Tonight, the Wahoos take on the Syracuse Orange in the ACC tournament semifinals...wait, what? It's the Elite Eight? Oh, my bad...I just assumed.
No but seriously, tonight is the night. Virginia is playing in their first Elite Eight since 1995, vying for a spot in their first Final Four since 1984. The Hoos got here by handling 16-seed Hampton, outlasting 9-seed Butler, and dominating 4-seed Iowa State. Tenth-seeded Syracuse, who has been hassled by national media for their "easy draw", took down pesky 7-seed Dayton, handled the same 15-seeded Middle Tennessee State that downed the Michigan State dragon, and squeezed by the consistently March-tough Gonzaga, an 11-seed.
Now, we meet our lovely ACC foes from the north once more. This time, it's not just a regular season matchup or deciding the ACC regular season champs. A trip to Houston is on the line, and I for one would love to see Malcolm Brogdon and co. put on one of those ridiculously hideous and generic "Regional Champions Final Four" hats that Oklahoma and Villanova now own.
In order to preview the matchup, we chatted with the always funny John Cassillo (@JohnCassillo) from Troy Nunes is an Absolute Magician. I tried to tackle their questions, so check it out over on their site. Give @NunesMagician a follow for some great content.
Wait...what the in the actual hell?
YES, the actual hell indeed. Perhaps Jim Boeheim has finally made that deal with the devil Jim Calhoun told him so much about. Or perhaps the underworld finally got around to freezing over, creating a home game for Syracuse. In any case, the Orange have faced three tough teams that everyone calls terrible in hindsight. That's weird, but oh well, we're here and playing our best basketball since this team started 25-0 during the 2013-14 season.
The open apology picked up some steam. Did you all see it getting that big?
Boy did it ever. Sean's open apology letter was the most popular article in TNIAAM history, mainly because it struck every single nerve Syracuse fans have had pent up for a couple years now. No one ever knows what articles will be "big" and which will fall flat. No matter how well you know your audience, gambling on content's popularity is a fool's game.
Where it resonated outside of the intended audience (Orange fans) -- and maybe this is where the real surprise comes in -- is where it correctly pointed out nearly all of sports media's hypocrisy, all in one place. Yes, we're all guilty of every narrative, but that doesn't mean publications large and small aren't frustrated by all of them just the same.
What's your feeling on facing an ACC team with a shot to Houston on the line?
I'd very much prefer we were facing a non-ACC team, specifically, not you guys. It's nerve-wracking enough to be in this game as it is. Facing a team that's done nothing but shut you down for three straight years is about as rough as it gets. Most Syracuse fans were rooting for Iowa State against you guys. It was nothing personal. We just had a much better chance to beat a team that relies on outside shooting over a team that's going to grind you like the Hoos.
How is your fanbase rationalizing THIS team going so far, when arguably better teams have faltered before reaching expectations in the tournament?
We've gotten the short end of the "luck" stick SO many times in the past. And plenty of great Syracuse teams have failed to go this far too. So the rationalization is that we sort of deserve some "luck" for once. Even if it's just in terms of matchups to help us out a little, you still have to win the games. Plenty of supposedly better teams have faltered along similar roads. So why should we feel bad about beating the dealer's hand for once?
What has changed on your team (how you're playing, who you're getting production out of) since we met in January?
The offense has just opened up a lot, I think. Obviously Michael Gbinije's not a natural point guard, so running the offense through him had some growing pains. Of late, however, he's been in an incredible rhythm as a shooter and just finds new ways to contribute outside of scoring each and every game. Elsewhere, the team's been rebounding better and Trevor Cooney's found a way to contribute beyond his typical "shoot all the threes" style of play. If Tyler Lydon and Tyler Roberson make their respective presences known on the boards, we stand a chance.
What is the biggest advantage Syracuse has in this game? How does Syracuse get the win?
Our biggest advantage is probably the zone, but you've seen that already. Second biggest? Gbinije, but you guys can negate that too. So I guess we have to hope something else -- like rebounding and/or turnovers -- makes the difference for us. As mentioned briefly above, Roberson and Lydon showing up on the boards can only spell good things for SU. The Orange can steal a win by either getting ridiculously hot from three (could happen) or (more likely), managing an advantage, or close to one, on the boards.
What is your biggest concern in playing UVA?
Let me count the perils: Malcolm Brogdon's a monster and he knows how to beat Syracuse. Virginia's defense sort of negates our own strength on that end of the floor. Oh, and familiarity. That's probably the biggest concern. The worst part of the 2-3 zone for opponents is not seeing it before. You guys have seen it plenty, and it hasn't fazed you. So we're going to need to find a different way to gain an advantage after using said zone to win three straight contests.
What have you liked from Syracuse in the tournament so far?
It's been mentioned in various ways above, but the defense, most importantly. In Syracuse's first two wins of the tournament, the defense clamped down in the second half, forced turnovers and created offense. It lessened the load on Orange shooters, and led to dominating victories. In game three, the shots weren't falling for SU, but the defense pressed Gonzaga to death in the closing minutes, leading to a victory. If Syracuse's defense can perform the way it has all tournament, we stand a better chance than normal to pull of an upset against Virginia.
Predictions. Who wins? How?
Look, I know Virginia's a very good team. And if they beat the Orange, I won't be surprised or angry about it. The Hoos are a top seed for a reason. That said, I'm picking up what my alma mater is putting down. Syracuse seems to be peaking at the exact right time, and I'm not sure the team UVa's prepared for is the same one they'll see on the court. The Orange have a chance to win if they can hit the shots given to them and make stops like they have for two straight weeks. I have a weird feeling seniors Gbinije and Cooney will rise to the occasion, and SU continues the miracle run with another unlikely win. Syracuse 68, Virginia 66.
Big thanks to John and the folks over at Nunes Magician. Stay with Streaking the Lawn today for more Elite Eight coverage, and check out the game tonight at 6:09pm on TBS.