The 5-foot-9 point guard from California played a critical role for this year’s Cavaliers, despite his freshman status. He played in every game this season, starting 20 and averaging 26.8 minutes per game. His 97 total assists were second only to Ty Jerome, and his quick, no-look passes were the stuff of highlight reels. Clark’s laser pass to Diakite in the final regulation second of UVA’s Elite Eight win over Purdue will be remembered not only for the bucket that sent the game into overtime, but for Clark’s court vision and composure.
Despite the lure of his basketball-crazed home state, the 6-foot-2 junior guard from Indianapolis came to play for Virginia. Guy started 33 games as a sophomore and garnered numerous accolades, including being named a third-team All-American. But it was the photo of him, face buried in his jersey after the Cavaliers’ first-round loss to UMBC, that was likely his most remembered moment of 2017 to 2018. The quick-footed shooter wrote openly on Facebook about his struggles with anxiety and spent the off-season focused as much on his mental game as his physical. The results showed: Starting every game and averaging 35.4 minutes per contest, Guy was offensively dominant, totaling a team-high 586 points, including a 42.5 percent average from behind the arc—the highest average in UVA history. He also amassed 171 rebounds and committed only 39 fouls—the lowest of UVA’s starters. Guy announced his decision to enter the NBA draft on April 16, leaving Virginia with numerous individual accolades: 2019 Final Four MVP, two-time All-American, two-time All-ACC first-team honoree and ACC Tournament MVP.
The 6-foot-5 New York native chose Virginia, he says, because of the growth and development he knew he’d have under former NBA player Tony Bennett, his staff and strength coach Mike Curtis. The point guard was an impact player upon arrival in 2016, appearing in all 34 games his freshman year. He led the team in steals and assists his sophomore season, when he was named All-ACC third team. But it was this year where Jerome bested all of his individual performances, showcasing his growth: in points scored (25), minutes played (45, in one overtime contest), assists (14), rebounds (9) and steals (5). With 202 assists, Jerome’s court vision and physical-yet-disciplined defense allowed for each Cavalier to play to his strength. Jerome declared for the NBA draft in mid-April and is a projected first-round pick.
The 6-foot-8 junior transfer spent his first two collegiate seasons at Alabama and was granted a waiver to play immediately for the Cavaliers. His impact was clear: Appearing in all 38 games and starting six, the wing’s strong defense and tenacity under the basket—he led the team with 200 rebounds—elevated UVA’s size, strength and depth. A Charlotte native, Key played his senior season at Oak Hill Academy, where he was initially recruited by Virginia’s coaching staff. Key also boasts the most-UVA basketball renowned relative of anyone on the team: his uncle is Cavalier basketball legend Ralph Sampson.
When pundits talk about the key difference between UVA’s 2018 postseason team versus 2019, they’re often talking about De’Andre Hunter. The Philadelphia native was sidelined by a broken wrist during UVA’s UMBC loss last year. Still, after redshirting his first year in Charlottesville, the 6-foot-7 forward found his footing during the latter half of his freshman campaign, named ACC Sixth Man of the Year and to the All-Freshman Team. Midway through his redshirt sophomore season, pundits were already talking about Hunter as a first-round NBA draft pick, thanks to his 15.2 points-per-game average, 193 rebounds, and his skilled, relentless defense (in March, he was named the National Defensive Player of the Year). Hunter added 30 pounds of muscle to his long, quick frame as he developed into the most defensively dominant player in the country. He’s also shown resiliency: Against Auburn in the Final Four, Hunter struggled from the floor in the first half. But at halftime, Bennett encouraged him to keep shooting. Hunter finished the game with 27 points, 9 rebounds—and a very likely spot in the NBA draft’s Top 10 this June.
In a postseason interview, Key called Salt “one of the best leaders I’ve ever been around.” Indeed, during his five years at Virginia, the 6-foot-10 Auckland, New Zealand, native, who redshirted his freshman season to add muscle to his frame while also learning the intricacies of Virginia basketball, proved himself a consistent, passionate leader. Salt started 34 games during both his sophomore and junior seasons and was named a tri-captain last year. While he struggled with back pain throughout this season, limiting his playing time, Salt, who scored a career-high 18 points against North Carolina State, still provided a strong defensive mind alongside his energy, grit and dominant screens. Statistics aren’t his only barometer: While Salt finished his fifth year at UVA averaging 3.7 points per game and 3.7 rebounds per game, all of his teammates professed to the incredible importance and value of his leadership. “I’d go to battle with him any day,” Jerome told reporters during the postseason. Salt graduated from Curry with a master’s in educational psychology and plans to play basketball abroad.
During the NCAA Tournament, Bennett called Diakite this season’s X-factor, and it’s not hard to see why. The 6-foot-9 native of Conakry, Guinea, enjoyed a breakout postseason, built on solid production in the post throughout the year. Diakite started 22 games, averaging 7.4 points, 4.4 rebounds and a team-high 63 blocks. His tenacious shot-blocking, physical defense, and emotive style of play caught fire during the NCAA Tournament, where he averaged 10.5 points and 8.2 rebounds and started all six games. The last 6.5 seconds of the Purdue game launched the redshirt junior, who announced his intention to declare for the NBA draft before deciding to return to UVA for another year, to viral fame as well. Afterward, Diakite told reporters that his cousins back home informed him, “If I go home right now, most of the population would come and welcome me, which is very great, amazing. ... My family and some old teammates told me it’s all over Africa. It’s on the news.”
The 7-foot-1 forward appeared in 34 games this season as a solid contributor off the bench: His 150 points were the second-most of bench players and his 25 blocks were second only to Diakite. The Durham, N.C., native chose Virginia over several North Carolina schools, including Duke, where his father worked as director of the Michael W. Krzyzewski Human Performance Lab. But his connection to Bennett, particularly their shared faith, drew Huff to Charlottesville. He redshirted his first season and saw minimal playing time during his sophomore campaign before contributing key minutes and plays this year, including a career-high 14 points against Marshall.
Although they didn’t see as much playing time in the latter half of the season, Marco Anthony (Col ’21) (appeared in 22 games), Jayden Nixon (Col ’22) (14 games), Francesco Badocchi (Col ’21) (11 games), Kody Stattmann (Col ’22) (18 games), Austin Katstra (Col ’21) (11 games) and Grant Kersey (Col ’20) (10 games) were important contributors to the championship squad, especially in practice and the early part of the season. Center Francisco Caffaro (Col ’22) redshirted this year and will be a welcomed addition to the lineup in the fall, particularly with the eligibility expiration of Salt. Post-championship, Anthony, a guard from Texas, announced he will be transferring to another school.