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The Big Preview: Quick Turnaround as Virginia Hosts Syracuse

NCAA Basketball: Virginia at Clemson Ken Ruinard-USA TODAY Sports

Virginia Basketball barely managed to eke out a win over the Yellow Jackets on Saturday night, needing some late game heroics to come out on top. That was their first close game in a while, good experience for later in the season.

Meanwhile, that same day, the Syracuse Orange dismantled the Hokies, giving the Hoos a full game lead in the ACC standings over FSU. Virginia Tech, ranked 18th coming into that game, looked overmatched at times against Syracuse’s trademark zone. That Hokie team is very young and inexperienced, which can be trouble against the Orange.

This Virginia team, as you well know, is neither young nor inexperienced. However, of Virginia’s regulars, only Kihei Clark and Jay Huff have had any success against Jim Boehiem and the 2-3 zone. (Tomas Woldetensae and Casey Morsell each played Syracuse twice last season, but neither were remotely effective.)

This is how you beat the zone. Find a passing lane to get the ball inside. Once the defense collapses, kick to either a shooter or a cutter on the baseline. If the defense doesn’t collapse, that player in the middle has an open 15 footer. If that’s Sam Hauser in the middle, that’s an easy bucket for him.

The shooter here is Virginia Tech’s Naheim Alleyne, who shot 5/10 from downtown and was the only Hokie to do any damage outside. Virginia will need better than that from the perimeter with Trey Murphy, Casey Morsell and Tomas Woldetensae. (Woldy barely played against Georgia Tech, but you’d think with his shooting ability, he’d get some run against the Orange.)

As is typical for a Jim Boeheim team, the Orange rotation is short. Even in the easy win over the Hokies on Saturday, just six Orange players saw more than two minutes. Six-foot-eleven freshman Jesse Edwards saw two minutes after playing 23 in the previous game against Miami. Jim Boeheim likes to have a big, burly shot blocker and rebounder in the middle. In the middle of the zone most often right now is Marek Dolezaj. The Slovakian is better suited to the wing and is better known for his offense than his defense. He’s bulked up a bit, but he’s still very thin. If Virginia can get the ball to Huff on the inside, Dolezaj is not going to stop him. It will be interesting to see if Edwards gets significant run against the Hoos, considering how good Virginia is inside. Jay Huff and Sam Hauser have both been outstanding inside on the offensive end. And both Kadin Shedrick and Francisco Caffaro have been successful in limited opportunities.

Dolezaj is one of five Syracuse players averaging double-figures in scoring. The Orange lead the ACC in scoring at 79.4 ppg. They’re eight in tempo, so that’s pretty impressive. (The Hoos are, of course, last in the conference in tempo, but are 9th in scoring at 72.8 ppg.)

Their leading scorer is 6’7” sophomore Quincy Guerrier. A year ago, his playing time was up and down throughout the season and he averaged under seven points per game. That team had Elijah Hughes on the wing, who is now with the Utah Jazz. Guerrier is similar to Hughes, except not yet a real threat from outside.

As a team, the Orange have taken a ton of threes. Over 40% of their shots are outside. That’s 89th in the nation. (Virginia isn’t far behind at 106th in the nation.) Guerrier isn’t a particularly good shooter, though he still averages 2.5 attempts per game. That’s far behind six or more per game from Buddy Boeheim, Alan Griffin and Joe Girard.

The problem with all of those threes is that they aren’t dropping. The Orange are 227th nationally in three point shooting. The fact that they have the 28th most efficient offense in the nation (per KenPom) without knocking down a high percentage of threes is impressive. Boeheim is making just 28% so far this year, which is surprising since he’s got a reputation as a very good shooter. He’s 35% for his career, so you’d expect his shooting numbers to go up as the season progresses. He was 2-18 in the two games against Pitt, but he was 5-13 in the last two Orange games against Miami and Virginia Tech.

In Syracuse’s win last year in Charlottesville, Girard, Boeheim and Hughes combined to shoot 12-29 from downtown, including 4-5 in Overtime. That’s the kind of shooting it’s likely going to take for the Orange to knock off the Hoos this year.

One reason their offense has been good is their work on the offensive glass. Both Guerrier and Griffin are very strong on the offensive glass off the wings. They’ll come in late and find a crease into the lane. And both have elite athleticism and leaping ability. Guerrier (9.6) and Griffin (7.2) lead the Orange in rebounding.

The fact that two wings lead the team in rebounds is telling. They just don’t have enough size on the defensive end. Zone defenses often have trouble preventing offensive rebounds. Syracuse has four losses on the season, and in all four games their opponent grabbed at least 40% of their own misses.

Virginia isn’t a big offensive rebounding team, we know that. Tony Bennett wants the Hoos to get back for transition defense. That’ll be important, because the Orange like to run. They’re an athletic team and they want to get out and run. Although they don’t play at a particularly fast pace, that’s mostly because of their defense. They’re 27th nationally in shortest offensive possession time (per KenPom), but 230th in defensive possession time. In their wins, they’ve averaged over 20 fast-break points. In their losses, they’ve averaged just 10. Grabbing offensive boards is a good way to limit fast break points. But so is getting back on defense.

With the way Virginia has been shooting the ball recently, the zone may not trouble them much. Yes, Syracuse has a lot of length on the perimeter and they’re good at closing out on shooters. But Virginia also has length on the outside, meaning they should be able to get good looks even with the closeouts.

This is a good Syracuse team, but they do not seem to match up well with Virginia. They rely on fast breaks and offensive rebounds for a big part of their offense. Those aren’t things that are generally successful against Tony Bennet’s teams. They shoot a lot of threes, but not well. Teams that have been successful against this year’s Cavaliers have knocked down outside shots at a high rate. Syracuse doesn’t seem capable of doing that. As long as the Orange aren’t able to get out and run, Virginia should be able to keep the Orange offense in check.