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THE BIG PREVIEW: Virginia Cavaliers at Syracuse Orange

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Can the Hoos keep pace atop the ACC?

NCAA Basketball: Syracuse at Wake Forest Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

The past two games for Virginia Basketball have featured some zone by the opponents (Georgia Tech and Pittsburgh), and they’ve also seen some zone here and there in other games throughout the conference schedule. Tonight, they get Syracuse, a team that is defined by its 2-3 zone. This is the defense that Jim Boeheim has been coaching for decades and recruits players specifically to fit, and his teams run it exceedingly well.

One aspect of the Syracuse zone is how long their players tend to be. This Syracuse team is the tallest team in America by minutes played. At 6’3, freshman Jalen Carey is their shortest player, and he sees under 14 minutes per game.

Tony Bennett’s teams have generally done well against the zone, scoring better than one point per possession in five out of the seven games since Syracuse joined the ACC in 2014. The Hoos are 5-2 in those games.

As you’d expect against a zone, Syracuse allows a lot of three pointers. In fact, they rank 346th nationally in percentage of opponents shots coming from deep. Over 48% of shots they face come from deep. Interestingly, Virginia Tech is behind them in that statistic. Considering the Cavaliers are 4th in the nation in three point shooting, I suppose it isn’t surprising that the Hoos swept the season series with Virginia Tech.

But shooting threes isn’t the only way that Virginia can beat a zone. As we’ve seen several times over the past two years, De’Andre Hunter is very dangerous against a zone. Yes, he’s 29th in the nation in three point percentage, but even more importantly, he’s nearly unstoppable when he gets the ball in the middle of the zone. He can stick a jumper from 15 feet out, he can drive and finish, and he’s a very good passer. A true triple-threat.

This is from Saturday afternoon against Pitt. The Panthers are in a zone, and Hunter has tons of space at the free throw line. That shot is as good as a layup for a player of Hunter’s quality. That isn’t a great look though. Here’s a similar shot from Hunter in last year’s Syracuse game.

In two wins over Syracuse last year, Hunter combined for 30 points and seven assists on 11-for-17 shooting. Remember that Hunter was coming off the bench last year. He could have a huge game in this one.

Not surprisingly, Kyle Guy has also fared well against the Orange zone in his career. In three career meetings, Guy is averaging 17 per game and shooting 13-for-28 (46%) from downtown. Incidentally, Guy is just two made threes away from fourth all-time in Virginia history. He’s also the best shooter in Virginia history by percentage, and it’s not particularly close.

When the ball gets inside, whether it’s a pass to Hunter or a dribble drive from Ty Jerome, the interior of the zone is going to collapse. That leaves guys open on the baseline. In the clip above, Isaiah Wilkins is waiting for a pass and might’ve had a dunk. This year, the Hoos have several options for that pass. Jay Huff, of course, is our favorite. Huff is shooting almost 70% on shots inside the arc. His length and athleticism make him tough to stop inside. Mamadi Diakite isn’t quite as good, making just 57% of his shots. And, though Jack Salt has his limitations, he’s made 60% from the field this year. In two games last year, Salt scored eight points on just five shots, including this one.

This came early in the second half, when Syracuse decided to run some full court pressure. Of course, Virginia fans will remember what happened in the Elite Eight in 2016 (sorry), but this time, Virginia handled the pressure and extended the lead. Virginia has seen pressure this year, pressure that’s likely better than what Syracuse can bring. And with three or four ball-handlers on the floor most of the time, they should be able to handle it.

While Syracuse’s defense is ranked 16th nationally in efficiency, their offense ranks just 60th. They shoot over 42% of their shots from three, ranking 80th in percentage of shots taken from downtown (Virginia is at 37.5%). The Orange make just 32% of their shots, ranking 279th in the nation. That’s really not a very good combination.

When they make shots, they’re tough to beat. Ask Duke. The Orange shot 11-for-25 (44%) in their upset win against Duke, but just 5-for-23 (22%) in the rematch loss.

Aside from threes, they use their size inside to get a offensive rebounds. They actually aren’t as good on the offensive glass as they’ve been in years past, in part because their best rebounders are perimeter offensive players. However, 7’2 senior Paschal Chukwu is one of the best offensive rebounders in the nation. He doesn’t do a whole lot else on offense and averages just four points per game. Chukwu hangs around the basket on offense, waiting for the defense to gravitate towards their scorers. Then he does this:

Chukwu, obviously, is in the middle of the zone. On the front line with him are 6’8 Oshae Brissett and 6’6 Elijah Hughes (a transfer from ECU). At the top of the zone are 6’5 Frank Howard and 6’6 Tyus Battle.

Battle, Hughes and Brissett are the top three in FGA, and nobody else is close. Those three also hardly ever come off the court. Brissett has regressed since last year. He was projected as a possible lottery pick, but he’s shooting just 25% on over three attempts per game from downtown. And he’s shooting only 45% on shots inside, much too low for a guy with his size and athleticism. He gets to the line, though he’s just a 65% FT shooter. He’s also strong on the glass and a good shot blocker.

Battle is the leading scorer and the biggest threat. He shoots just 32% on four three point attempts per game. But he’s up at 50% on shots inside and also gets to the line a lot, where he shoots 78%. Although Battle is, essentially, the point guard, he’s likely to see DeAndre Hunter opposite him. Hunter is, of course, the best defender Tony Bennett has, and Battle is the guy to stop for the Orange.

That’ll leave Jerome on Hughes. Hughes was primarily a football player until his junior year of HS when he started focusing on basketball. That’s why he was not really recruited by any power five schools. But at 6’6, 215, he’s got an NBA body. He has skills going to the hoop, but spends a lot of time just hanging around the perimeter. He’s taken 63% of his shots from downtown, where he makes 35%.

This is what Hughes can do. He had 18 points on 8-for-12 shooting from the field against Wake Forest. But against UNC, he couldn’t get anything going to the Hoops, and took nine of his 11 shots from downtown, making five for 15 points.

After averaging over 38 minutes per game last year, Howard has lost playing time to Huhges and also to Buddy Boeheim (Jim’s son). Howard leads the team in assists, despite playing just 25 minutes per game. However, he’s a poor shooter, making 31% of his attempts from downtown (where 65% of his attempts come from) and under 35% overall. Boeheim is a shooter whose minutes have ramped up as he’s gotten more experience. He’s at 35% from downtown overall, but 42% in ACC play. Almost 75% of his attempts come from downtown.

Boehiem has range and when his feet are set, he’s really an elite shooter. In this one, Miami might be in a zone, but he’s getting ready for the shot when he passes the ball. Nobody steps up on him and he cans it. He’s 6’5, which gives him a height advantage over Kyle Guy, but because he’s solely a perimeter player, Guy will match up with him.

This game will be a good test for the Hoos, especially coming off two “easy” wins. The Carrier Dome is a tough place to play because the crowds are so big, and the sight lines can be weird. Plus their zone is just so different from what Virginia is used to, even after seeing zones several times this year. Getting a win here would set up a big game on Saturday against Louisville where the Hoos could clinch the No. 1 seed in the ACC tournament.

Tip off is at 7pm on ESPN.