ACC Regular Season Crown at Stake: Previewing Syracuse vs. Virginia

Posted by Lathan Wells & Chris Kehoe on February 28th, 2014

Saturday’s game between Virginia and Syracuse will crown this season’s ACC champion, but it’s also a showcase of two teams coming in with very different levels of confidence. While Virginia is riding a hot 12-game winning streak, Syracuse is entering the contest having lost two of its last three games. Both of these teams play notoriously slow, but the likelihood of this one becoming a runaway in either team’s favor is also highly unlikely. While Syracuse is quite literally one of the slowest teams in the nation, Virginia is only one spot ahead of the Orange, ranking 344th in adjusted tempo out of 351 total teams.

A rejuvenated Tyler Ennis is paramount to Syracuse securing a regular-season title in its first ACC season (apsports.com)

A rejuvenated Tyler Ennis is paramount to Syracuse securing a regular season title in its first ACC season. (apsports.com)

Over the last few weeks, Syracuse has eked by in numerous close victories with controversial finishes before managing to drop its first two games of the season in both embarrassing (Boston College) and enraging (Duke) fashion. Tyler Ennis’ seeming invincibility has worn off somewhat as he has cooled off offensively, showing a human side to his unshakably calm demeanor. Part of Syracuse’s weakened state can be attributed to one of head coach Jim Boeheim’s major criticisms: an unbalanced and back-loaded schedule that has Syracuse finishing its inaugural ACC season with four of its last five games on the road. Syracuse’s play of late even has some ESPN analysts like John Gasaway indirectly stating that it may be the first #1 seed to ever fall to a #16, showing just how far the national perception of the Orange has fallen over the recent bumpy stretch.

On the flip side of the coin, Tony Bennett’s Virginia squad is riding an epic wave of momentum that is well on its way to carrying his team to its first sole claim on the ACC regular season title in over three decades. Virginia has won a school record 17 straight games at home and is sitting in sole possession of first place in the ACC at 15-1. Since a brutal 35-point road loss to Tennessee before the new year, Virginia appears the part of a conference champion, winning numerous low-scoring affairs with stifling defense (no ACC opponent has score more than 70 points). Unlike Syracuse’s schedule, the Cavaliers have the boon of three of their last four ACC contests occurring at home in John Paul Jones Arena. While Virginia may not have a single elite scoring option like the Orange’s C.J. Fair, leading scorer Malcolm Brogdon is more than capable of taking over a game and the Cavaliers boast three players who average between 7.9 and 11.5 PPG. So while Syracuse comes into Charlottesville with their pride wounded after a scorching start, Virginia’s confidence has never been higher in its attempt to prevent a newcomer from claiming the conference title in its first season.

ACC Microwriters Chris Kehoe and Lathan Wells will focus in on the key questions surrounding this marquee ACC match-up, tipping off at 4:00 PM ET on Saturday (ESPN).

Chris: How will Virginia’s pace and style of play impact Syracuse’s 2-3 zone? Specifically, will the Cavaliers’ lack of outside shooting be a major issue in this contest? Can Virginia get points in the paint from Mike Tobey, Joe Harris, Akil Mitchell, and Justin Anderson against Syracuse’s shot-blockers? Virginia has been playing well and obviously winning against multiple defensive looks (Miami and Virginia Tech), but are their struggles against Virginia Tech’s zone a reason to worry?

Lathan: This is obviously a multi-tiered question, but perfectly appropriate since Syracuse’s zone seems to affect every possible facet of a team’s offense. The thing that bodes well for Virginia is that it is an enormously patient offensive team, just as comfortable grinding out possessions and winning in the 50s as it is taking transition opportunities and streaking closer to 70 points. The game in Blacksburg should be of little concern now; that was a rivalry contest on the road, and you can excuse the Cavaliers for looking ahead to more meaningful match-ups. Virginia will likely welcome the slow pace Syracuse also employs, and will hope foul trouble won’t prevent Mitchell and Tobey, in particular, from dictating play in the paint.  But since you mentioned pace, we’ve previously touched on Syracuse’s inability to pull away in recent contests.  How do the Orange avoid yet another close game here?

Chris: In order to get out to a comfortable lead and hold it, Syracuse will need to come out swinging in order to quiet what will be a rowdy road crowd. They must shut down Harris and Brogdon to make a guy like Perrantes become a scorer. On the offensive end, they will need to be able to hit tough shots against Virginia’s great defense, which plays hard through the entire shot clock. Syracuse’s offense starts and ends with C.J. Fair getting off early and Jerami Grant crashing the offensive boards; if he makes tough shots early on it can open up for the floor for others like Trevor Cooney and Tyler Ennis. Speaking of Ennis, his counterpart has proven to be a pretty precocious freshman floor leader in his own right. Does Perrantes have a chance of outdoing his more ballyhooed opponent?

Lathan: The way Perrantes wins this match-up is by getting noticed only by those with a discerning eye. He doesn’t score a ton of points or make overly flashy plays, but his consistency is paramount. We will be able to look at how those around him performed on the offensive end after the game is over to measure his success. While Ennis will garner the headlines and will take the tough, end-of-game shots, Perrantes will be fine in quietly finding the best available scorers and hustling back on defense. It’s not a one-on-one battle for him, just a matter of taking care of the basketball and being efficient with his play. Since this will likely be a full 40 minutes of intense basketball, let’s shift to the durability of another Syracuse star in Fair. Is there any way Jim Boeheim keeps his star from playing his usual 39 minutes per game since conference play began?

Chris: Syracuse probably should try to give Fair a bit of rest (maybe in the range of 35 minutes), but knowing Boeheim, that’s the last thing  he will do. True competitors to the very end, Boeheim will lean on Fair early and often as has been the pattern throughout the conference season. Even when he brings in Baye-Moussa Keita off the bench, he cannot bring anywhere near the offensive firepower that Fair has available. Syracuse won’t go down in Charlottesville without a fight, though, and still wants to prove that it can grab the ACC crown in its opening season in the conference. While we’re addressing the frontcourt, can Virginia hope to get Syracuse’s post players in some kind of foul trouble?  The Orange clearly lack any semblance of depth with only a seven-man rotation.

Virginia will be counting on a raucous home atmosphere to secure its first ACC title since the '80's (usatoday.net)

Virginia will be counting on a raucous home atmosphere to secure its first ACC title since 2007. (usatoday.net)

Lathan: Cue Justin Anderson. Mitchell and Tobey are largely prototypical big men in that they hover around the basket and seek to rebound and score around the rim. While their physicality can create fouls, it’s really going to take a dynamic slasher to inhibit the Syracuse zone and force contact inside. Anderson’s ability to shoot from the perimeter allows him to force defenders to honor his forays to the hoop. He, along with Harris and Brogdon, have to put the ball on the floor and penetrate to make the Syracuse frontcourt move its feet. Virginia has to be at least a serviceable threat from the perimeter, which brings me to Syracuse’s prime perimeter threat. Can Trevor Cooney reestablish himself as one of the ACC’s top marksman? And what happens if he remains in his current slump?

Chris: Cooney has been a disappointment as of late, producing inconsistently in the scoring column alongside Ennis in the backcourt. While Ennis is the only true point guard on the roster, Cooney is the only true deep threat Syracuse possesses. Sixth man Michael Gbinije can knock down a trey every now and then, but he is not reliable enough from long range at this point in his career. Gbinije has been seeing increased minutes, but it is Cooney who at the very least can be used as a decoy, causing some teams to over-guard him and afraid to help off of the Delaware native. While Syracuse can win without Cooney nailing a bunch of threes, they certainly could use all the help it can get if Ennis remains off and Syracuse as a team struggles early against the Cavaliers’ stifling defense.

Syracuse wins if: Ennis shakes out of the poor form he’s exhibited lately and returns to the double-figure and clutch scoring ways with minimal turnovers that he’s exhibited for most of the season. Granted, Fair must put in his usual effort of close to 20 points, Grant will need to turns in a double-double, and Keita and Rakeem Christmas need to block some shots and stay out of foul trouble. While Syracuse was adept at getting out of large holes early in the season, the Orange may not be able to mount a substantial comeback if they’re trailing a team of Virginia’s caliber by double-figures at John Paul Jones Arena.

Virginia wins if: Brogdon and Harris chip in their usual consistent scoring production and Perrantes continues to protect the ball. Virginia’s defense will take care of itself, but the Cavaliers have to be able to offset Syracuse’s length with their own post players in Mitchell and Tobey. Early foul trouble on any of the Orange big men could swing momentum toward the home team in a big way. Ultimately, Virginia should be comfortable playing a group that enjoys a similar tempo and should just endeavor to play its game. The X-factor may be Anderson, since these teams are pretty even among the starters. Bench points could become huge in a match-up of this magnitude.

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