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The Big Preview: Virginia Cavaliers vs. Syracuse Orange

Penetrate the zone, maintain the defense. A simple formulate for Virginia’s success.

NCAA Basketball: Syracuse at Virginia Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

The Virginia Cavaliers get back on the road Saturday, facing the Syracuse Orange at the Carrier Dome. This may be the toughest game remaining for Tony Bennett’s squad. Sure, according to KenPom, road games at Florida State and Miami are slightly less probable wins, but the Hoos have struggled against the Orange, at least in recent history. And the Carrier Dome isn’t an easy place to play.

Nonetheless, Virginia hosted the Orange and prevailed 68-61 just a month ago in a game that was never really that close, as KenPom’s win probability never fell below 77%. The Hoos led 64-50 with 84 seconds remaining before a 9-0 Syracuse run made the game closer than it needed to be. That run was almost entirely based off Cuse’s press and some forced turnovers. It also helped that the officials swallowed their whistles. Thankfully, Devon Hall made some free throws to end the drama.

Since that game, Syracuse has gone 3-2. Two of their wins came over Pitt, which almost doesn’t count. They also beat BC at home and lost to FSU and Georgia Tech away. This isn’t exactly the cream of the ACC crop. Right now, their best win is a home win over the Hokies (Kenpom #38). But they’ve also lost, at home, to St Bonaventure (#74) and Notre Dame (sans Bonzie Colson).

A lot of what is driving Syracuse this year is 3-point shooting. In their win over Boston College, they shot 7-of-16 (44%). In the loss to GT, it was just 5-of-18 (28%). Overall, they are one of the worst 3-point shooting teams in the nation. In the JPJ game, the Orange were 6-of-21 (29%). Frank Howard, though, was 4-of-9 in that game, almost single-handedly keeping the Orange in the game. Tyus Battle was 0-7. As the top two shooters on the team, Howard is 35% for the year, while Battle is 33%, and each of them have taken a ton of threes. By comparison, Kyle Guy has attempted 142 treys (at 42%), and Battle has attempted 149. Ty Jerome is second on Virginia in attempts with just 88. Howard has 118. And Oshae Brissett has 86 attempts, making just 31%. All of this is the main reason why Syracuse is 132nd in the nation in offensive efficiency.

About the only thing they do well offensively is offensive rebound. They grab 37% of their offensive boards. Against Virginia, they actually grabbed over 50% of their own misses. Seven foot-2-inch Paschal Chukwu had 10 offensive boards himself. Syracuse is the single biggest team in America, by minutes played. The only rotation player they have under 6’5” is freshman Howard Washington, and he’s hurt. Washington played just two minutes in the first contest, after Battle fouled out, so he’s not a huge loss for Jim Beoheim. For what it’s worth, the Hoos actually grabbed 37% of their own misses (five offensive boards from Wilkins), so the advantage wasn’t as great as it could’ve been for the Orange.

That injury to Washington underscores Syracuse’s biggest issue: they have no depth. Their three wings average 38 minutes or higher, combining for over 70% of their offense and taking over 75% of the team’s shots. Battle is at 42% from the field, Howard at 39% and Brissett at 33%. It is very difficult to be a good offensive player when you only shoot 33%, though Brissett gets to the line enough to be just above average. At 6’8” 210, he’s tall enough that he should be better than 35% inside, but he’s just too weak to finish against good defenders.

At this point, most fans know about the 2-3 zone that Jim Boeheim has been using for decades. The Hoos have seen quite a bit of zone of late, with both Duke and Louisville throwing some zone at them. This is a different beast. For one thing, it’s the only defense they play, so they get more practice. For another thing, because they’re so big and so long, they cover more ground. Chukwu is an excellent shot blocker, and the guards have quick hands. Syracuse generates more steals than a typical zone, and that’s due almost entirely to the team’s two leading stealers: Howard averages two steals per game and Battle isn’t far behind that.

It is very difficult to get anything inside against the zone. But, as with most zones, they don’t do a great job of covering the perimeter. Syracuse is fourth in the nation against two-point shots, and 89th against threes. The way to beat Syracuse’s zone is with ball movement which, for the Hoos, usually begins with a pass into the middle of the zone, along the free throw line. In the previous matchup, DeAndre Hunter spent a lot of time in that role. The first play below is Hunter taking a pass and shooting a short jumper. The second is Hunter taking the pass and driving for a layup. The final video is Hunter kicking from inside to outside for an open Devon Hall trey. The shot did not drop, but it forced the defense to spread out, which led to a Wilkins offensive rebound and Hall ended up hitting a trey on the possession.

Syracuse’s defense is very good—that isn’t in doubt. Their offense, though, is not particularly good. So how did they score 1.07 points per possession against Virginia last time? The number is deceiving—in reality, Cuse had just 50 points with under 90 seconds remaining. The 9-0 run that made the game close counts on the boxscore, but it shouldn’t change the way we look at Virginia’s defensive performance. If the Hoos can replicate the defense that kept Cuse to 50 points in 39 minutes, there’s a good chance the winning streak continues.

Virginia and Syracuse tip off at 4:00 p.m. ET on Saturday, February 3 at the Carrier Dome. The game will be televised on the ACC Network, streamed online on, and continuously covered here on Streaking the Lawn.