Fans have waited since last season’s national championship game for more Virginia men’s basketball.
The wait ends Saturday — sort of.
While Saturday’s Blue-White Scrimmage at John Paul Jones Arena isn’t quite the same as playing Syracuse to open the season on Nov. 6, legitimate insights into this season’s squad become available Saturday afternoon.
After Kyle Guy, Ty Jerome and De’Andre Hunter declared for the NBA Draft, it became evident that this year’s team will face a challenge. Replacing three All-ACC players isn’t easy, but the Cavaliers still hold a few weapons on their roster.
Early indications are that this UVa team needs its young guards to step up and experienced front court players to lead the way. Mamadi Diakite earned preseason All-ACC honors earlier this week, and he’s expected to play a major role for the Cavaliers. Outside of Diakite, Jay Huff and Braxton Key will be asked to contribute as elite defenders, rebounders and shooters.
Per usual, head coach Tony Bennett will ask his guards to limit turnovers and play efficiently on both ends. The Cavaliers have the pieces to contend for an ACC title. We’ll start to see how those pieces fit into Bennett’s puzzle this Saturday.
Here are three things you should keep an eye on during Saturday’s scrimmage.
Casey Morsell’s debut
Morsell is arguably the most intriguing player to watch in the scrimmage. The talented freshman looks like he could start for Bennett’s squad, but he is still a freshman. It takes a special player to go from the high school ranks to the ACC without a year or two of development within a program.
He did receive three votes for preseason ACC Rookie of the Year, and he’s a highly ranked recruit. If anyone can make an impact at UVa as a freshman, it’s Morsell. His ceiling is high, and it will be interesting to see how the youngster fares Saturday.
Diakite said Morsell is the only player quick enough to stay with Kihei Clark when playing full-court defense. Diakite also compared the youngster to former Virginia star Malcolm Brogdon.
That’s high praise.
With Diakite, Huff and Key all expected to play important roles in the front court, Virginia needs solid guard play. We have an idea of what to expect from Clark, given his performances last season, but Morsell remains an unknown. If he plays like one of the best freshmen in the ACC, Virginia could find itself making another deep run in March.
Braxton Key’s growth
The senior is expected to play a larger role for the Cavaliers in his second season in Charlottesville. After transferring from Alabama, Key joined the Cavaliers last season and played well in limited minutes, but he left something to be desired with both his 3-point shooting and shots near the rim.
According to data from hoop-math.com, Key was second only to Jack Salt in percentage of shots taken at the rim among Virginia players with at least 90 field goal attempts last season.
Key only made 51% of those shots, which ranked nearly 30% lower than Jay Huff’s success rate and about 20% lower than Diakite’s success rate on shots at the rim.
Key made a point to improve at the rim this offseason.
“Finishing got a lot better,” Key said. “I know a lot fans will be happy to hear about that one.”
He’s also hoping to improve his jumper after shooting just 30% from beyond the arc last season. The 3-point line moved back this season across the NCAA, so it will be interesting to see how Key adjusts to that change.
Defensive prowess makes Key a candidate to earn significant minutes this season.
If he adds an offensive boost by becoming a more efficient scorer at the rim and from 3-point land, he could become one of the most impactful players in the ACC. We’ll get a glimpse of how far he’s come Saturday afternoon.
We’ll also get a look at Key’s growth as a leader. He took a backseat last year with Guy and Jerome being vocal leaders, but he’s planning on stepping into a different role on and off the court this season.
“It’s not just about making sure that I’m locked in,” Key said. “Last year I could just kind of focus on Braxton. Like alright, ‘Let me get myself ready for practice, get myself ready for the game.’ Now it’s ‘Alright, let me get the young guys [ready.]’ Make sure that they’re paying attention in practice or have their shoes tied. Sometimes you have to just account for them.”
Diakite, Jay Huff and Francisco Caffaro will all be asked to do more this season. Diakite enters the season as a preseason All-ACC selection, while Huff seems likely to start at center for the Cavaliers.
“I’m excited because he brings versatility, and offensively we lost a lot,” Bennett said about Huff. “Jay can shoot the three, and he’s versatile.”
Diakite and Bennett both alluded to Huff’s added muscle at ACC Media Day. The 7-footer brings an offensive game that few in the ACC match. He’s long and possesses great shooting touch. He led the team in effective field-goal percentage last season, which is a metric that emphasizes the value of good 3-point shooting.
Based on last year’s averages of 4.4 points per game and 9.4 minutes played per game, Huff would average 15 points per game with the same shooting numbers if he played 32 minutes per contest.
While it’s far from a safe bet that Huff maintains a 60% shooting mark from the field, he’s a likely candidate to improve his points per game average by about 10 points this season due to increased usage.
Caffaro, another 7-footer, plays much differently than Huff. He reminds his teammates of former UVa center Jack Salt, and Caffaro’s rebounding and physical play can help Virginia as it embarks on what should be a grueling 20-game conference schedule.
Diakite enters this season as arguably UVa’s best player. After averaging 7.4 points, 4.4 rebounds and 1.8 blocks per game last season, he’s expected to take a big leap forward. Between Diakite and Huff, the two can help fill the scoring hole left by Guy, Hunter and Jerome by combining to score 30+ points per game.
For Virginia to contend for an ACC title, it needs a big season out of its front court. We’ll start to see Saturday if the Cavaliers’ big men embrace the challenge.