By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE –– Before committing to the University of Virginia in August 2017, Kody Stattmann paid little attention to NCAA basketball. He lived on the other side of the world, after all, and had other concerns in his native Australia.
“I wasn’t even watching college basketball two years ago,” Stattmann, who’s from Queensland, said recently at John Paul Jones Arena.
“And so coming here and winning a national championship straight away was the craziest thing for me, to be honest. I would never have imagined that would happen in my life, because college basketball to me wasn’t the biggest thing. Realizing how big it is over here and to get it straight away was just a surreal experience.”
A swingman who says he might have grown from 201 centimeters to 202 or 203 since enrolling at UVA in June 2018 –– that would make him about 6-foot-7 in American terminology –– Stattmann had a minor role on the team that won the NCAA title in early April.
He played in 18 games, scoring 30 points in his 73 minutes. Stattmann’s only appearance in the NCAA tournament came against Gardner-Webb in the first round.
With such players as Ty Jerome, Kyle Guy and De’Andre Hunter on the roster, Stattmann’s low profile was no surprise. Each of those three, however, left UVA after the 2018-19 season to pursue NBA careers, creating a void on the perimeter in head coach Tony Bennett’s program.
As Virginia heads into its 11th season under Bennett, Stattmann is probably the returning player most affected by their departures.
The Cavaliers’ coaches have “talked to me a bit about my opportunity and stepping up in a [larger] role,” Stattmann said, “so I’m just trying to do my best and contribute as much as I can and see if I can play more this season and be the best player I can for me and my team.”
His first year at UVA was at times a trying one for Stattmann, who acknowledges being homesick last fall.
“Over the summer [of 2018] I was OK, because I’m used to living away from home for about two months,” he recalled. “But after that, once we got into the full swing of things in the fall, I was really kind of struggling for a while.
“At one stage when I was really homesick, I told my mom that I kind of wanted to go home, because I wasn’t really enjoying it. But I’ve adjusted to things and gotten used to the whole routine, and now it’s fine. I would have regretted doing that.”
Stattmann said he’s made a lot of new friends at UVA. His classes are going well this semester, he said, and “basketball has been great. I’m enjoying it a lot more this year.”
He’s living, as he did in 2018-19, with teammate Francisco Caffaro, a 7-0 center from Argentina who redshirted last season. They’re sharing an apartment with two other teammates: Kihei Clark and Jayden Nixon.
Stattmann and Caffaro have been friends since 2017, when they met in Canberra, the capital of Australia. Stattmann was part of the basketball program at the Australian Institute of Sport, and Caffaro was at the NBA Global Academy.
Each ranks among his nation’s top young prospects, and both played at FIBA’s U19 World Cup in Greece early this summer.
“I definitely learned a lot from that,” Stattmann said.
Australia placed ninth and Argentina 11th at the World Cup. Stattmann was uncharacteristically cold from the outside, shooting 22 percent from 3-point range, but he averaged 10.3 points in the Aussies’ seven games.
“I started off OK my first two games,” Stattmann said, “and then after that I just struggled a bit. I think I was just overthinking it, because I was one of our main scorers, and that was my role, to score. So I was overthinking it and not playing my game.”
Australia didn’t face Argentina in the tournament, but Stattmann saw Caffaro periodically. “We didn’t stay too far away from each other,” Stattmann said, “so sometimes we’d walk out to see the markets and stuff and caught up.”
In group play, Australia defeated Mali, which ended up finishing second in the tournament behind the U.S. The Aussies expected to finish better than ninth, Stattmann said, and so they were disappointed with their performance at the World Cup.
Still, he said, “I’d never been to Greece before, so it was fun being there. And it’s always a good experience going up against the best guys in the world.”
Stattmann and Caffaro missed some of the Cavaliers’ summer workouts while they were out of the country, but they traveled to Greece with the coaching staff’s blessing.
“It’s huge for them to represent their countries,” Bennett said.
For Stattmann, associate head coach Jason Williford said, the opportunity to test himself on that stage was invaluable, “especially with him not playing as much [for UVA] last year. You get a chance to go and play and compete against some good competition. I thought it was a good experience for him. Hopefully that’ll carry over.”
When he arrived at UVA, Stattmann weighed about 180 pounds. He’s now around 200, and the extra weight helps him both ends of the court. On offense, he’s more assertive with the ball and doesn’t hesitate to drive to the basket.
“That was always a part of my game,” Stattmann said, “but I think being stronger now has helped me a lot with that. I can throw my body around a bit more, where last year I was a lot weaker. So every time I’d try to go in, I’d get pushed around.”
Williford said: “He’s all of 6-7, and obviously he’s stronger and he’s much improved in regards to defense. Where I’d like to see more improvement is just in his shot-making. Just be confident, take and make shots. He’s going to have to do that for us. After a year in the program, with a year’s more maturity, you see where he’s improved, but can it now translate to on the floor, in competition, against other teams, where he’s taking and making big shots?”
The Wahoos, who open the season Nov. 6 against ACC rival Syracuse at the Carrier Dome, hope to use Stattmann at both the 2 (shooting guard) and the 3 (small forward).
“For him, it’ll boil down to who he can guard,” Williford said. “Can he guard some 2s? Obviously, we’re going to need him to guard bigger wings, some 3s.”
Stattmann is one of four UVA players from outside the United States, along with Caffaro, fifth-year senior Mamadi Diakite (Guinea) and Tomas Woldetensae (Italy). The newest member of Bennett’s staff, Kirk Penney, can empathize with their experiences in a foreign country.
A native of New Zealand, Penney played at the University of Wisconsin when Bennett was an assistant at the Big Ten school.
Penney, UVA’s director of player development/coaching staff consultant, went on to play professionally for 15 years, in the NBA and in Spain, Israel, Lithuania, Germany, Turkey, and Australia. He spent his final two seasons with the New Zealand Breakers, who compete in the National Basketball League. The NBL’s other eight teams are based in Australia.
“It’s actually funny,” Stattmann said. “He used to be my favorite player when I was growing up, when he played in the Australian league. So when I heard he was coming here, I was really excited. He definitely knows a lot about basketball and the way Australians and New Zealanders play, so it’s been a real big help having him here.”
Penney said he relates well not only to Stattmann, but to “any international players, because I’ve played with and against so many guys from around the world. You have so many networks and connections, you kind of understand them. You get it, and you’ve traveled everywhere, so you know where they’re from. You’ve lived where they’re from in many cases.”
From a team that finished 35-3 after defeating Texas Tech in the NCAA championship game, UVA lost four mainstays: Guy, Hunter, Jerome and center Jack Salt. Stattmann isn’t the only returning player from whom the Hoos will be looking for a larger contribution this season. The same is true for Diakite, Clark, Braxton Key and Jay Huff, too.
“All of those guys have got to give us something, quite honestly,” Williford said, “and I think they all are going to have to expand their roles.”