Bennett, UVA likely to go bigger to account for loss of Big Three

Tony Bennett altered his approach lineup-wise last season to go four-guard roughly 75 percent of his minutes, and it obviously worked.

(See Banner, 2019 National Championship.)

His 2019-2020 UVA Basketball team might need to look and play more conventionally, with the strength of the roster being in the frontcourt.

“I think, yeah, with obviously our experience this year is more in the frontcourt with Mamadi (Diakite) and Braxton (Key) kind of playing some more of the 4 and the 3 this year,” Bennett told reporters at ACC Operation Basketball on Tuesday.

Key, at 6’8”, still gives Bennett the lineup flexibility to go four-guard with his ability to guard both the post and the perimeter.

But it was having both Key and De’Andre Hunter, the fourth pick in the 2019 NBA Draft, that gave Bennett the ability to take games over late with two guys who can guard all five positions.

He referred to both as Swiss army knives, and it’s good still having the one, but this year’s group has something unique in the post.

Diakite, at 6’9”, is a great shot blocker because of his athleticism, and then there’s Jay Huff, an elite rim defender due to a combination of size (7’1”) and athleticism.

Throw in Francisco Caffaro, a 7’1” redshirt freshman, who was solid in the 2019 FIBA U19 World Cup this summer (7.4 points per game, 9.0 rebounds per game), and you can see Bennett going very big for stretches.

“There’s a lot of newness to this team, so we’ll certainly have to rely on these guys, and that’s our job as a staff and even as a team to see what gives us the best chance both offensively and defensively to be at our best,” Bennett said. “I think when you have size, you want to be good on the glass. You want to at times use their strengths, and defensively be good in all areas. So yeah, it’s — I think the physicality and the size factor is definitely one of our strengths, and our frontcourt.”

It’s a little easier to imagine how the focus on size will work defensively, basically having two shot-blockers on the floor at any time allowing the guards out front to apply even more ball pressure, knowing that they have help behind in the event that they get beaten to a spot in the lane.

How things will work offensively is a different story. Bennett has to account for the losses of Hunter, Ty Jerome and Kyle Guy on the offensive end.

The Big Three were the linchpins of what was the second most efficient offensive group in college basketball in 2018-2019, according to KenPom.com.

Bennett, famously, made adjustments to his preferred mover-block offensive scheme, which the ‘Hoos still ran on roughly 60 percent of their offensive possessions last year. The wrinkle was to use ball screen continuity sets about 30 to 35 percent of the time, Bennett said Tuesday.

Key, Huff and Diakite are particularly well-suited skill-wise to run ball screen continuity, with their abilities on pick-and-rolls and pick-and-pops.

“I think guys like Braxton, Mamadi, Jay, they certainly are very good when they can either roll on the rim or catch it in the high post and on the move. That’s I think offensively some of their strengths,” Bennett said.

The backcourt will be a work-in-progress. Kihei Clark returns after a solid NCAA Tournament run, but after Clark it’s a host of newcomers.

Kody Stattmann is technically a returnee, but the sophomore got limited minutes as a freshman in 2018-2019, though he did look good in the FIBA U19 World Cup over the summer (10.3 points per game, 46.5 percent shooting).

JUCO transfer Tomas Woldetensae was a big-time scorer (17.3 points per game) and three-point shooter (47.6 percent) and offers size on the wing (6’5”), but will obviously have a bit of a transition to make making the jump to ACC play.

Four-star recruit Casey Morsell offers size (6’3”) and leadership in the tradition of Jerome at the point, and should figure significantly into Bennett’s plans in the coming season.

Let’s let Bennett muse on the challenge ahead to close out.

“We’ve just got to keep trying to figure out how we can be at our best with how we play offensively, defensively. There will be some growing pains. I know that. We’ve already experienced that in practice, and I’ve been on these guys pretty hard and pushing them. But I’m grateful for them because they got a lot on their plate. We do.

“But I think we’ve been through a lot. So we’ll just — we’ll be as good as we can, and we know not to worry about it. We talked about it last year, let’s get as ready as we can and run not to the finish line, to the starting line. Let’s be as good as we can at the start and be process oriented. That’s the way for our program and for players and I think team. So that’s what we’ll do.

“And yeah, there is a bit of a newness and rebuild to it, but that brings some new excitement, and it means that those three guys that left early had phenomenal careers, and I think we’d all take, hey, you can win a National Championship and lose those three guys, will you take that and maybe be newer and have to start over in some ways? I think we’d all agree and take that, and that’s where we’re at right now.”

Story by Chris Graham

UVA Basketball Fans!

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