With the basketball season almost upon us, it’s time to take a look at who might be the starting lineup for your still-defending national champions! With the departures of Mamadi Diakite and Braxton Key, there are a few openings in the lineup, but considering the tinkering Coach Bennett usually employs and the rotation of returning wing players, few of our predictions are sure to be certain. We’re going to take a little creative liberty by naming six guys – let’s call it room for flexibility in matchups. Don’t be surprised to see as many as eight or nine different Hoos crack the starting lineup this season, but here’s our best guess at the five guys most likely to begin the season as the starting lineup (plus one):
Kihei Clark – 5’9 Junior – National Champion Point Guard
Of the Guaranteed to Start players, Kihei is the unquestioned leader of the team. The diminutive point guard has two years of experience — in which he seems to have played every single minute of every single game (not a real stat) — and a national title on his resume. He’s the catalyst for Virginia’s tenacious defense, brings a shiftiness to the offense that produces steady amounts of assists and scoring, and emotionally led a team last season in desperate need of vocal direction.
In 19-20, Kihei started every game, averaged 10.8 points per game, led the team in free throw shooting, and was named third team All-ACC. He was first in the conference in minutes played (37.1), second in FT % (87.6), third in assists (5.9) and ninth in assist-to-turnover ratio (1.7). He added to his resume of highlight plays with one of the best moments of the season: a clutch buzzer-beating three against the gobblers:
This year’s team will continue to rely on Clark for his veteran leadership, savvy playmaking, and unceasing energy, but he’ll have some help at the 1 with the addition of freshman point guard Reece Beekman to the roster. His minutes per game might decrease, but that’ll be a welcome change for the leader of this team.
Sam Hauser – 6’8 RS Senior – Forward
One of the new starters for this year’s squad is guaranteed to be the senior transfer from Marquette. Hauser will be an immediate star for the team, and immense addition on the offensive side of the ball, and potentially become the go-to scorer for the Hoos through the season. He’s already been named to the Naismith Award watch list and collected plenty of accolades in his final season in Milwaukee. He was named second team All-Big East in 18-19 and averaged 14.9 points and 7.2 rebounds a game. He’s an adept three-point shooter as well and shot 92% from the free throw line in his last season.
Now, after taking a mandatory redshirt year in Charlottesville, Hauser has experience learning the Hoos’ system and should immediately contribute, if not flat-out star, for the team. While last year’s squad finished with a really strong string of wins, fans will remember that the Hoos often struggled on offense throughout the season – particularly when they couldn’t hit shots from outside. Hauser is immediate relief for that weakness – which may then become a team-wide strength with more minutes for Huff and more consistency from the other guards. Hauser could very well lead this year’s team in scoring, but his overall impact at the forward position, where the Hoos will miss Mamadi Diakite and Braxton Key, will be much more than just putting the ball in the net. He’ll do that plenty, but he’ll also bring veteran experience to a team with a number of new contributors.
Jay Huff – 7’1 RS Senior – Forward
Huff is also practically guaranteed a role in the starting lineup for this year’s team. Kadin Shedrick and Francisco Caffaro will bring some depth to the big guy rotation for the Hoos, but this year is Huff’s time to dominate at the position. Last season he played plenty – averaging nearly 25 minutes a game – but this season, without Mamadi and Braxton to share the paint, Huff will be relied upon even more to score, defend, and rebound for the team. Oh – and block shots. He likes to block shots:
There might be games this season where Coach Bennett decides not to start Huff – even on last year’s team, where he would often play alongside of Mamadi and/or Braxton, Huff started only 18 of 30 games. But I would wager he’s more regularly a starter this year (there will potentially be fewer games played in COVID-world, of course) – and perhaps the Hoos force the matchup issue to the other team by consistently starting him. For sure, Wahoo fans will be excited to see what he brings in his fifth year on the team. After a RS Junior season where he turned his massive potential into star power production — he averaged career highs in points (8.5), rebounds (6.2) and blocks (2.0) — we can’t wait to see what he might bring as a more-relied-upon leader for this year’s lineup.
Tomas Woldetensae – 6’5 Senior – Guard
After transferring from a junior college to play his third year of eligibility for the Hoos, Woldetensae faced a major step up in competition joining a national championship level ACC squad. His minutes bounced around game-by-game, from playing 33 in his second ever game (against Columbia) to his season-low of eight against Boston College, but by the middle of ACC play, he found a solid role on the squad with his scoring production. He totaled 21 points against Wake, basically saved the Louisville game for the Hoos with 27, and pitched in with one of my favorite moments of the season down in Chapel Hill:
The Hoos add a ton of talented new faces to the wing position this year, so Woldo’s role as a starter will probably fluctuate. But if he brings a consistent shooting stroke and supportive defense back, he’ll certainly begin the season as a starter, and potentially settle into an established role if he produces. Of course, in Bennett’s teams, the starter is not always the guy who ends up playing the most minutes or biggest role at a position. If Woldo plays more towards his best displays from last year, he’ll be in great shape to stave off the competition of other wing players. Regardless, we’re sure to see a lot from him and the other guys at the 2 guard spot as the coaching staff tinkers with the lineup. For now, let’s pencil him in as a starter and hope for some more most-excellent highlights to come.
Casey Morsell – 6’3 Sophomore – Guard
As noted above, the guard positions next to Kihei are the most difficult to predict for this season’s starting lineup. With the influx of highly-ranked freshmen coming in, will the coaching staff defer towards experience – at least initially? I’m banking on not only that – but also a sizable step up in production from Casey Morsell, who was a highly touted freshman himself last season. Morsell had some ups and downs to his first year on the team – the downs mainly being attributed to not consistently finding his shot – but he started the season-opener as a freshman and started 13 of the Hoos’ 30 games.
He’s clearly a talented and athletic dude and some highlights of his first year include scoring 19 points against Arizona State, playing 28 minutes against Vermont, and grabbing three steals and 10 points in the win over North Carolina. The former Gatorade POY for D.C. has the shooting talent to turn the corner offensively – and it’s easy to see him growing into a defensive stud on the wing under Coach Bennett. With the upheaval and uncertainly of this year’s offseason, it’s tough to predict what development we can expect from the younger guys on the team, but I’ll stay optimistic about Morsell and pencil him in as a potential starter. Could Stattmann be here instead when the Hoos tip against Maine? For sure. Could one of the freshmen jump into a starting role early on? Absolutely. But could Casey Morsell establish himself in the starting lineup this year with reasonable improvement in production? I’m thinking so.
Jabri Abdur-Rahim – 6’7” Freshman – Guard
As noted at the beginning here, I’m cheating a little bit and throwing a sixth player into the starting rotation – mainly because there’s so much new talent on this team that it’s hard not to imagine some of the new faces cracking the starting lineup – maybe even immediately. Adbur-Rahim is one such new face and brings to the Hoos some bluechip pedigree. The son of an NBA veteran, Jabri was the Gatorade New Jersey POY, played at the USA Men’s Basketball Junior Team camp, and chose the Hoos over offers from most every blue blood title contending program. He is immensely talented and like Sam Hauser, should provide an immediate offensive spark for the team.