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The Big Preview: UVA Basketball returns home versus Syracuse

Previewing this evening’s contest with the Orange.

Virginia v Syracuse Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

The Virginia Cavaliers’ loss to the Pittsburgh Panthers was a downer, as the Wahoos led by double-digits at halftime, and just did not handle Pitt’s offense at all in the second half. Poor defensive performances have been too common with Virginia Basketball the past few years, a surprising turn for Tony Bennett coached teams.

The team hopes to get back on track with a much-needed home game, this time against the Syracuse Orange. This Syracuse team has also lost to Pitt, but are riding a two game winning streak. The Orange are 10-5 overall, 3-1 ACC. This is far from Syracuse’s typical teams, as the Orange rank 92nd on KenPom, by far the lowest a Syracuse team has ranked since KenPom began tracking 20 years ago. Last year’s team finished 69th, which was the previous low. Yes, Syracuse could improve over the season, but that seems unlikely with only ACC games remaining.

One interesting thing about this Syracuse team is the rotation depth that Jim Boeheim has. In their two point loss to Pitt last week, nine Orange players saw more than 10 minutes. In their one-point win over a terrible Louisville team on Tuesday, it was only seven players, as the Orange needed a late rally to avoid a bad loss.

Their leading scorer is senior PG Joe Girard. He is averaging a career best 16.7 PPG, largely due to volume. He’s taken roughly 60% of his shots from downtown, making 37%. His two-point field goal percentage is up to 45%, pushing his FG% to a career high of 39%. That still isn’t good though. Girard’s assists are down from last year, which is due both to the lack of talent around him and to Girard spending much of his time off the ball.

That isn’t to say there isn’t any talent around him. Boeheim brought in a very strong recruiting class, with four 4-star players. Several of those guys are not really contributors yet, but the top prospect among this class, Judah Mintz, has been outstanding. Mintz averages almost 16 points per game and also leads the team in assists.

Mintz’ strength right now is using his explosive quickness and physicality to get to the basket. He is not a shooter, and has made just 17% of about one three point attempt per game. But he’s getting to the free throw line at an elite rate and knocking down his free throws.

Here is Mintz with the drive, finish, and foul. This is not bad defense, it’s just very hard to stop him going to the rim.

Two other freshmen have contributed on the wings, Chris Bell and Justin Taylor. Both can shoot the ball, although Bell may be shooting more outside shots than he should. At 6’7”, he needs to be able to play a bit more on the interior. Boeheim has better shooters, and needs Bell to do more. Over 60% of his shots come from downtown, making just 32%. But he is making 59% of his shots inside, so why is he shooting so many threes?

Taylor has made 38% of his threes, and roughly the same from inside the arc. However, just about half of his shots have come from two-point range. A Charlottesville native, Taylor should probably be shooting more threes.

Six-foot-six and can elevate and shoot like that? Taylor is going to be good. Interestingly, UVA recruited Isaac McKneely over the hometown kid Taylor in the 2022 class. Should be fun to watch them both on the floor.

In the loss to Pitt, the wing duo of Bell and Taylor combined for just nine points on 4/12 FG. In the win over Louisville, it was 11 points on 4/7 FG. Shutting those guys down will be key, as it will put more pressure on the backcourt duo of Girard and Mintz. That plays into Virginia’s strength with two outstanding perimeter defenders in Reece Beekman and Kihei Clark.

Of course, the Orange will be playing their traditional zone defense, which works to keep the ball out of the paint. This often means outside shots. Syracuse rank 353rd in the nation in opposition three-point rate. They are middle of the pack in three point percentage allowed.

This is how you beat the zone. Get the ball inside and then kick out when the defense collapses. In this case, Mintz ends up well out of position and that leads to a wide open three.

Another place the Orange struggle is defensive rebounding. This has always been a weakness of zone defenses, but this Syracuse team is really very bad on the defensive glass. Virginia is not traditionally a strong offensive rebounding team, and that remains true. But both Jayden Gardner and Kadin Shedrick have proven adept at getting the occasional put-back, often on big possessions when the Wahoos need a bucket.

Under Tony Bennett, Virginia has historically played well against the Syracuse zone. They have won three in a row and seven of the last eight. Last year, the Wahoos won on the road behind 17 points and 8 assists from Clark. Kihei even blocked a shot, though sadly I can’t find a clip of it.

Reece gets the steal, though Kihei ends up with the ball and ends up blowing the layup. Reece’s put back was his only bucket of the game. Virginia will probably need more than two points from Reece in this one.