Here we are. It’s finally over. Monday marks the end of the Orange’s hell stretch that featured four ranked teams in five games, three of which were against teams ranked in the top five. No. 2 Virginia is the final ranked opponent Syracuse will see in its regular season and the final game the Orange will play at the Carrier Dome this year.
While Virginia is a team that Syracuse has had some of its most memorable moments against since joining the ACC, it is also a team that has given the Orange the most trouble. SU has only beaten UVA once in the regular season since joining the conference. That was their comeback win to give Jim Boeheim his *1,000th* win.
The losses, however, have been suffocating ones. Syracuse’s average margin of defeat against Virginia in their five losses is 12.2 points. Meanwhile, SU has never won by more than six points. The Orange has never scored more than 68 points against the Cavaliers.
We know that stereotype of Virginia basketball: play slow, win with defense and inevitably choke in the tournament. But this year’s Cavaliers team is very different. Are they still slow paced? Yes. Is their defense still elite? You bet. But part three could be very different this March, especially after coming up on the wrong end of the most embarrassing loss in the history of the NCAA Tournament last season.
This year’s Cavaliers squad is also built to be an elite offensive team. They own the third best scoring margin in the country and can also shoot with the best of them. Sure, the Hoos’ scoring offense (71.9 points per game) sits 203rd in the nation. But that’s more of a product of their pace, which is dead last in the country at 62.9 possessions per game (about 10 fewer than the average team). Virginia actually has the fifth best three point accuracy in the country (40 percent) and is the seventh most efficient team in the nation with 1.14 points per possession. For context of that, all six teams ahead of them are ranked 16th or better in scoring offense, which shows that UVA is much better than their 203rd ranking suggests. The offensive efficiency numbers are way up from last year’s team that sat 50th in the country in that department.
All of this is spearheaded by three All-ACC caliber options on offense. Kyle Guy, Ty Jerome and De’Andre Hunter all average 13 or more points and can get it done in a variety of ways. All three shoot at least 40 percent from three.
Hunter is the one that’s primed to crush Syracuse. In a game earlier this season against Middle Tennessee State, the Blue Raiders threw a lot of zone looks at the Cavaliers. Hunter was placed at the high post on offense and picked apart the defense. He had a career high 9 assists in that game and came extremely close to a triple double with 15 points and 8 rebounds to go with it. He can step back and shoot or put his head down and get to the basket. So what are you going to do? Foul him? Nope. He’s an 80 percent free throw shooter on top of all of that.
The Orange is going to need to have shots fall early and often against Virginia – a task far easier said than done. While SU has shot the ball better in conference play, their most recent game against Wake Forest was a struggle from distance. But what the Orange did on offense was get to the basket and convert easy layups. This especially applied to Elijah Hughes, who had a career high 7 2-point field goals made, after being criticized by Boeheim for not attacking the basket.
Getting touches near the basket is going to be tough against Virginia’s Pack Line defense. The principles of this style center around preventing both dribble penetration and transition offense by packing the paint and trading offensive rebounds attempts for getting back on defense. That means the Orange is going to have to get creative with how it wants to get to the basket or have an unreal night from deep. While you would think a team that focuses on closing off the interior would allow a lot of threes, Virginia has the best three-point defense in the country with opponents shooting just 26.7 percent from distance.
As you’ve read, this is no easy task. There’s a reason that only Duke has beaten Virginia this season. And the Blue Devils have one of the most dominant players in the paint in recent memory with Zion Williamson. That’s a piece Syracuse is far from owning. But the beauty is that the Orange is also an elite defensive team. If they can keep the score low for the majority of the game and have the margin within arms reach into the late stages, SU can deliver a late strike for a potential upset.