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Virginia trying to find its way after losing key players

On March 23, with the hull in his team’s ship cracking, Virginia coach Tony Bennett released a statement about Darius Thompson, the third transfer from his team in a 48-hour stretch.

Thompson (6.2 PPG) had chosen to join on the transfer market both Marial Shayok (8.9 PPG) and Jarred Reuter (3.8 PPG), who announced their decisions on March 22. Bennett had already lost star London Perrantes to graduation.

A week prior, Bennett had entered the “Who will replace Tom Crean?” conversation after Indiana fired the coach on the first day of the NCAA tournament.

Then, his Cavaliers scored 39 points in a lopsided loss to Florida in the second round -- the lowest tally for a major-conference opponent in the NCAA tournament since 2000, per ESPN Stats & Information.

On March 23, Bennett suggested the team’s transfer issues were “part of coaching.” And then he attempted to inspire a fan base with few reasons to do anything but worry about the program’s immediate future.

"Two of our main priorities for Virginia basketball are to continue to build a winning culture and serve the young men in the program,” Bennett said in the statement. “I know Darius, Marial and Jarred have been served well and have also been part of a winning culture during their time at UVA. As we look forward, we have a strong nucleus of players returning, and I'm excited for their continued development. As a staff, we are focused on finding student-athletes who want to be a part of this program and all the University of Virginia has to offer."

Right now, Virginia is set to enter next season as a downgraded entity, stripped of the perennial preseason-ACC-contender status the program has enjoyed in recent years under Bennett.

The departure of Perrantes, the top scorer and playmaker for a program with offensive struggles all year, leaves Virginia without a catalyst. The Cavaliers finished 50th in adjusted offensive efficiency on KenPom.com. They recorded top-30 finishes in the three previous seasons.

Shayok and Thompson would have helped the Cavaliers overcome the loss of Perrantes. But they’re gone now.

So what’s next for a depleted Virginia team?

Well, Kyle Guy (7.5 PPG, 49.5 percent from the 3-point line) must go from promising freshman to sophomore star. And he’s capable. He had clutch moments in 2016-17. He should rise with more touches next season. He’ll team with Devon Hall (8.4 PPG) to reboot the backcourt.

Nigel Johnson, a graduate transfer who averaged 11.3 PPG for Rutgers last season, is a veteran point guard who could make an immediate impact for Bennett’s squad next season, too.

Isaiah Wilkins, Jack Salt and Mamadi Diakite comprise the key elements of a frontcourt with the durability and skill to help Virginia maintain its defensive fortitude.

In 2016-17, Virginia finished second in adjusted defensive efficiency, per KenPom.com. Bennett’s squad has finished within the top-10 in five of the past six seasons.

Virginia’s defensive gifts temper any doomsday projections about a team coached by Bennett.

But he just lost his best player. Again.

And a team with multiple second-half collapses and offensive struggles all year also lost a pair of players expected to stabilize the program next season. Plus, Virginia doesn’t have an elite prospect entering the mix.

Yes, Virginia always defends well. That won’t change in 2017-18. But it’s also imprudent to ignore the gaps on offense of a team that’s lost its best players from last season and multiple contributors to the transfer market.

For the first time in years, it seems safe to lower the expectations for Virginia as the program tries to regroup and prep for 2017-18.