ROANOKE—In the early hours after Virginia’s victory over Texas Tech in the NCAA men’s basketball championship game, at least one publication—the Sporting News—rated the Cavaliers as the No. 1 team in the country going into next season.
Before U.Va. fans get too excited, there’s one thing to consider: Nobody has put together back-to-back NCAA men’s basketball championships since Florida in 2005–06 and 2006–07.
Over an eight-year span, five national champions from a previous year did not finish in the Top 25.
The 2017–18 champion, Villanova, provides a classic case of why that happened. After winning the title, the Wildcats lost four underclassmen to the professional ranks.
To Villanova’s credit, it was sixth in the final poll this year and finished 32–4.
Virginia often has been compared to Villanova and they have scrimmaged in each of the past two seasons.
This year, Virginia is in position to lose four underclassmen to the pros, with De’Andre Hunter and Ty Jerome having indicated that they will forego their final season of eligibility.
Fellow starters Kyle Guy and Mamadi Diakite have held open the option that they may return as seniors in 2019–20.
Relatively few Virginia players have taken that route in the past, with three-time national player of the year Ralph Sampson setting a standard of sorts by staying at U.Va. for four years in the 1980s.
Players who have voluntarily passed up their final season since then include Cory Alexander in 1995, Roger Mason in 2002 and Justin Anderson in 2015.
Jack Salt, the Cavaliers’ starting center for most of the 2018–19 season, was Virginia’s only scholarship senior. When the Cavaliers signed guard Casey Morsell and post player Kadin Shedrick in the fall, it appeared that U.Va. had reached its scholarship limit.
“This is new territory for us,” associate head coach Jason Williford said this week. “but I think a lot of schools are going through it. You’ve just got to wait and see. Obviously, it’s not just us. There are other schools with kids who are testing the [NBA] waters.”
“There’s probably over 600 and close to 700 names in the transfer portal. There’s all sort of speculation as to what we need and who’s out there, but it all depends on our roster make-up. You’ve got to wait on Kyle and Mamadi and see what they’re going to do.”
The Cavaliers took a commitment this week from Justin McKoy, a 6-foot-8 forward from Cary, North Carolina, who became available after being released from a letter of intent to attend Penn State.
If Guy and Diakite were to return, the Cavaliers would have 11 scholarship players, or 12 if you count Austin Katstra, a walk-on who was placed on scholarship during the season. The limit is 13.
A graduate transfer would have immediate eligibility; however, an underclassmen without receiving a special appeal would have to sit out a year.
Two players who have been linked with Virginia are one-time Cavaliers recruiting targets Sam and Joey Hauser, a junior and freshman for Marquette this past season. They were once recruited by U.Va. and head coach Tony Bennett, who shares their Stevens Point, Wis., roots.
Neither would be eligible next year.
“I think most grad guys are going to be somewhat patient,” Williford said.
The Cavaliers could be waiting till May 29 before Guy and/or Diakite have to make a decision. Hunter and Jerome were enough of a blow by themselves.
“I don’t think it was a surprise,” Williford said. “De’Andre was pretty much of a no-brainer, and what Ty has been able to accomplish … to go out a national champ, to lead us the way he did, you can’t fault that kid.”
The performances of players like Hunter, Jerome and Guy and the interest they have received from the pro ranks could result in an expect positive—the program could become a player for top-shelf prospects that previously passed on considering the Cavs.
Two former U.Va. players who attended the NCAA championship game, Malcolm Brogdon and Joe Harris, have emerged as high-caliber NBA players.
“The knock on us was: ‘You go there and you’ve got to play defense … or you go there and you’ve got to play slow,’ ” Williford said. “The NBA knows that they’re coming from a system where they know how to defend and can be part of something that’s bigger than themselves. And they’re winners.
“We hear all the stuff about ‘you can never do it at Virginia.’ Well, you know what? We did it.’”
This is new territory for us ... You’ve just got to wait and see. —JASON WILLIFORD, U.va.
associate head coach