For the last time this season, the Syracuse Orange will be taking to their home court inside the friendly confines of the Carrier Dome tonight as the team hosts No. 2-ranked Virginia. It’ll also be the last time Rakeem Christmas suits up in his white Syracuse uniforms, as the All-America candidate looks to celebrate Senior Night with an upset victory.
It’s going to be an awfully tall order for Syracuse to topple Tony Bennett’s team. The Cavs enter the game with a record of 27-1, the lone blemish coming in a six point defeat by Duke back on January 31. Virginia may not score the ball as well as the Dukies, but they will defend the hell out of the Orange tonight. That’s a troubling prospect considering how brutal the Syracuse offense was against a Duke team that’s only mediocre defensively.
Virginia comes into the game with the best scoring defense in the country. Teams are averaging just 50.1 points per game against the Hoos, and opponents are shooting just 35.2% from the field this year – the second best field goal percentage defense in America. Team’s aren’t faring much better from long range against Virginia either, shooting just 30.3%, which is the 25th best three point percentage defense in the country. Amazingly, teams even shoot free throws at a dismal clip against Virginia. Opponents are hitting just 64.3% from the charity stripe this season, the 12th lowest opponent free throw percentage in the country.
Add all of that up, and you start to realize that if Saturday night at Cameron Indoor Stadium was ugly, tonight could wind up being downright brutal. The good news is that it could wind up being brutal on both ends, because as well as Virginia defends, they’re only an average scoring team. In fact, in ACC play they’re well below average, coming in with just the 13th best scoring average at 62.7 points per game. Now obviously, that’s a little skewed by the style of play, since they’re methodical and tend to grind games out, similarly to how Bo Ryan coaches up at Wisconsin.
The Hoos certainly do have some guys who can score, though they took a pretty massive hit when Justin Anderson was sidelined a few weeks ago. The 6-foot-6 guard was arguably the team’s top scorer, averaging 13.4 points and shooting a staggering 48.4% from three. His absence might ultimately be what stands between Virginia and a Final Four run, but their loss is Syracuse’s gain tonight. Without Anderson, the list of scoring options drops off dramatically.
The team’s leading scorer is Malcolm Brogdon, a 6-foot-5 guard who averages 13.7 points per game and hits 32.6% from long distance. Brogdon has scored in double figures in 13 of the team’s 16 ACC games so far this year, with his most recent single digit performance coming in a blowout win over Wake Forest, when the Cavs more than doubled up the Demon Deacons for a 70-34 win. The next best scorer is Anthony Gill, a 6-foot-8 forward who averages 11.5 points and a team best 6.8 rebounds per game, while shooting 58% from the field.
Other options on offense for Virginia include Darion Atkins, a 6-foot-8 forward who chips in 7.6 points and 5.8 rebounds per game, and Mike Tobey, a 6-foot-11 center who scores 7.2 points and grabs 5.1 rebounds in about 18 minutes per game. Since Anderson has gone down, the Hoos have turned to Evan Nolte, a 6-foot-8 junior, to pick up some of the slack. Nolte hasn’t been scoring a ton, averaging just over four points per game over the last five outings, but he helps the team’s halfcourt offense click. He’s also played at least 24 minutes in each of the team’s last seven games, hitting at least one three pointer in five of those seven games.
London Perrantes is the other player to worry about for Virginia, as the 6-foot-2 sophomore point guard averages 6.1 points and 4.5 assists, and hits 34.2% from long distance. Perrantes doesn’t put up gaudy numbers by any stretch, but he facilitates the offense and helps key the defense, and he’ll be a handful for Kaleb Joseph when the Orange have the ball. Don’t be surprised to see the Orange repeat their strategy for getting the ball up the court against Duke by having Michael Gbinije serve as the primary ballhandler for the bulk of the game.
At the end of the day, this game will be won or lost when the Orange have the ball. This Virginia team doesn’t score as well as they did last season when the Hoos throttled the Orange 75-56 at Virginia, and Syracuse should be able to hold them in check with the 2-3 zone, particularly since Anderson, far and away the team’s best shooter, will not be available tonight and may not be available until the start of the NCAA Tournament.
So the game will be decided when Syracuse has the ball. Can the Orange score on the suffocating Virginia defense? Getting – and converting – second chance opportunities will be crucial for the Orange. Virginia isn’t a particularly strong rebounding team, ranking 117th in the country and 10th in the ACC in total rebounds. However, they don’t give up a lot on the offensive glass, either. In fact, they’ve given up fewer offensive rebounds than any other team in the conference, though obviously that’s also a byproduct of limiting the number of shots taken. The 806 field goal attempts against Virginia is, as you might have guessed, the fewest number of field goal attempts against any defensive unit in the ACC.
For the Orange to pull off the upset and send Rakeem Christmas out a winner in his last night in the Dome, Syracuse needs to hit shots when they can get clean looks. It sounds simple, it should be simple, but obviously with this Orange team it’s not always simple at all. Michael Gbinije has struggled to score lately, and he needs to have a strong game to help create space on the inside for Rakeem Christmas. Against Duke, Gbinije appeared to be pressing, and was missing not just jumpers but layups. When you get layups against Virginia, you simply have to convert. The Hoos aren’t going to give you many good, open looks, so you really need to finish on every clean look you can get. This is why Trevor Cooney will need to step up and knock down a few jumpers, and would do well to focus not just on floating around the perimeter, but attacking and drawing defenders.
I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised to see Kaleb Joseph sitting on the bench for a big chunk of the game tonight, particularly after he was benched to start the second half of the Duke game. Against the defensive intensity and tenacity that Virginia will throw at the young point guard, Jim Boeheim simply may wind up lacking the faith in his freshman to get the job done, particularly if Joseph turns the ball over early on.
This has the makings of a brutal, physical, and ugly to watch game. If pretty offense is what you’re after, chances are you’re not going to get much of it tonight in the Dome. Syracuse can certainly beat Virginia. Whereas Duke simply had more offensive firepower than the Orange, Syracuse shouldn’t have trouble keeping pace with the Hoos if they can simply make the open shots they get and crash the offensive glass. It’s doable, but it’s certainly not going to be easy.
Fingers crossed that the team can get it together one last time in the Carrier Dome and send Rakeem Christmas out a winner.