By Julia Stumbaugh
Hope springs eternal in the hearts of Wahoo faithful. First, there’s the hope that the season will be carried out safely, with basketball not endangering the health of players, fans, and the rest of the community.
Then, of course, is the hope that the teams will soar.
The women are looking to outperform early projections of a bottom-conference finish with a new, untested roster. The men, led by a star transfer, will battle to live up to championship expectations.
Last season’s tournaments were canceled by the coronavirus. This year, with precautions in place, we’re hoping a season can be carried out safely. It’s been a turbulent off-season of viral disease, professional drafts, and surprise transfers. But with college basketball finally on the horizon, it’s time to take a look at the familiar faces and new talent seeking to push Virginia’s teams to the top of the rankings this winter.
Building for the future
Virginia women’s basketball will rely on fresh faces this year. The team lost the only three players who averaged over 30 minutes per game last season to graduation, with guard Dominique Toussaint, forward Lisa Jablonowski and 2020 10th-overall WNBA draft pick Jocelyn Willoughby saying so long last spring.
Those three graduating seniors represented over 60 percent of the Cavaliers’ 2019-20 offensive production. But even team captain Willoughby’s ACC-leading 577 points weren’t enough to drag the Cavaliers up the standings, as the team struggled to a 13-17 record. They scored just 61.4 points per game and finished bottom-three in the ACC in scoring for the second consecutive season.
Other key players from last season are fleeing in the transfer portal. Guard Shemera Williams, who ranked third in team scoring and appeared in 21 games after joining as one of the country’s top recruits in 2019, is headed to the University of Southern California. Kylie Kornegay-Lucas, who averaged five points over her 29 appearances last season, is expected to transfer as well. Both played over 20 minutes per game.
Those departures leave redshirt sophomore guard Amandine Toi and sophomore guard Carole Miller as the only 2019 starters left on the team.
Miller averaged six points and 3.6 rebounds per game, making her the most consistent scorer remaining. Toi’s 26 three-pointers ranked her behind only Willoughby and Toussaint from beyond the arc.
The starting roster desperately needs reliable double-digit scoring, and where that will come from in 2020-21 remains to be seen.
Dani Lawson only made five starts last year and struggled to regularly mark the scoresheet, but she did show flashes of potential with a five-game stretch in which she averaged 13 points per game. Meg Jefferson and Tihana Stojsavljevic both played off the bench and could see increased playing time this year, although they’ll be fighting with six new players for a regular roster spot. Covenant School alum Emily Maupin, a graduate transfer from Elon, averaged 11.7 points and six rebounds in her last season for the Phoenix and could help around the rim.
Virginia was one of the conference’s worst rebounding teams in 2019-20, when the team placed 11th in the ACC in defensive rebounds and 15th on the offensive glass. There are plenty of new faces who could help pick up the slack: The Cavs added five freshmen who are all six feet or taller. Zaria Johnson averaged 13 points and 5.9 rebounds in her senior season at Hightower High School in Texas. Dani Lawson’s younger sister Kaydan Lawson notched 18 points and 3.1 steals per game at Orange High School in Ohio. And Aaliyah Pitts was named the Class 6A Player of the Year as a junior at Woodbridge High School in 2018-19. The team also added Nycerra Minnis, who averaged 17 rebounds per game in her senior season at Herndon High School, and Deja Bristol, who averaged 12 points and 10 rebounds at Maryland’s New Hope Academy last season.
Tina Thompson has her work cut out for her in her third season as head coach. An 8-10 conference record in 2019-20 was an improvement over a tough 2018-19 season, when the team went 5-11 in the ACC. But with a conference coach preseason poll placing Virginia 15th out of 15 in the ACC, Thompson will have to make sure her inexperienced squad doesn’t take a step backwards.
The team needs leaders after the loss of its team captain, and scorers after the departure of the only two double-digit producers in Willoughby and Toussaint. Toi and Miller must make the jump from freshmen role players to veteran leaders, and the returning bench players and new freshmen front court will have to be creative in how they fulfill Thompson’s high-energy offensive approach. There will be plenty of competition for starting roles on this brand new Cavalier team.
Virginia’s men’s team, as fans have been happy to point out, remains the nation’s defending champion. This year, it has championship dreams once again, and was ranked No. 4 in the nation in the AP preseason poll.
The leaders of that gravity-defying 2019 title squad are long gone—of the seven players who averaged 10 or more minutes per game during the championship season, only junior guard Kihei Clark remains. But a new class is ready to take over.
Redshirt senior Sam Hauser made a name for himself in his junior season at Marquette University, where he averaged nearly 15 points a game and showed off his lethal shot on January 15, 2019, with a memorable 31-point outing against Georgetown.
On April 8, 2019, Hauser watched the Cavaliers win their first NCAA championship. Exactly one week later, he made public his intention to transfer from Marquette; in May, he announced he would be spending his senior year in Charlottesville.
Now that his NCAA-mandated sit-out season is over, the 6’8″ power forward is ready to don the blue and orange. That couldn’t come at a better time for a Virginia team looking to cover the gaps left in the roster by graduating seniors Braxton Key and Mamadi Diakite.
The key parts of the 2019-20 defense, which held opponents to an ACC-best 52.4 points per game, are returning. Redshirt senior Jay Huff ranked fourth in the conference with two blocks per game—including an unforgettable 10-block showing in a 52-50 victory over Duke—while junior Kihei Clark ranked in the top 20 by averaging 1.2 steals.
To return to the Final Four and beyond, Virginia needs scorers. The Cavaliers ranked last in the ACC last year in offense with an average of 57 points per game. The 2020-21 roster offers scoring in spades. Clark grew as a scorer between his freshman and sophomore seasons, going from 4.5 to 10.8 points per game and ranking second in team scoring only to Diakite in 2019-20. Senior Tomas Woldetensae honed his long-range shots with 52 three-pointers and earned starts in 22 of 29 games.
In addition to those two returning guards comes Huff, a 7’1″ center who increased his 2018 4.4-point average to 6.6 points per game in 2019-20 in 18 starts. His height and intimidating wingspan might make him one of the premier centers in the ACC.
Cavalier fans are likely to see Hauser, dangerous at both close range and from a distance, take over at power forward. After those four starters, the roster could fluctuate. Sophomore Casey Morsell made 13 starts last season but didn’t quite establish himself, shooting an abysmal 18 percent from three. He’ll compete for minutes at guard with four-star freshman Reece Beekman. Freshman Jabri Abdur-Rahim, another four-star prospect and gifted scorer, could get the start as small forward. Redshirt freshman Kadin Shedrick learned Virginia’s system from the bench during his redshirt season last year, and may see some time on the court this season, while freshman Carson McCorkle will likely take his turn as a redshirt.
Coach Tony Bennett ran a relatively tight rotation last year. Only seven Cavaliers averaged more than 10 minutes of playing time per game in 2020. That could change as Bennett tests this year’s deep roster for chemistry and commitment to his system.
With tenacious players like Clark and Huff holding down Bennett’s trademark pack-line defense, and clever scorers like Hauser and Abdur-Rahim arriving to create a dynamic offensive punch, this Virginia team has every reason to dream big.