Mamadi Diakite improved his shooting and welcomed his position as Virginia’s No. 1 scorer during the 2019-20 season. Braxton Key grew into a larger role and developed his inside scoring presence. The two seniors took steps forward.
Both Diakite and Key developed into two of the better players in the ACC during their final college seasons while showing improved flashes on the offensive end. Despite better play offensively, the Virginia men’s basketball team will most notice the loss of Diakite and Key on defense.
The program that prides itself on defense should be proud of the defenders Diakite and Key became. Diakite finished his senior season on the All-ACC defensive team, while Key earned All-ACC honorable mention honors largely for his play on the defensive end.
Next season, the Cavaliers need to replace two of their best and most useful defenders who also carried a decent portion of the team’s scoring load.
That’s no easy task.
“Obviously losing Mamadi and Braxton, probably two of the better athletes on the team, we lose tremendous rebounding and some defensive versatility with both of those guys,” UVa associate head coach Jason Williford said.
Luckily for the Cavaliers, Marquette transfer Sam Hauser will take the floor after sitting out the 2019-20 season. He starred, especially on the offensive end, in three seasons for the Golden Eagles. He projects as a wing or stretch power forward for the Wahoos.
“I don’t know if we’ll be as good defensively, but I think with the addition of Sam, we’ll be able to stretch the floor, make some shots from beyond the arc,” Williford said. “Sam can really shoot it. He proved that day in and day out in practice. Boy, could we have used that this year, but his offense is going to be huge for us.”
Hauser shot above 40% from the 3-point line during his Marquette career. While the wing shoots the ball tremendously well, it remains to be seen if his defensive ability can match that of Diakite or Key.
Diakite possesses more length than Hauser, who is built more like Key. Hauser says he likes to fight for rebounds, but matching Key’s rebounding ability is a massive challenge for any player.
Adding a proven scorer on the wing helps UVa’s roster heading into next season, but Hauser can’t fill the gap of two future professionals by himself. He needs help.
Outside of Hauser, the Cavaliers expect rising sophomore Justin McKoy to log meaningful minutes at the wing position.
“I think people are kind of sleeping on Justin McKoy,” Hauser said. “He’s a really hard worker and puts the time in, puts the effort in. He just wants a shot at it.”
McKoy’s calling card is energy and effort. That shouldn’t diminish his shooting touch, which goes underrated, or his ability to score the ball, but McKoy’s teammates rave about the forward’s work ethic and tenacity, both in practice and in his limited game action.
“If he gets in the game, I know he’s gonna play his butt off, and that’s really what we need from him,” Hauser said.
If McKoy makes a leap and provides added scoring and defense on the wing, the Cavaliers could remain an elite defensive team despite losing Diakite and Key.
It wouldn’t be the first time the Cavaliers lost marquee defenders only to retain an elite defensive ranking. Under Tony Bennett’s watch, the Cavaliers have ranked in the top 10 in defensive efficiency in seven consecutive seasons.
Roster turnover proves to be no match for the Pack Line defense.
Hauser and McKoy also gain reinforcements on the wing with incoming freshman Jabri Abdur-Rahim. While listed at 6-foot-5 on some recruiting sites, he tweeted recently that he’s actually 6-7, which would make him even more of a likely wing contributor than if he was a 6-5 player.
Learning the defensive system, especially if the Cavaliers miss summer workouts, will be a challenge for the athletic freshman. He’s a gifted scorer, however, and should compete for time on the wing from his arrival on grounds. If he gets up to speed defensively, he’s yet another player capable of easing the loss of Diakite and Key.
Abdur-Rahim’s height remains a bit of an unknown, but Williford is willing to give the youngster the benefit of the doubt as Abdur-Rahim prepares to become a wing at the collegiate level.
“Well, I saw his tweet that he’s 6’7” legit, so I’m gonna stick with him,” Williford joked. “I don’t want him to be upset before coming here so he is 6’7”.”
Williford jokingly added that the sports information directors should put Abdur-Rahim’s updated height on all press materials.
If Abdur-Rahim did add a couple inches in recent months, he might also hope his feet grew.
With Diakite and Key moving on, the Cavaliers have big shoes to fill.