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3 players, 2 matchups and 1 prediction for UVA basketball vs Syracuse

Previewing Saturday’s ACC opener.

NCAA Basketball: Texas A&M at Virginia Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

The ACC started playing early season conference openers in 2019, when most ACC teams opened their season with a conference game. Tony Bennett’s Virginia Cavaliers have never lost an ACC opener.

This year’s ACC slate opens at home against Syracuse. The Orange are in their first season without Jim Boeheim and thus far the results have been kinda blah. They are 5-2, with largely uncompetitive losses to Gonzaga and Tennessee and a bunch of wins over bad teams. They are coming off a nice win over LSU in the ACC/SEC Challenge.

They also aren’t playing zone.

Game Time: Saturday, December 2, 12:00 PM EST
TV: ESPN2
Streaming: WatchESPN

Three Players to Watch

Judah Mintz

With Joe Girard moving on to Clemson, Mintz is the leading returning scorer for the Orange. As a freshman last year, Mintz was able to be a successful offensive player, despite not shooting the ball well from outside. He used his ability to get inside and draw fouls to remain efficient.

This year, he’s still getting to the rim, he’s getting fouled even more. But he’s also knocked down 42% of his threes. Mintz is coming off a 33 point game against LSU, on just 16 shots. He was 13/15 from the FT line and efficient from the field. Great game and a much needed win.

Naheem McLeod

Look at that “not a zone” possession up above. The end of that play is a monster rejection from McLeod. He is 7’4” and transferred in from FSU. Not surprisingly, he is very good on the offensive glass and also as a shot blocker. In fact, he might be better at both than Jesse Edwards was last year. Virginia already faced Edwards, who transferred to West Virginia.

Although they aren’t playing zone anymore, McLeod is still largely patrolling the middle when he’s on the floor. He does not want to come guard on the perimeter. Henry Coleman also didn’t want to, and Jacob Groves took advantage with 12 points and 3 assists.

There is no other interior presence as good as McLeod, so if Cuse is forced to go small to guard the perimeter, that will make things easier for Beekman to finish at the rim.

JJ Starling

Joe Girard led this team in scoring last year, making 38% of his threes. Starling, a transfer from Notre Dame, is his replacement. He is shooting 6% from three. Six percent. He shot almost 30% last year, so six is an outlier. Perhaps he should stop shooting.

Starling has a lot of hype as an NBA prospect. He is athletic and he has an NBA body. But he’s not really a point guard, and isn’t a good enough shooter to really play off ball. He leads this team in minutes played, but averages just 11 points per game because he is shooting 38% from the field.

The matchup between Starling and Rohde will be interesting. Rohde is a little bigger, but Starling is more athletic. Rohde was more active against Texas A&M than we’d seen him over the past few games. He led the team with 13 points, though it took him 14 shots. He still isn’t getting to the line at all (3-6 on the season), something he did very well last year. He did go to the rim a few times, once finishing with a circus shot.

Rohde attacks the mismatch and gets a bucket out of it. More of this. The whistles will come.

Two Matchups

Syracuse Perimeter Defender vs Virginia Shooters

We’re used to seeing teams forced into bad three point shots against the Syracuse zone. Almost half of all shots against the Orange last year were threes. This year, with a more traditional defense, that is just 35%.

They rank 109th in three point defense, but they haven’t really played anybody who can shoot. Tennessee and Gonzaga both shot 35% against them, and neither of those teams are particularly efficient from outside. If the Hoos knock down more than 35% of their threes, they’ll very likely win this game.

Syracuse Offensive Glass

Teams are going to attack the glass because they know it’s a weakness. A&M had 16 second chance points on their 18 offensive rebounds. That was one-third of their points. Without that, that could’ve been a huge blowout.

Syracuse isn’t the offensive rebounding machine they were in Boeheim’s heyday, but McLeod is elite. And there’s a few other bigger guys who can hit the offensive glass. They likely know they need to crash the offensive glass, because they aren’t going to get good shots against this defense. Second chance points kept A&M in the game, and they could keep Cuse in it as well.

One Prediction

This Syracuse team seems better on paper than we’ve seen on the floor. They looked good against LSU though, so maybe they’ve turned a corner. Or maybe shooting 52% from three was an aberration.

With such a young team, we’ve seen drastic differences in how Virginia plays from game to game. This feels like a game Virginia could roll in. The Orange want to play fast, that’s hard to do against Virginia. There is a lot of one-on-one in this Orange team, which isn’t a good way to beat the Pack Line. But they will spread the floor in the half court and if they knock down threes as they did against LSU, they could be trouble.

Prediction: Virginia 67, Cuse 60