Virginia Basketball: Cavaliers need a fourth scorer. Who will it be?

uva basketballIt’s no stretch to say Virginia’s “Big Three” of Ty Jerome, Kyle Guy and De’Andre Hunter is up there with the best trios in the nation. All three have been in the program for three years, and it’s tough to top a savvy floor general, a deadeye three-point marksman and a potential lottery pick who can score and defend inside and out.

It’s also no stretch to say that triumvirate needs help.

The Cavaliers are currently averaging 66 points per game in ACC play, and Jerome, Guy and Hunter are combining for 42.6 per game, nearly two-thirds of the total output. That’s not necessarily a bad thing — those are the players who have the ball in their hands most often — but Virginia is only truly at its best offensively when there are reinforcements behind those three.

So that begs the question: Who is Virginia’s fourth scorer? Tony Bennett has widened his rotation to as large as eight at times but has also narrowed it to as small as six who get meaningful minutes. Against Virginia Tech on Monday, he used the same five players for the final 10-plus minutes of the game.

Here’s a breakdown of who has most often been Virginia’s leading scorer outside of the Big Three of Jerome, Guy and Hunter. Note that in some games, these players actually outscored one or two of the members of the Big Three. Also note that there are 27 total games mentioned here, even though Virginia has only played 25, because Huff, Diakite and Key all registered eight points — tied for the most of non-Big Three players — at NC State on Feb. 2.

 

PLAYERTIMES SCORING MOST OUTSIDE OF BIG THREEMOST RECENTSEASON HIGH
Mamadi Diakite102/18 at Virginia Tech18
Jay Huff62/09 vs. Duke14
Braxton Key52/02 at NC St.20
Kihei Clark41/26 at Notre Dame12
Jack Salt111/28 at Maryland12
Kody Stattmann112/03 vs. Morgan St.9

 

As the chart shows, the answer to who is Virginia’s proven fourth offensive threat is currently “no one.” Mamadi Diakite leads the way in terms of non-Big Three players, but he’s also receiving most of his points off of teammates’ passes. Kihei Clark, meanwhile, has really struggled of late. Braxton Key has been up and down, with Monday’s game at Virginia Tech being a major “up.” Jay Huff has shown terrific flashes — when he gets to play. In four years, Jack Salt has scored in double digits three times.

But that’s in the past. Virginia is under a month away from Selection Sunday. If a true fourth scorer emerges — or just if a few players on this list start playing better offensively — it will help Virginia immensely over the next few weeks and into tournament play.

Mamadi Diakite. Diakite has shown flashes of brilliance on offense. He has a plethora of post moves, has developed an outside shot that can go to the three-point line, can put the ball on the floor and finishes at the rim with authority. And he’s shown flashes of being that key fourth piece. In a four-game stretch from late January to early February, he double figures in three of four games, and following that stretch, he had seven points in just 10 minutes against Duke, a game he left early due to injury.

Diakite’s development has been a big boost to Virginia, and it’s been on display on several occasions. His 11-point, six-rebound, three-block performance against Miami lifted a sluggish Jerome-less Cavaliers team over the lowly Hurricanes. But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t sometimes force things that aren’t there. Against Virginia Tech on Monday, he launched several contested mid-range shots — and even a three — early in the shot clock and capped off the evening with a missed breakaway dunk.

Diakite is at his best when he’s finishing at the rim and making open jumpers off his teammates’ passes. Of his 74 made shots this season, 54 have come off of assists, per Hoop-Math.com. So while Diakite has improved as an individual scorer, he still has not proven in that category game-in and game-out.

Braxton Key. In an ideal world, Key becomes the fourth scorer. He’s part of Virginia’s “death lineup” alongside Jerome, Guy, Hunter and Diakite. Key is a wonderful defender who can defend any position and rebound at an outstanding rate. At a lanky, athletic 6-foot-9, he can bully a ball-handler one possession and block a big man at the rim the next.

He currently leads the nation in defensive rating.

From my “death lineup” article Tuesday:

Key can be the X-factor in this group. His physical skills are off the charts. When he’s hitting threes and contributing offensively like he did Monday night with two long balls, Virginia’s death lineup is truly worthy of the moniker on both ends. When he’s not, it’s just a very good defensive group.

When Key is playing well offensively, it is a huge boost for Virginia. His 20-point game helped the Cavaliers go up nearly 30 points on a Top-25 Florida State team before the Seminoles made it a closer score with Virginia’s backups on the court. It also came on a day when Jerome and Hunter combined for 4-of-19 shooting.

Key isn’t always going to score 20 points. In fact, he’s only scored in double figures on three other occasions. But when he gets his outside shot going and attacks the basket strong, opponents are in major trouble.

Jay Huff. The story with Huff has been told plenty of times. Sometimes he looks like a transcendent talent on offense and a shot-blocking machine on defense. Other times he struggles catching the ball and finishing at the rim, and his defense leaves a lot to be desired.

Huff’s role has actually diminished over the past two weeks — he has played fewer than 10 minutes in each of Virginia’s past three games and has made just one shot during that stretch — even though he had previously registered big games against Duke, NC State and Wake Forest. Huff is Virginia’s go-to big man when the Cavaliers need points in a hurry, such as in the second game against Duke. But Virginia hasn’t been in that situation much, and the emergence of the Jerome/Guy/Hunter/Key/Diakite lineup hasn’t helped his playing time, either.

 

Kihei Clark. Clark’s recent nosedive offensively has left his offensive rating at a paltry 93.8. No one else in Virginia’s rotation is below 111. The freshman remains a dogged on-ball defender, but opponents have found success pressuring him when he has the ball, because even if he gets by them, it doesn’t often result in much damage. He is currently shooting 29 percent on two-point shots, per Hoop-Math.

 

The game at Virginia Tech on Monday was a good example of the conundrum Virginia faces. Clark played all 20 minutes of the first half due to De’Andre Hunter picking up two fouls and given that it’s tough for Jerome — or anyone — to be the primary ball-handler for 20 minutes. Clark missed all three of his shots, two of which were wide open threes he missed badly. He played two minutes in the second half.

 

It’s hard to envision Clark becoming a true consistent fourth scorer at this point. Rather, what he needs to do is simply find a way to get out of his shooting slump. After making 41 percent of his three pointers (granted, he takes relatively few, and most of them are wide open) through February 11, Clark has missed six threes — and seven shots total — over his past two games. If he can get back to somewhat reliably making the open threes he gets, he can significantly help the offense.

UVA Basketball Fans!

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