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THE BIG PREVIEW: Virginia opens title defense against Syracuse

Can the Hoos get a leg up in the ACC on night one?

NCAA Basketball: Virginia at Syracuse Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

The ACC did Virginia no favors by opening their season at the Carrier Dome. It’s a tough place to play for anybody, but it’s also the biggest arena in college basketball. For a team with a lot of new faces, opening their career in front of 35,000 people is intimidating.

An on top of that, Syracuse is a good team with a Hall of Fame coach. Surely, those new guys have seen a zone defense in their career, but not one with the precision that Syracuse plays, and not one with the length of the Orange.

Then again, like the Hoos, the Orange have had quite a bit of roster turnover from last year. Gone are four starters and over 55% of the minutes. Perhaps the zone won’t be quite as good so early in the season. That, of course, isn’t as bad as Virginia’s roster turnover (three starters and over 60% of minutes).

The top returner for Cuse is Elijah Hughes, a 6’6 wing who was second on the team in scoring last year. He can shoot a little bit (36% from downtown), but his strength is getting to the rim with the dribble. He uses his strength inside to get buckets and fouls. He’ll play as one of the baseline defenders and has the necessary long arms to get into passing lanes.

Up top will be sophomores Jalen Carey and Buddy Boeheim (Jim’s son). Carey has quick hands and can make it tough to get the ball inside the zone. He didn’t play much last year, and really didn’t show anything offensively. Boeheim has a reputation as a shooter, and made 35% last year from deep. Defensively has length (6’6), but isn’t the most athletic of players. Virginia took advantage of his lack of quickness last year in their blowout win at the Carrier Dome.

Not sure Virginia has anybody with that in their arsenal right now. Does Kody Stattmann? Does Casey Morsell? One of those two is the most likely to be in that position this game.

In the middle of the zone will be Bourama Sidibe, at 6’10, 210. That’s awfully thin, and Sidibe had trouble with fouls last year. He averaged just 10 minutes per game last year, and didn’t really impress offensively. However, he was strong on the glass and can block shots. He also averaged a foul every four minutes.

The other starter isn’t definite, at least not publicly. One option is 6’10, 180 senior Marek Dolezaj. That’s even thinner than Sidibe, but Dolezaj has offensive game. He can shoot (38% on just 29 attempts) and has some inside game as well. There are a couple of other options, but none of them have much experience.

As we discussed last week, Virginia’s starting lineup should be Jay Huff, Mamadi Diakite, Braxton Key, Kody Stattmann, and Kihei Clark. This lineup doesn’t have a ton of shooting, which can be a problem against the zone. Generally, against zone defenses, the three point shot is a big weapon. This was surely the case last year, as Virginia scorched the nets to the tun of 18-for-25 from downtown. All 18 of those came from the Big Three. However, Diakite and Huff combined for 13 points on 6-for-12 shooting plus 10 rebounds in a combined 34 minutes.

Virginia will attack the zone from the inside. Key will get a lot of looks there. He was strong in that role a few times last year.

This is something we saw out of Hunter in the past. Key has the same kind of size and length that are needed in that role. He isn’t nearly as good a finisher or shooter as Hunter, but he is a better playmaker.

Obviously, the hot shooting was the story of the night, but the real reason for the big win was the defense (surprise, surprise). After giving up 34 points in the first half, the Hoos clamped down and allowed just 19 points in the second.

An interesting tidbit from this game is that Clark played a season low 16 minutes. Some of that was due to the lopsided score in the second half, but some of it may have been matchups. Syracuse has a ton of length and Clark...doesn’t.

With no other experienced ball-handlers on the roster, Clark will have to play big minutes in this one. That’s going to be a big part of this game. Can Clark use his quickness to get into the paint at all? Can he knock down some shots too?

There’s a reason why Power-5 teams usually open their season at home against lower conference teams. This is a tough matchup at any time, even tougher on the road and even tougher as the season opener. The only saving grace is that Syracuse also has a tough matchup with a lot of new faces.