Virginia Basketball: Is Casey Morsell the next breakout Cavalier?

Virginia basketball’s rising sophomore Casey Morsell struggled a bit during his first season but could be ready for a big leap in Year 2.

Virginia basketball was one of the toughest teams in the country to gauge last season. The defending national champions struggled a bit out of the gates, falling out of the AP Top 25 and closer to the NCAA Tournament bubble than anyone had been expecting.

Then, though, head coach Tony Bennett’s squad flipped a switch down the stretch by winning 11 of their last 12 games and soaring up the rankings. By the time the regular-season was completed, Virginia was projected to land a No. 5-7 seed at the Big Dance had it not been canceled.

Substantial offensive improvement was the guiding force of Virginia’s hot finish over the final month of the year. Coach Bennett’s team spent the majority of the campaign struggling to put the ball in the basket, particularly from distance, and that was the reason for several of their defeats even while holding one of the nation’s best defenses.

While the Cavaliers still only finished with the 243rd-best adjusted offensive efficiency rating for the campaign, there are plenty of reasons to believe that they turned a corner down the stretch and that parlays into optimism for 2020-21.

Perhaps most notably, Tomas Woldetensae started to find his rhythm on the wing. The 6-foot-5 guard shot 39.0 percent on 6.8 3PA per game over the final 12 contests of the season and he will hopefully continue that hot shooting into this coming year.

Additionally, sit-out transfer Sam Hauser should be an instant-impact scorer as a sharpshooting 6-foot-8 forward who previously played at Marquette. He spent the past year learning under Coach Bennett and could be among the preseason frontrunners for ACC Player of the Year.

Of course, the returns of Kihei Clarke and Jay Huff also shouldn’t be forgotten.

Rising sophomore Casey Morsell, though, might be the piece to really make Virginia a candidate to defend their national title. After all, the 2020 NCAA Tournament was canceled and therefore the Cavaliers are still the last team to cut down the final nets for a campaign.

But why Morsell? Because nobody develops quite like UVA.

Casey Morsell entered his freshman season last year ranked as the No. 56 incoming player in the 2019 recruiting class. With that high rating, many expected big things from the youngster, who was going to be thrust into the impossible role of playing big minutes in a backcourt that just lost Kyle Guy and Ty Jerome. Morsell was highly-regarded for his scoring ability and well-built frame coming out of high school and many projected a big-time first year.

That wasn’t necessarily the case.

While Morsell did compete in all of Virginia’s 30 contests last season and averaged 21.8 minutes per game, he struggled with his shot for most of the year. In fact, he averaged just 4.0 points on shooting splits of .277/.176/.857. His 15-for-85 shooting from three certainly left a lot to be desired for someone who was praised for that part of his game.

Simply looking at his overall numbers for the year, though, do not give Morsell the justice he deserves. For starters, it is quite rare for a freshman to immediately make a significant impact in Coach Bennett’s system as it takes time to both grow accustomed to the speed of the college game as well as learning his schemes. Additionally, while he scuffled offensively, Morsell remained a fixture of UVA’s rotation by living up to the hype surrounding his defensive ability.

From the opening tip of the campaign, Morsell had emerged as one of the best defenders on the Virginia roster. That is something that nobody says lightly considering the Cavaliers’ all-around dominance on that end of the floor. He used his strong frame and intelligence to be an excellent fit in the packline scheme from Day 1.

All things considered, Morsell’s freshman year was a mixed bag compared to preseason expectations but he has actually set a pretty high floor for his potential. Virginia fans already know that he will bring superb defense to the floor and it should only be a matter of time before his highly-touted scoring ability shows itself.

Could that be as early as this coming season? Possibly.

Quite frankly, there are not many programs that appear to be on the same level as Virginia when it comes to developing talent. Since 2010-11 (Tony Bennett’s second year at the program), the Cavaliers have amassed a 262-80 (.766) total record despite having only four freshmen average over 7.5 points per game – three of those players were NBA Draft picks.

Of the freshmen that scored 7.5 points or fewer per game with UVA, you can find names such as Kyle Guy, Malcolm Brogdon, London Perrantes, Kihei Clark, Ty Jerome, Mamadi Diakite, Jay Huff, and Devon Hall (among others).

For reference, only five programs have a better winning percentage over the last 10 years: Gonzaga, Kansas, Duke, Kentucky, and Wichita State. All but the Shockers (who even had six) have had at least eight freshmen average 7.5 points per game during this time frame.

Virginia just isn’t a program that is very reliant on first-year contributors to succeed and Morsell’s mixed year shouldn’t detract from his potential breakout. The Cavaliers quite simply win with player development and its track record is very solid. Additionally, Morsell’s reputation as a scorer out of high school was not unfounded. The guy can score, it’s just a matter of putting it all together at the ACC level.

Next: Way-too-early Top 25 for 2020-21

Virginia is widely projected to be a Top 10 team in the nation during this coming season with an impressively deep roster centered around returners, Hauser’s arrival, and a strong three-man recruiting class. Considering how loaded the Cavaliers will be, Morsell might find himself in a sixth-man role. But with his defense and potential spark-plug scoring ability, he could be the super-sub to take UVA over the top.