Sure, Syracuse has already beaten Virginia Tech once this season, albeit in a game that included the kind of dismal second half performance the Orange would love to forget. Syracuse led the Hokies 42-23 at halftime in Blacksburg back on January 3, only to see that margin nearly slip away completely. The Orange were one missed three pointer at the buzzer away from a loss, instead escaping with a 68-66 victory. But this time, it’s personal.
Well, it’s personal for me, anyway. That’s because I’ve recently discovered that those scheming Hokies have been up to no good with regard to something very near and dear to my heart: Otto’s Grove itself. See, it turns out that the fiends from Virginia Tech have taken to calling the residence of the school president The Grove. And those jerks even had the audacity to build it in 1902, a full 112 years before this website was founded, showing once again they’ve been plotting this for a very long time.
Well played, Virginia Tech. Well played. Unfortunately for you, tonight you’re heading to the Carrier Dome, where the Battle for the Grove will commence, winner take all*.
*winner will not actually take all
Syracuse heads into tonight’s game coming off an annoyingly long rest, having been sitting around, waiting for another game since last Monday against North Carolina. Now, the long break between games may not be as annoying for the Orange as it is for us, the fans, because this is a Syracuse team that’s been run into the ground over the last few weeks. In the seven games since the Orange last played Virginia Tech, here’s the average minutes for each of Syracuse’s starters – keeping in mind that Tyler Roberson has only started five of the last seven games, as Chris McCullough’s ACL injury occurred against Florida State, the second of this seven game set:
Rakeem Christmas: 37.6 MPG (played entirety of 5 of 7 games)
Trevor Cooney: 40.1 MPG (played entirety of 4 of 7 games)
Michael Gbinije: 39.4 MPG (played entirety of 4 of 7 games)
Tyler Roberson: 31.7 MPG
Kaleb Joseph: 27.1 MPG
That’s insanity. Cooney is averaging more minutes per game than there are minutes in a game over that stretch. Obviously this is due to the overtime affair against Wake Forest, in which Cooney and Christmas each logged the full 45 minutes, while Roberson played 44, and Gbinije played 42. The only player who should be remotely rested is Joseph, and he’s still logging a lot more minutes than a raw, freshman point guard should ever be getting, purely out of necessity. With Christmas, his numbers would be even higher had he not gotten into foul trouble early against Boston College, leading to him playing just 23 minutes in that game.
So yeah, the long layoff was probably a welcome rest for the big three in particular. Funnily enough, the player the long layoff should theoretically help the most, Trevor Cooney, is also the one it might wind up hurting the most. Being a designated three point specialist is a double edged sword. On the one hand, you need your legs fresh throughout the season. When your legs go, your shot goes. So the fact that Cooney has been able to rest his legs after having played 163 of the last possible 165 minutes should presumably help.
On the other hand, a shooter needs to stay in rhythm, and going eight days between games is going to take you out of your rhythm. Obviously, he’s been able to stay loose in practice, but as we’ve seen with a lot of shooters, being able to shoot in practice is a lot different than shooting in actual game situations. That said, Cooney’s three point shooting started slipping over the last four games, with the 6-foot-4 junior hitting just 9-of-32 attempts (28.1%) over that stretch. Hopefully he was able to rest his legs enough that it’ll make up for any rust his shot might have. If he’s smart, he’ll start the game attacking the basket, getting back into his rhythm working from the inside out.
This is basically a must-win game for the Orange, not only to defend the honor of the title of “The Grove” but also to keep any possible hopes alive for postseason play. As the Orange hit the home stretch, they’ve got two more very winnable games at Pitt and BC, meaning they could (and probably should) be sitting at 17-7 when Duke comes to town on February 14. It’s no secret that this is an incredibly back-loaded schedule, with games against Louisville, Notre Dame, a trip to Cameron Indoor, and a matchup in the Dome with Virginia still looming. That’s not even mentioning a season-ending road trip to Raleigh to face a feisty NC State team.
It’s going to be difficult for Syracuse to get to 20 wins this season, which is why these next three games are of paramount importance. Buzz Williams brings his Hokies to the Dome tonight with a record of 9-12, and Virginia Tech is limping into this game, to say the least. Buzz’s team has lost eight of its last nine games (including the Syracuse game in Blacksburg), with the lone victory coming in overtime against Pittsburgh on January 27.
The last three games for Virginia Tech have been decided by a total of nine points, though, with three point losses coming at home against Virginia, and at Wake Forest on Saturday. That said, the Hokies are 0-6 on the road this season, while SU is 11-2 in the friendly confines of the Dome. All signs point to a Syracuse victory, but the perimeter defense of the Orange will have to be sharp against a strong stable of shooters for the Hokies.
Justin Bibbs, a 6-foot-5 freshman, is the leading scorer for Virginia Tech with an average of 13.4 points per game, and he’s shooting a sizzling 46.2% from long range on the year in 62 attempts. 6-foot-1 junior Adam Smith can stroke it as well, hitting 43.1% from deep and joining Bibbs as the only other Hokie to average double figures at 13.2 points per game.
The last time these two teams met, Virginia Tech knocked down 10 threes as a team with Bibbs going 4-of-8 to finish with 22 points, to go along with 11 boards. Ahmed Hill is another deep threat, shooting 35.8% on the year, including a 2-for-2 performance against Syracuse on January 3. As a team, the Hokies are hitting 38.6% from long distance this season, putting them behind only Notre Dame and Virginia as one of the ACC’s best.
Where this game could – and should – be won is in the paint, however. Virginia Tech comes into tonight’s game ranked dead last in the ACC in rebounds, grabbing just 31.0 per game, and their opponents are snagging six more boards per contest against them. The Hokies also only pull down nine offensive rebounds per game, with only Notre Dame grabbing fewer misses in the ACC.
As has been the case all year, the surest way to find success for the Orange will be to work the ball into Rakeem Christmas, who enters tonight’s game as the ACC scoring leader, averaging 18.4 points per game. He and Roberson should be able to dominate the glass, as they did in the first meeting when Roberson matched a career best with 17 boards.
The stretch run is about to begin for Syracuse, and the team simply can’t afford to lose any games that it shouldn’t. Tonight’s game falls squarely into that category for the Orange. Go forth, Syracuse men’s basketball, and protect the honor of The Grove.