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Virginia Men’s Basketball a favorite in “way-too-early” rankings

Spoiler alert: the Hoos should be very good.

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NCAA Basketball: Virginia at Miami-Florida Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

We are still [checks Jon Rothstein’s Twitter account] 155 days from the official start of the 2020-21 men’s basketball season. Things are in limbo as a result of the ongoing coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, but some NCAA football programs are beginning to see players return to campus for voluntary workouts.

While it’s still uncertain what college athletics will look like come August, let alone November, it can’t hurt to take a look at what to expect when the Hoos return to the court. Tony Bennett’s squad loses Mamadi Diakite and Braxton Key to graduation, but adds several key pieces in the form of Marquette transfer Sam Hauser and three first year scholarship players in Jabri Abdur-Rahim, Reece Beekman, and Carson McCorkle.

Despite dealing with the departure of De’Andre Hunter, Ty Jerome, Kyle Guy, and Jack Salt after the 2019 National Championship season, the 2019-20 Cavaliers finished 23-7 and one game out of first in the ACC standings. Virginia finished the season on an eight-game win streak and won 11-of-12 before the season was abruptly ended on March 12.

Now, the Hoos return big pieces from last season — like Jay Huff, Kihei Clark, and Tomas Woldetensae — and add pieces that should help make the offense more dynamic. Expectations for the 2020-21 Cavaliers are high, and that’s reflected in the smattering of “way-too-early” top-25 rankings that have emerged over the last few months.

Two outlets — Fansided and USA Today — had the Cavaliers at the high of No. 3, while the Hoos didn’t drop below No. 6 in any of the rankings found.

Way-Too-Early Rankings

Outlet Virginia Rank No. 1
Outlet Virginia Rank No. 1
USA Today 3 Gonzaga
ESPN 4 Villanova
Jon Rothstein 6 Gonzaga
NBC Sports 4 Villanova
Sports Illustrated 4 Villanova
Yahoo! 6 Villanova
Fansided 3 Gonzaga

All seven outlets had either Villanova or Gonzaga in the top spot, and Baylor was universally thought to be a top-5 team. Iowa, Duke, Kentucky, Wisconsin, and Creighton also frequented the top-10.

Virginia and Villanova are set to face off on December 19 at Madison Square Garden.

Here’s what some of the outlets were saying about this year’s Hoos:

From Fansided:

Marquette transfer forward Sam Hauser is coming off a redshirt season and will be able to provide the kind of offense needed for Virginia to succeed at a Final Four level. Senior center Jay Huff will once again be the anchor of the defense, while former top-100 forward prospect Kadin Shedrick will provide depth after redshirting voluntarily.

The perimeter is also going to be in great shape, thanks to the return of point guard Kihei Clark and sharpshooting wing Thomas Woldetensae. There are also high hopes for Casey Morsell to have a breakout sophomore campaign, while top-40 freshman wing Jabri Abdur-Rahim should have an impact next season as well. Four-star guard Reece Beckman and Kody Stattmann are also projected rotation players, giving a little more depth for head coach Tony Bennett to work with.

Considering how the system remains elite regardless of the players involved, the odds are great that Virginia will have another top-5 defensive unit in 2020-21. If the offense can be near the level of the title-winning Cavalier squad, the ACC will run through Charlottesville.

From USA Today:

The reigning national champions (yes, because 2019 was the last time the title nets were cut down) are likely to lose leading scorer Mamadi Diakite (13.7 ppg, 6.8 rpg) but return two-year starter Kihei Clark (10.8 ppg, 5.9 apg) and blossoming big man Jay Huff from a group that won eight in a row to close out 2019-20. Coach Tony Bennett’s Cavaliers again led the nation in scoring defense (allowing opponents 52.4 points per game) this past season and his offense will get a huge boost from eligible Marquette transfer Sam Hauser as well as a strong recruiting class.

From ESPN:

If there was a time to get coach Tony Bennett while he was down, it was last season, from early November to about mid-January. That party is over, and it was over for the final six weeks last season, when the Cavaliers went 11-1 down the stretch with wins over Duke, Florida State and Louisville, ultimately finishing just one game from an ACC regular-season title. Bennett does lose Braxton Key and Mamadi Diakite from that group, but the offense should be far more dynamic with Marquette transfer Sam Hauser (14.9 PPG, 7.2 RPG) and ESPN 100 scorer Jabri Abdur-Rahim entering the fold. Jay Huff should take the next step up front, and Kihei Clark returns at the point guard spot. Another key will be Tomas Woldetensae continuing his prolific shooting. He had that reputation coming out of junior college, and although he went through some inconsistent stretches, he made better than 38% of his 3s in ACC play. Throw in a defense that has ranked in the top seven in adjusted defensive efficiency each of the past seven seasons (although it could take some time to jell, as Hauser and Abdur-Rahim weren’t known for their defensive prowess), and Virginia will be a national threat once again.