One statistical comparison speaks loudly to the decline of the Virginia men’s basketball program following its NCAA championship season in 2018-19.
That UVa team finished seventh in Division I in 3-point field goal percentage at 39.5. This year’s team is shooting 26.8% from 3-point range and ranks 345th out of 350 teams.
You could say that defense wins games but, while the Cavaliers (11-4, 3-2 ACC) rank No. 1 in scoring defense, they have now lost more games, four, than they did all of last season, when they finished 35-3.
The main reason for Virginia’s decline has been the departure of the three underclassmen who turned pro shortly after cutting down the nets in Minneapolis — Kyle Guy, De’Andre Hunter and Ty Jerome.
Mamadi Diakite also considered moving on, but elected to come back in the final hours before the NBA Draft deadline.
Diakite shot 55 percent from the field last season but most of those attempts came from inside the 3-point circle, where he was 6-for-17.
So, it was easy to see that 3-point shooting might be a problem this year. It wasn’t a problem at first, as the Cavaliers won their first seven games and were ranked No. 5 in the country prior to a 69-40 loss at Purdue.
It seems to get worse for Virginia with every outing, most recently when the Cavaliers shot 31.3 percent from the field Saturday in a 63-55 overtime loss to visiting Syracuse.
Tomas Woldetensae, a late-spring pick-up after hitting 103 3-point field goals at Indian Hills (Iowa) Community College, was 2-for-9 on Saturday and is shooting 24 percent from beyond the arc for the season.
Maybe the biggest disappointment from a shooting perspective is freshman guard and top-rated signee Casey Morsell, who is third on the team in minutes played (26.1 per game) and leads the team in 3-point attempts but is only 9-for-60 from beyond the arc.
An NCAA rules change pushed back the 3-point line from 20 feet, 9 inches last year to 22 feet, 1.75 inches this year. Morsell would have been shooting 3’s from 19 feet, 9 inches when he was in high school last year at St. John’s in Washington, D.C.
“The distance, obviously, is a factor for some shooters [but] maybe not all,” UVa coach Tony Bennett said on an ACC coaches’ teleconference Monday. “With what departed from our program from an accuracy and productivity standpoint, I knew we wouldn’t be as strong as we were last year.
“Guys were thrust into spots that were good for their games in the future but it’s a lot [to ask]. I knew we wouldn’t be as efficient as last year but I’m still hopeful that we’ll shoot at a little higher clip.”
The Cavaliers have now lost three of their last five games and dropped out of the Associated Press for the first time since the sixth game of the 2017-18 season, a span of 81 games.
Virginia’s 63-55 overtime loss at home Saturday came against a Syracuse team that the Cavaliers had beaten on the road in the season opener 48-34. You could argue that UVa’s defense has fallen off, but Saturday’s scored was 43-43 at the end of regulation.
“I certainly wasn’t as confident [going into the year] as I was the previous year or two,” Bennett said, whose last two teams both entered the NCAA Tournament as No. 1 seeds. “This year, there’s too much uncertainly in a lot of areas, but [as far as] the shooting one, you just don’t replace those three guys.”
Kody Stattmann’s sixth straight start Saturday followed double-figure scoring outings against Virginia Tech and Boston College. However, he was 0-for-4 in 24 minutes against Syracuse and Morsell was 0-for-4 in 9 minutes.
“He’s a complete player,” Bennett said of Morsell. “He shot it solid in high school but it’s different when you only take a couple here or there. It’s not for a lack of working on it.
“He made a big one [to beat] Arizona State and I tend to look at that and say, ‘OK, it’s coming, but do other things well.’ That’s kind of the message.”
Similar questions were raised about then-freshman Kihei Clark last year, and the Cavaliers seemingly can’t do without him. Clark had 13 points, nine rebounds and four steals Saturday against Syracuse. He was also 3-for-9 on 3-pointers on an afternoon when the rest of the team was 4-for-22.
Next up for UVa are a pair of road games against 10th-ranked Florida State, which was the last team to beat Virginia on its 2018-19 NCAA Tournament run, and Georgia Tech.
Don’t expect a quick fix.