feels a bit when playing in the post. He’s always been able to shoot the ball and score, but his defense and consistency on both ends should improve thanks in part to his added strength. He’s a versatile center and a mismatch against nearly every opponent on the schedule.
Tomas Woldetensae and Kody Stattmann should both see time off the bench as reserve guards.
Stattmann’s size makes him capable of playing shooting guard or small forward. He’s a good shooter who plays well within Bennett’s system. Woldetensae, a junior college transfer, adds ball handling and shooting at the guard spot.
Chase Coleman and Jayden Nixon are the other two guards on the roster. They’re both solid defenders and may find playing time against nonconference foes.
In the front court, Francisco Caffaro and Justin McKoy may find playing time. McKoy can fill in for Diakite at the power forward spot or Key at small forward, and Caffaro will likely spell Huff.
Caffaro’s physical style has drawn comparisons to Jack Salt, an important piece of last season’s team. Caffaro may miss time to start the season, however, as he recently had a procedure done on his leg.
Kadin Shedrick is a redshirt candidate at the forward spot. He’s lengthy and athletic, but he’s still raw. Bennett said they’re still working to determine whether or not to redshirt Shedrick.
Austin Katstra is a junior who likely won’t see much time, but he’s familiar with the program and will play a role in helping the youngsters get up to speed. Sam Hauser is the only other player on the roster, and he’s sitting out this season due to transfer rules.