Tonight, the Hoos take on the Orange in a huge matchup in Charlottesville. Virginia is up to No. 3 in the latest rankings, and are coming off of two huge wins over Virginia Tech and (then) No. 12 North Carolina to improve to 14-1 (3-0 ACC). The Hoos have a chance to keep building momentum tonight, and to get a little more info on the come-from-behind evil Orange, we chatted with our friend John Cassillo over at Troy Nunes is an Absolute Magician.
You can check out my answers to John’s questions here.
Streaking the Lawn: Syracuse is having kind of a confusing season. Solid win over Maryland, OT loss to St. Bonaventure. What was your expectation coming into the season, and how have they met/not met that?
TNIAAM: If you told us in September that we’d be 12-4 through 16 games, we’d probably be alright with it. Not necessarily thrilled, but not completely surprised. How this season’s shaken out has been weird, though. You swap the Maryland and St. Bonaventure games, and the Virginia Tech and Wake Forest games, this all makes much more sense. Syracuse struggles as much as we figured on offense after losing Taurean Thompson to transfer, and yet surpasses our wildest dreams on defense, despite the recent rebounding issues we’ve experienced. They’re a young team, so all we ask is that they show some improvement over time.
STL: Syracuse is coming off of back-to-back close losses in the ACC after a solid 12-point win over VT to open ACC play. How do you think Syracuse responds and how do you see this conference season playing out for the Orange?
TNIAAM: I’m not so convinced the response will happen in this game, per se. But if they can just find something -- ANYTHING -- else to do on offense beyond the repetitive isolation sets and bad threes, we’ll be on our way to improvement. I am optimistic the shot selection improves against UVA, however, even if the offense still lacks creativity.
As for conference play, we already dropped one we were “supposed to have” versus Wake. SU has too many games against the perceived bottom of the league to make even a 9-9 record tournament-worthy without an upset or two in there. I’m optimistically thinking we get to nine wins. Just not sure we can get the requisite road upsets that are going to make the difference between how last season ended (NIT) and how 2016 ended (an NCAA at-large bid).
STL: The Orange have struggled at JPJ since joining the ACC. What do they need to do to change that Tuesday?
TNIAAM: Shoot better, which scares me as a concept, as mentioned above. Really, if we can use our size to score in the paint (a challenge all season), that’s our best bet. The team’s three jump shooters (Tyus Battle, Frank Howard, Oshae Brissett) are all streaky, and at their worst when they don’t drive the lane. So the more we can find ways to test the interior of UVA’s defense, the better. Again, not banking on that, but I can hold out some hope.
STL: I have heard of Tyus Battle. Who have I not heard of that I should know?
TNIAAM: I would hope you’ve heard of Oshae Brissett by now, too. The freshman’s pretty much been a double-double machine, and his success has really dictated a lot of the late comebacks we’ve had this season. He has some great athleticism and leaping ability, and the size to finish strong at the rim. Brissett’s not the most impressive shooter from three, but he has his moments. Definitely know where he is on the floor.
STL: How do you feel the zone is performing this season? Do you like the pieces in place? What’s the defense’s strength? Weakness?
TNIAAM: The zone’s played far better than expected considering all the newcomers to the zone this year. Frank Howard (junior) and Tyus Battle (sophomore) are the only rotation players with a ton of game experience playing in it. Yet, being the tallest team in the country has helped bridge that gap.
Having guards as the most experienced part of the zone is a call-back to the 2015-16 team, and it’s forced a lot of bad shots this year. Surprisingly, though, the zone’s biggest strength is in the middle with a towering group of forwards. Syracuse is one of the best shot-blocking teams in the country (6.44 per game), so no major complaints beyond the aforementioned rebounding issues for the last two contests. For the time being, foul trouble is probably the biggest weakness -- a terrifying one considering we don’t have any real depth.
STL: What’s your take on the conference race this year? Is Louisville bad? Is Duke bad? What’s happening?
TNIAAM: College hoops has been pretty dumb in general, but the ACC especially. We probably should’ve expected Louisville’s struggles given the Cardinals’ tumultuous offseason, and while Duke’s not “bad,” I’m also not sure they’ll get to any sort of competence on defense before the season’s out. That probably derails their championship aspirations, no matter how good Marvin Bagley III is.
With UNC and Miami struggling a bit, and a lot of doubts for teams like Clemson, Florida State, and the rest, it’s tough to really peg who’s contending at the top of the league beyond… you guys (woof). If I’m picking a top four in the conference right now, it’s the Hoos, then still Duke, UNC and Miami unless Clemson or FSU as potential contenders. That latter part sounds weird given the expectations around those teams coming into this year, but that’s where college hoops is in 2017-18.
STL: Syracuse wins if...
TNIAAM: The Orange hit jump shots and play as well as they have on the defensive end. The press is a bit tougher for this group with such a short bench (we’ve been playing six players most nights), but if we’re faced with any sort of deficit, the ability’s there, as is the need. SU’s offense is at its best when we’re in transition (a rarity), so the more of those opportunities we can create the better.
STL: Virginia wins if...
TNIAAM: Your unwatchable style of basketball does what it’s designed to do. Grind the game to a halt and force a bad shooting team to hit jumpers. I think we’ll let Kyle Guy get his points from outside, so the rest of Virginia’s scoring is dictated by who else can either hit threes or create foul trouble for the Orange.
TNIAAM: A Malachi Richardson-looking apparition arrives on the floor, starts pressing and hits a few threes. Before long, Syracuse erases a double-digit lead and never looks back. After the game, Jim Boeheim is handed a scissor and a hat, and he cuts down the nets, just for good measure.
Or, more likely… Syracuse falls into the trap of the pack line defense, starts shooting threes early and is behind the eight-ball for the rest of the game. They push a bit in the second half and the size advantage creates some extra opportunities to score. However, the Orange can’t put them to good use. Sadly, UVA wins by a score of 60-50. Our road upset will have to wait another day.
A huge thanks to John for chatting, even if he’s a Cuse fan. Give him a follow on Twitter (@JohnCassillo) for entertaining content that only SOMETIMES features Malachi Richardson.
Virginia vs Syracuse tips off at 8pm and will be broadcast on ACC Network Extra and local channels.