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THE BIG PREVIEW: Syracuse and Virginia for the second time

NCAA Basketball: Virginia at Syracuse Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

It was a strange way for the ACC to thank the Virginia Cavaliers for bringing home a national championship for the conference, sending the Hoos on the road to take on the Syracuse Orange in the season opener for both teams. A home game to raise the banner? Nah, go to upstate New York instead. Thanks, Tobacco Road.

Virginia took care of business with a 48-34 win in a final score that was a sign of things to come, both from an offensive output and defensive standpoint for Virginia. Since then, the Orange have righted the ship a bit and are actually 33rd nationally in offensive efficiency.

The Orange haven’t really beaten anybody of note, but they also haven’t lost to anybody they shouldn’t. The Notre Dame loss at home, maybe? But still, the Irish aren’t bad and that was a back-and-forth game, ultimately settled by a single point.

The Orange are led by Elijah Hughes, one of the best players in the country to this point, averaging just under 20 points per game alongside five rebounds and nearly five assists. He’s shooting over 40% from three and 45% from the field and rarely comes off the court, ranked ninth nationally in minutes per game.

That was Casey Morsell’s first game for the Hoos and Hughes is dropping 28 footers in his face. That’s just not fair. Now taking 55% of his shots from downtown, Hughes has been hot, so Morsell is going to have to guard him a bit more tightly, forcing him drive the basketball. If Morsell can force Hughes into the teeth of the Pack Line, Hughes will get frustrated, and he has a tendency to force things when he gets frustrated.

Tremendous defense notwithstanding, this Virginia team is not going to win any shootouts. A team that knocks down some shots can put a lot of pressure on Virginia’s offensive “threats”—right now, that’s just Braxton Key and Jay Huff really, and there just isn’t anybody who can consistently create a shot for themselves or another player. When the three point shot isn’t dropping, the Wahoo offense isn’t good enough to stay with good teams.

Jim Boeheim’s son, Buddy, came to college with a reputation as a dead-eye shooter. He showed that at times last year as a freshman, but overall made just 35% from downtown. With the longer three point distance this year, real shooters are standing out more than ever, and Baby Buddy Boeheim is shooting over 40% on an average of nine attempts (more than two-thirds of his shots) per game. Keeping a body on Boeheim at all times will be key. We saw what BC’s Jay Heath did to Virginia on Tuesday...we don’t want that to happen again. Kody Stattmann probably gets the first crack at Boeheim and he has the length to bother the Syracuse sharpshooter. One Syracuse sharpshooter anyway.

Freshman PG Joe Girard is also supposed to be a sharpshooter, having broken the all-time NY state high school scoring record, but so far, he’s only shown flashes of that, making only about a third of his shots from outside even though he’s taking two-thirds of his attempts from downtown.

Holy crap that’s a deep, deep three. And that’s not luck, either—he takes that same shot a few times per game. Kihei Clark will have to be in his grill all game long. Girard doesn’t need much space to get a shot off.

In the middle of Jim Boeheim’s zone is 6’10” 210 lb junior Bourama Sidibe. Sidibe doesn’t shoot much, but almost all of his shots are either dunks or layups, which explains his whopping 64% shooting from the field. He’s mostly out there for defense, and he does it well, getting tons of blocks. He also struggles with foul trouble.

This still seems like a good matchup for the Hoos, except that the Syracuse zone often forces teams into outside shots. Virginia doesn’t have anybody who is consistently knocking down those shots, although Tomas Woldetensae has been getting hotter after a poor start to the year. He’s shooting 50% from downtown since the beginning of December. But, he seems to have fallen out of the rotation a bit, largely a non-factor in the three Virginia losses, which may be part of the problem. Woldetensae came to Virginia as a combo guard, but his assist rate is almost comically low and his turnover rate is far too high. That is generally not something Tony will tolerate. He may need to just to get a shooter on the floor against the zone.

The Orange feel a little bit like Virginia Tech coming into JPJ. They have a bunch of shooters who can space the floor, but they don’t really do much damage inside. They’re 23rd nationally in percentage of points coming from downtown and 338th in percentage of points coming from inside the arc. Against the Hokies, Virginia defended the three point line, and the Hokies had nothing to fall back on. That was similar to the opener, when Syracuse shot 5/29 from downtown and scored just 34 points. If Syracuse shoots like that again, the Hoos should cruise. If Boeheim and company knock down some shots, there’s a very good chance Virginia loses their second straight conference game.