GET EXCITED BASKETBALL IS BACK IN SIX DAYS!!! Today, we’re taking a look at the most likely starting five for the Virginia Cavaliers. The Hoos return three of their starters from last season, but lose Isaiah Wilkins and Devon Hall to graduation. So who will start this year? Will the three starters from last season keep their starting roles? Will any newcomers break in?
Here are my best guesses for the starting lineup when Virginia welcomes Towson to John Paul Jones Arena on November 6:
The Locks - Ty Jerome, Kyle Guy, De’Andre Hunter
I don’t think there’s a doubt in anyone’s mind that this trio will be starting for Tony Bennett this season. Jerome started and played in all 34 games for the Hoos in 2017-18, and Guy missed just one start after tweaking his knee. Hunter, the reigning ACC Sixth Man of the Year saw action in 33 out of 34 games as he was sidelined for the season finale with a broken wrist.
Defensively, Hunter is the best of the three, but the other two have improved over the last two years. Jerome’s 3.5% steal percentage was 54th in the nation per KenPom, and Guy’s 35 steals were third on the team last year behind Wilkins and Jerome. On the offense, Guy led the team with 14.1 points per game. Jerome added 10.6 points per game, followed closely by Hunter with 9.2 points per game.
These are the best three players on the team, and all three are on the watch lists for their respective positions’ national awards.
The Good Bet - Jack Salt
Some of you won’t want to hear this, but Jack Salt is going to — and should — start. He’s a leader on both ends of the court, especially defensively, and understands this system better than anyone. Salt has improved year over year, and although his modest numbers don’t show it, he’s incredibly important to this team. Much like Wilkins was, Salt is able to keep plays alive and do the things that don’t show up in a box score.
Salt started all 34 games last season, averaging 3.4 points and 4.3 rebounds in just under 20 minutes of action per game. I anticipate he’ll see about the same amount of playing time, but bumping up his points and rebounds per game to around six would go a long way. His free throw shooting is abysmal, but hopefully he’s worked on that aspect of his game over the summer. He doesn’t shoot a lot, but when he does it’s a high percentage shot with an eFG% of 64.2% (yay, dunks!).
The Most Likely - Mamadi Diakite
This is my guess for the fifth starter. Coach Bennett likes start a more traditional lineup with three guards and two bigs, and it’ll be interesting to see how it works with Hunter at the four (more on that in a minute). Diakite spent a lot of time over the summer working on his game, and he’s one of the more physically gifted players on the team. He’s developed a smoother shooting stroke and is a threat for a pull up jumper or a three (which he did in the Pepsi Blue-White Scrimmage).
Diakite averaged 5.4 points and three rebounds in 15.6 minutes per game. With Wilkins gone, both Salt and Diakite will need to pick up the slack rebounding, but Hunter and Jerome are also candidates on that front.
The Wild Card - Braxton Key
Now that we know Key is eligible, the transfer from Alabama could be considered as a candidate to start. He would likely start at the three, allowing Hunter to play the four where he is outstanding. It’s no secret that the Cavaliers are more dynamic with Hunter at the four, but he will see time in both positions based on matchups. Expect Key to see 20 minutes plus per game, depending on how quickly he picks up the defense.
Other long shots for that last starting position include Marco Anthony and Kihei Clark, both of whom would allow Coach Bennett to accomplish the same goal of putting Hunter at the four. Jay Huff will also be a candidate to be one of the first off the bench, if he has improved defensively. To be clear, Hunter is a benefit for the Hoos at the three or four, but they will try and get him in different positions throughout the game.
What’s your take, Hoos? Who are your starting five?