by Paul West
In this Saturday’s highly anticipated matchup between twelfth-ranked University of Virginia and fourth-ranked Syracuse, two teams meet who are trending in opposite directions. Both teams come in with something to play for and something to prove, though their seasonal narratives differ.
Virginia looking to secure their contender status
Virginia has hovered on the fringe of national relevance in recent years, generally lingering on the bubble and occasionally achieving a respectable tournament seed but always struggling to score. That’s changed this season. The Cavaliers are 24-5 and a whopping 15-1 in the vaunted Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC), leading the conference ahead of perennial powerhouses like Duke and this week’s opponent Syracuse. They’re defensively stingy as usual, ranked first in the country at 54.7 points allowed per game. They still rely heavily on the versatility and leadership of 6’6″ senior Joe Harris, but they no longer rely solely on Harris for offense. In fact, a surprising attribute of this year’s Virginia team is that they’re capable of scoring in bunches, having recently ended games on enormous scoring runs to put away opponents. 6’2″ point guard London Perrantes is capable of driving the lane and finding the open man, and though his numbers aren’t startling he’s been a valuable engine for his team’s improved offense. He sank four three pointers in the Cavaliers’ recent win over Miami, and he seems stable and composed under pressure. The Cavaliers only score 65.9 points per game, but it no longer seems as if they need to keep the total score low to have a chance. If they pull off a win against Syracuse this weekend, they will clinch the regular season ACC title. Their status as a legitimate contender will likely be secured–and they might even begin March ranked in the top ten. This could translate into a high tournament seed and a better chance at at least the round of 16.
Syracuse looking to prove they’re a #1 tournament seed
After winning a number of close games to remain undefeated well into February, the Syracuse Orange lost two games in a row. The second loss, a tough road loss to Duke, was understandable. The first, however, was baffling: a 62-59 overtime loss to Boston College, in Syracuse’s Carrier Dome. Boston College’s 19 losses (yes, you read that right) was the most ever by a team who beat the top-ranked team in the country, and even Syracuse’s supporters found it hard to explain. Talk of the game simply being an anomaly was countered by allusions to Syracuse’s close calls in recent weeks, including barely beating Pittsburgh in two games and almost losing to NC State. They went from consideration as the number one overall tournament seed to consideration of their ranking among the number one tournament seeds. Then they broke their losing streak by barely scraping by a decidedly middling Maryland team, and talk of their vulnerability increased. If they get back on track this weekend against Virginia, they would close to within a game of Virginia for the ACC lead. They would also counter some of those who have questioned their elite status.
These are teams with a number of similarities. Like Virginia, Syracuse is led by a freshman point guard: Tyler Ennis, a composed and versatile leader with a penchant for late-game heroics. Also like their conference leaders, the Orange boasts a strong defense. They’re 7th overall in points allowed with 58.5 per game, and 16th in steals with 8.3. They’re also in the Cavaliers’ territory in points scored, averaging 68.8 per game and at times struggling with shooting percentage. Both teams can convert defense to offense quickly, though their methods are different: Syracuse relies more on turnovers, whereas Virginia’s transitions come more from defensive rebounds. Ennis is a more dynamic scoring threat than Perrantes, and this might account for the primary difference between the two teams. Virginia relies on penetration and ball movement more than dynamic playmaking, despite the underrated athleticism and playmaking of Joe Harris; along with Ennis, Syrause has CJ Fair and a couple of other players who can create their own shots and can heat up to change the course of a game.
Virginia has had a softer in-conference schedule than Syracuse, who have played Duke and Pitt twice each. Their strength of schedule is 27th in the country, compared with 17th for Syracuse. Syracuse has had their share of soft matchups, and have let inferior teams hang around. They’re only one loss apart in conference play, but Virginia can secure the ACC regular season title with a win. It’s hard to figure which team would be hurt more by losing; Syracuse could fall to a tournament 2-seed if they have a bad day, and Virginia could slide in the rankings and threaten their chances at a 2-4 seed.
Keys to the game
The Cavaliers have played well at home, and their crowd should be pumped up to give Syracuse a jarring welcome to the ACC. Syracuse can be prone to lulls, and poor shot selection down the stretch could allow Virginia to go on one of their late-game runs. Both teams will look to score in transition. Syracuse will look to their playmakers for an advantage if it stays close. This could be an exciting postseason preview.