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Braxton Key: Key to UVA Basketball as ‘Hoos begin national-title defense

Braxton KeyTony Bennett had a pair of aces in the hole – De’Andre Hunter and Braxton Key – that he played to matchup advantages as UVA Basketball made its way toward the 2019 national title.

The lineup flexibility that Bennett had with 6’7” Hunter and 6’8” Key being able to guard all five positions on the floor allowed Bennett to go four-guard for 77.1 percent of his minutes in 2018-2019.

Three of the guards who were the foundation of the title run – Hunter, Ty Jerome and Kyle Guy – are in the NBA now.

Key returns, along with 6’9” forward Mamadi Diakite, who tested the NBA Draft waters before returning, and 7’1” center Jay Huff, who expects to play a much bigger role in 2019-2020.

And the backcourt that was the strength of the championship team is now a work-in-progress, with 5’9” sophomore Kihei Clark the only returner who played significant minutes in 2018-2019.

This year’s ‘Hoos will look and play a lot different – bigger, with Bennett likely to pair Diakite and Huff in his starting frontcourt, likely giving each in the range of 30 minutes-plus a night.

Clark starts at the point, with 6’7” sophomore Kody Stattmann, 6’5” JUCO transfer Tomas Woldetensae and 6’3” freshman Casey Morsell in the mix for big minutes.

The key to this year’s ‘Hoos could be … Key, who will start at the three, but also give Bennett some minutes as a stretch four, as he did in 2018-2019.

“Braxton will play some at the forward spot for us, some at the three spot. He’ll have to be used as both,” Bennett told reporters at last week’s media day event.

Bennett called Key his “Swiss army knife.”

“He can do a lot of things well. I think one of his greatest strengths, no matter where he’s playing, is he can get on the glass. He showed that in different games. Offensive rebounds to give us chances, defensive rebounds. I challenge him to keep being sound, because he has some natural instincts that help defensively for us as a young team,” Bennett said.

Key actually led Virginia in rebounding in 2018-2019, averaging 5.3 boards per game, impressive enough for a player listed as a guard, more impressive when you consider that he did that while playing 19.8 minutes per game as the team’s sixth man.

His rebounding was most noticeable in the national-championship game win over Texas Tech. In 28 minutes off the bench, Key had 10 rebounds, and of course you remember his last-second blocked shot, on a jumper from Red Raiders’ star Jarrett Culver, that sent the game to overtime.

That, and who was it that scored UVA’s final four points in the OT, on a breakaway dunk and a pair of game-clinching free throws?

That would be Braxton Key.

Now a senior, Key is chomping at the bit to get on the floor to begin the title defense.

“We know we’re going to get everybody’s best shot. We know that we lost three guys to the NBA, we lost Jack, but that’s no excuse. Teams won’t see it that way,” Key said at the media day event.

Bennett is still working to sort of perfect how his 2019-2020 team will go at it.

The championship team shot 39.5 percent from three-point range, seventh-best nationally. But the guys who were responsible for the bulk of that – Hunter (43.8 percent on threes in 2018-2019), Guy (42.6 percent) and Jerome (39.9 percent) – are now in the NBA.

Woldetensae should eventually fill some of that void – the consensus Top 10 JUCO recruit scored 17.3 points per game and shot 47.6 percent from three-point range as a sophomore at Indian Hills Community College in 2018-2019.

Morsell should also step in well – he scored 17 points a game and shot 36.6 percent from three as a high-school senior.

A wild card here is Stattmann, who only got 73 largely garbage-time minutes as a freshman in 2018-2019, but looked good in the FIBA U19 World Cup over the summer, averaging 10.3 points and shooting 46.5 percent from the floor for Team Australia.

And then, Clark, who you think of mainly as a top-flight defender at the point, shot 41.2 percent from three in the NCAA Tournament, including a 3-for-8 from long-range effort in Virginia’s Sweet 16 win over Oregon.

That said, yeah, you can expect that the focus will be more in the paint, at least early on, as the perimeter guys work to get their feet under them.

“The three-ball was really good to us last year. This year, we’ll probably play more inside-out, using Jay, Mamadi, myself in the post, getting inside, getting fouls, easy baskets, and maybe that can open up the three-ball for us,” Key said.

It will look and feel different, no doubt. Bennett will be able to go four-guard when the need arises, using Key as a stretch-four, but you’re going to see a lot of minutes this season with 7’1” Huff, 6’9” Diakite, 6’8” Key, either 6’7” Stattmann, 6’5” Woldetensae or 6’3” Morsell, along with the 5’9” Clark on the floor.

This time last year, the focus was on, well, honestly, getting past the UMBC upset. Now there’s a banner hanging above the court that shows UVA Basketball was able to get past UMBC and do a little more than that.

Whereas the group last year was set in terms of roster and approach, this year’s group will be a work in progress.

“We’re focused a little more on the things that we think are going to give us chances to be competitive, to be as sound and tough-minded as we can be. That’s a process,” Bennett said. “It’s trying to get everyone on the same page and understand the execution and tenacity that’s required to be a quality team. Capitalizing on some of our strengths, our size, our rebounding. My hope is we can be a sound defensive team, and then figure out ways to score with balance, inside, outside. That will be the key this year.

“Everybody is trying to push hard and not being too consumed with what happened last year, or what’s expected this year. Can we max out and be ready to go? It’s that simple,” Bennett said.

Key, for one, is ready to go, and ready for the pressure of getting everybody’s best shot every night.

“They won’t say, we beat them without their guys. They’ll say, we beat the defending national champions. So, we know the x is going to be on our back, and that we need to come ready and prepared every game,” Key said.

Story by Chris Graham