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Virginia Basketball Previews: Syracuse

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The Hoos head up to Syracuse to face an Orange team that is playing out the string. Despite high expectations, Cuse has struggled throughout the season, and decided to ban themselves from the postseason, rather than wait for NCAA sanctions. A win by the Hoos would clinch the #1 seed in the ACC tournament for the Hoos.

Just two days after his emotional senior night, Atkins will have to contend with Syracuse's Rakeem Christmas.
Just two days after his emotional senior night, Atkins will have to contend with Syracuse's Rakeem Christmas.
Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

On Saturday, the Hoos clinched a share of the ACC regular season title. With 2 remaining games for both Virginia and Duke, the Hoos magic number is 1. That means that either a win by the Hoos or a loss by the Blue Devils would clinch the #1 seed for the Hoos.

Tonight, the Hoos face the only remaining ACC opponent that they haven't seen yet this year, the Syracuse Orange. The final matchup of the season is Louisville, who the Hoos have already seen this year. Both of these games will come on the road, where the Hoos have been fantastic this season. Fans will recall that the Hoos' last road game was a 70-34 shellacking of the Demon Deacons on Wednesday.

This game will be played at the Carrier Dome in Syracuse, which is also the location of the NCAA Tournament's East regional. The Hoos would do well to get acquainted with the Dome, as they could very well return in about 3 and a half weeks.

Syracuse came into the season with reasonably high expectations, and ranked in both polls (23 in AP poll, 24 in coaches poll). They were to be lead by freshman sensations Kaleb Joseph and Chris McCullough, and supported by a solid veteran core of big man Rakeem Christmas, and guards Trevor Cooney and Michael Gbinije. Unfortunately, only Christmas really lived up to the expectations (averaging 18 and 9 on the season). McCullough struggled early, although he did have some moments. He tore his ACL in early January and will not return this season. On the bright side for Cuse, there's a much higher chance that he returns for a sophomore season than there would've been had he remained healthy.

Kaleb Joseph was supposed to back up Tyler Ennis for at least a year. Then Ennis' freshman season went better than anybody could've expected, so he went pro after just 1 season. (And he's played in just 14 games for the Bucks, and has had almost no impact on the team's success.) Joseph, unfortunately, wasn't ready for prime time as a freshman. He can't shoot, and he's struggled with turnovers. Joseph is averaging just 6 points per game, and is shooting a paltry 38% from the field (and 18% from 3). Cooney is actually worse, at just 35%. Gbinije has finally proven to be the shooter he was expected to be at Duke, and is shooting 41% from behind the arc.

By now, most people reading this will know about Syracuse's self-immolation. They've banned themselves from the post-season, including the ACC tournament. This means they are basically just riding out the rest of the season with nothing to gain or lose. Since announcing the self-sanctions, Cuse has alternated wins and losses, losing twice to Pitt and Duke, but beating BC, Louisville and Notre Dame (in South Bend). They are coming off a Saturday night loss, so the Hoos are hoping their alternating pattern ends.

As always, Jim Boeheim's 2-3 zone has been solid. He's got long armed defenders at the wings who can contest outside shots while still denying dribble penetration. Cuse ranks 34th nationally in defensive efficiency, and are top 20 in both block and steal rates. They are 42nd in 3 point percentage allowed, 66th in turnovers forced and 49th in lowest FT rate. That's a solid all around defense. Their one weakness is giving up offenisve rebounds, where they are just 156th. This is often a weakness with zone defenses, because the interior defenders don't always know who they are assigned to box out when the ball goes up to the rim.

As solid as the Orange are defensively, they have struggled on offense, where they rank just 116th. They are one of the worst 3 point shooting teams in the nation (310th), and not a lot better on 2s (129th) or FTs (269th). On the other hand, they don't turn it over much (although Joseph turns it over on 28% of possessions) and they are a good offensive rebounding team. As we've seen this year, this should be a good matchup for the Pack Line Defense. Teams that don't shoot the ball well from the outside tend to struggle against the Hoos. The Hoos are 4th in the nation at preventing offensive rebounds, and do not really attempt to force turnovers, so that basically negates the two best parts of Syracuse's offense. They key, defensively, will be to shut down Christmas, a task that will fall largely to Darion Atkins.

The question is going to come down to the Hoos' offense. Can they knock down a few outside shots? Can they get offensive rebounds against Christmas and co. Also, can they get some foul calls on the road against a team that only goes 7 deep, and has 3 guys who play well over 80% of minutes.

KenPom predicts a 60-53 win for the Hoos, and an 80% chance of winning. I don't know about that 80%, especially on Christmas' senior night, but the score seems about right. It seems unlikely that either team will get much beyond the 60 point mark.