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O’FARRELL: NCAA rule change on three-point line plays right into Virginia’s hands

The decision to move back the three-point line should benefit the Cavaliers’ style of play

<p>Senior forward Mamadi Diakite has improved in three-point shooting percentage every year.</p>

Senior forward Mamadi Diakite has improved in three-point shooting percentage every year.

The No. 7 Virginia men’s basketball team has picked up right where the 2019 national champions left off, starting the season with three convincing victories over Syracuse, James Madison and Columbia. However, this basketball season has also come with significant changes. The first — and most obvious — change is in who is playing. The Cavaliers no longer have star players De’Andre Hunter, Ty Jerome and Kyle Guy on the roster. But there is another big change, which might not be as clear — the three-point line.

This summer, the NCAA made the decision to move men’s basketball’s three-point distance from 20 feet and 9 inches to the international distance of 22 feet and 1.75 inches. The idea was tested in last year’s National Invitational Tournament and resulted in a three-point shooting percentage of 33 percent for teams — compared to the NCAA regular season average of 35.2 percent. This change is set to have a huge impact on college basketball and —given this year’s roster’s strengths, weaknesses and style of play — the Cavaliers are well-suited to benefit from the farther three-point line. Let’s take a look at the reasons why. 

‘Pack Line’ defense

Virginia’s famous pack line defense requires players to slide off of their man to prevent dribble penetration, backdoor cuts and other easy baskets near the rim. The trade-off of the system is that it allows opponents to take more open three-pointers. This was evident last year, as Virginia ranked 311th out of 351 Division I teams in preventing three-point attempts. 

Virtually every Virginia loss in recent years has been due to the opposing team getting hot from behind the arc. Last season, this included defeats to Duke, who shot 62 percent from deep in its second matchup with the Cavaliers, and Florida State, who shot 38 percent in the ACC tournament. Two years ago, in the team’s three losses to West Virginia, Virginia Tech and UMBC, the opposing team shot 40 percent, 38 percent and 50 percent from three, respectively. The Achilles heel of Virginia’s defense will always be a hot-shooting opposing team. 

When teams struggle inside the paint against the pack line, the deeper three-point line will make it significantly harder for opponents to expose this weakness. This was evident in all three of the Cavaliers’ games so far. Syracuse, James Madison and Columbia all attempted over 20 three-pointers, but shot just 16 percent, 26 percent and 29 percent, respectively. Many teams’ three-point shooting efficiency will naturally fall, lessening the pressure on the Cavaliers’ pack line defense.

The Cavaliers have limited outside shooting options

Virginia offenses from previous years have been defined by outside shooting — led by key players like former guards Malcolm Brogdon and Joe Harris. Last year’s team was no different as Guy, Jerome and Hunter combined to shoot over 40 percent from three and the team finished seventh in the country in three-point shooting percentage. However, after losing their three best outside threats, the Cavaliers’ perimeter shooting will be a major question mark. 

Last season, sophomore guard Kihei Clark shot 34.1 percent, senior guard Braxton Key shot 30.5 percent and senior forward Mamadi Diakite shot 29.4 percent — all below the NCAA average. Incoming freshman guard Casey Morsell and junior forward Jay Huff have shooting potential, but both players are largely unproven. Through three games, this weakness has been painstakingly noticeable, as Virginia has shot just 20 percent from three-point range. This mark places them tied for second worst out of all DI college basketball teams.

That said, the Cavaliers can score in many ways besides shooting from deep this year. They have athletic guards who can drive to the rim and a strong frontcourt that can thrive in the paint. While last year’s team often lived and died by the three, the new-look Cavaliers don’t need to be nearly as dependent on perimeter scoring. Accordingly, the Cavaliers will be less reliant on three-pointers and less affected by the new three-point line than most teams they play this season.

Virginia big men can space the floor

Diakite and Huff have been the two big men featured most heavily in Virginia’s lineups this year. Notably, both players have the ability to step out to the three-point line and knock down shots. Through three games, Diakite is 2-6 from three and Huff is 1-1.

The Cavalier frontcourt’s ability to shoot is invaluable because it forces the opposing teams’ biggest players to step out to the perimeter to defend. When the other team’s best rim-protectors are abandoning the rim, it opens up driving lanes and scoring opportunities for Virginia. With the deeper three-point line, it will be even harder for opposing teams to try and guard our big men on the perimeter as well as contest shots at the rim.

For almost any of Coach Tony Bennett’s previous Virginia teams, this rule change could have posed a huge obstacle offensively. However, the extended three-point line plays exactly into this Virginia squad’s hands and could be the difference-maker this year.