No NCAA Tournament last March means the Virginia Cavaliers are still the defending National Champions after winning it all in 2019. Just a year removed from the title and those championship aspirations should be back as the team enters the coronavirus-condensed 2020-21 season.
There was no surprise that last year was going to be a trying one for UVA, even before everyone knew the NCAA Tournament was not going to be held. Three starters that led them to their crown all departed from the school early to enter the NBA Draft.
Offensive struggles plagued the team for most of the year, but before everything was shut down, the Cavaliers finished last season strong. Virginia won 11 of their final 12 contests leading them into the ACC Tournament. They entered as one of the hottest teams in the league and with a patented defense, no one wanted to face them.
That defensive identity will still be the mantra of the program this upcoming year. Most exciting for them is that transfer Sam Hauser will be eligible and give the team an offensive kick that was lost a year ago.
Momentum and a boost to an already great team? Looks like a good year in Charlottesville. Here are the questions that we should be asking of Virginia for the 2020-21 season.
Can Jay Huff develop into an NBA Draft prospect?
Forward Jay Huff jumped into the NBA Draft process this past season to get a feel for his value at the professional level. With such a unique draft evaluation period, Huff quickly decided to return to Charlottesville for this senior season.
It's unlikely Huff would have been drafted after only averaging 8.7 points and 6.2 rebounds a game last season. But that's not to say he couldn't have gotten valuable feedback to pursue the pro route after he finishes his fourth year with the Cavaliers.
There are countless examples of Virginia players over the years to go through the draft process, yet return for another season. That was seen with Mamadi Diakite and De'Andre Hunter. Bennett welcomes that experience and is disappointed Huff didn't get that experience.
“I was hoping for Jay’s sake that he could do what Mamadi did [in 2019] and go into some workouts [with NBA teams] and get that experience, really play against other guys and be in that atmosphere. Of course, if it went great and he got the right kind of feedback, then he would have had a decision to make," Bennett said in an interview on Virginia's website. "He didn’t get that experience. Yeah, he got to do the Zoom interviews and all that, but I thought he got short-changed."
Another year of progress and Huff may very well turn into a viable draft option. Each season he's improved his production as his playing time has increased. This year for the first time he'll likely be a night-in, night-out starter.
Already he's established himself as an efficient scorer in the post with some theatrical dunks on occasion. On the defensive end, he thrives in Bennett's system and is one of the best shot-blockers per 40 minutes in the ACC. Last season he averaged two blocks a game in one of the deepest leagues in college basketball.
If he increases his ability to step out, improves his free throw percentage and is given some more opportunities to handle the ball, he'll have all the chance in the world to take the step.
How big of a role with Sam Hauser have?
Last year the Hoos did not have the services of Marquette transfer Sam Hauser. Arguably, many regarded him as one of the biggest impact transfers during the 2019 offseason after he averaged 14.9 points, shot 45% from the field and 40% from 3-point range.
He comes to Charlotteville after being a three-year starter with the Golden Eagles. However, while in Milwaukee the team underperformed given the expectations with him - a 14-point, five-rebound performer - and elite scorer Markus Howard. Considering Marquette a top-10 with the two of them during their senior seasons would not have been a wild thought.
The 6-foot-8 forward is not necessarily known for his defense, an embodiment of the Cavaliers in Bennett's tenure. Yet, that is not what the Cavs will need him to be with Huff controlling the interior.
Hauser should boost the third-lowest scoring offense in the NCAA last season. That was the biggest difference from their championship season to this past one. The defense was still great (52.4 points allowed, the best in the country), the offense though struggled mightily with 57 points a night. That's where Hauser will come in.
His 14 points per game over his last two years at Marquette would be the highest on the UVA offense last season.
Virginia has always been a team with a balanced offense approach with no one player getting too many shots than the others. Hauser, though, will be their top offensive option and have the capabilities of bringing home nearly 20 points a contest.
Will the offense improve this season?
Hauser will help tremendously, as stated above. He would have been the best scoring option a season ago and certainly is it entering this year.
Bringing back lead point guard Kihei Clark, who dished out five assists per game, should also bring a level of consistency. Clark wasn't necessarily the best option as a 5-foot-9 guard to get the ball in the hoop, but entering his junior year he will still be another player that can generate space and is familiar with Bennett's system.
Huff will assumingly take a step forward as well without playing behind Diakite anymore.
Perhaps the most important addition, though, is the subtraction of Diakite and Braxton Key. While they both brought different elements to the game, they were two of the least offensively efficient players on the roster. Key shot 19% on 65 3-point attempts last season as a starter in the backcourt. Diakite, even though he was the primary scorer, did not have the shooting numbers that most Power-5 programs would want from their best player.
Hauser will be that guy this season and should provide more than Diakite did. And aside from Diakiete and Key, the rest of the roster is returning.
So yes the Cavaliers will improve, but don't expect there to be a massive shift in the team's culture.