As we approach the halfway point of the 2019-2020 college basketball season, the output from Syracuse basketball leaves much to be desired. Sitting at 8-7, with a dismal 1-3 Atlantic Coast record, with the most difficult part of their schedule just ahead, Syracuse does not have much to look forward to either. On Saturday at 4:00, the Orange will take on the No. 18 Virginia Cavaliers (11-3, 3-1) in Charlottesville in a rematch of the 2019-20 season opener.
To refresh your memory, the season opener was not kind to the Syracuse Orange. The defending champions came into the Dome and held S.U. to 34 points in a 48-34 win, the lowest point total of any Jim Boeheim-coached Syracuse team . In fact, it was the fewest point total of any Syracuse team since 1945. Nevertheless, Virginia's notorious defense did not graduate with Kyle Guy, DeAndre Hunter, and Ty Jerome.
Syracuse's lone ACC win came on December 7th at Georgia Tech. The Orange exploded for 93 points, where they shot a scorching 42.4% from deep and four players reached double digits. Syracuse has gone 3-3 in the six games since then, including a two-game skid to officially commence conference play. It does not get any easier from here, with Boston College and rematches with Virginia Tech and Notre Dame on the horizon.
Virginia's recent track record resembles Syracuse's more than you might think. The Cavaliers are 2-2 over their last four, with two bad losses against South Carolina and Boston College. However, Virginia rolled over Virginia Tech, Syracuse's latest defeat, 65-39 just a week ago.
Over recent years, a trend has emerged whenever these two teams meet, and that trend is defense. In the last four meetings between these teams, a team has surpassed 70 points just once, and a sub-60 score has been posted five times. On average, Syracuse actually scores fourteen more points per game than Virginia (70 to 56), but the nationally elite Cavalier defense holds opponents to just 47.8 points per game.
Redshirt Junior Elijah Hughes has been playing at a level that warrants the inclusion of his name in the conversation for ACC Player of the Year. Hughes checks in at second in the ACC in points per game (19.6) and three-pointers made (47). Sophomore Buddy Boeheim currently has made more three-pointers than anyone else in the ACC with 55, and his 15.3 points per game are good for tenth in the conference.
The source of Syracuse's offense is no mystery. It's Elijah Hughes and Buddy Boeheim, supported by a variety of secondary options. From freshman point guard Joe Girard III (11.9 PPG) to Marek Dolezaj (9.9 PPG) to Quincy Guerrier (6.1 PPG), the scoring behind the "Splash Brothers" plays a critical role in deciding a win from a loss on any given night. Virginia's defense is inevitable, so Syracuse must find a way to produce opportunities for Hughes and Boeheim while also keeping the defense honest.
For reference, in the last contest between these teams, Virginia limited Hughes and Boeheim to a combined 21 points on 4-28 shooting from three. Not coincidentally, Syracuse recorded the lowest point total in over seventy years. This formula has been tested several times at this point in the season, and when Hughes and Boeheim struggle, the team struggles even more. It's necessary for the Orange to find early success from behind the arc if they want to keep this competitive.
For the Cavaliers, senior Braxton Key will present the latest challenge for Syracuse around the rim. Key leads the Cavaliers with 7.4 rebounds per game, and contributes 10.3 PPG as well. Between Bourama Sidibe and Marek Dolezaj, the interior presence for the Orange has emerged as public enemy number one this season. Virginia dominated the boards in the last contest, outrebounding the Orange 47-28, including ten boards from Key and another eleven from Kihei Clark.
Syracuse has suffered dearly from the plethora of second chance points offered to their opponents. Averaging 25 defensive rebounds per contest, Syracuse ranks all the way down at 226th in the nation. On the defensive side of the ball, it will be essential for the Orange to limit the inside opportunities and force the Cavaliers to settle for jump shots as much as possible. Virginia takes just five three-pointers a game at just a 28 percent clip, so the winning formula is pretty cut and dry. The execution of the formula, not so much.
This game is going to be ugly. It typically is whenver these teams face off. It's a matter of who can win uglier, and that has been Virginia more often than not over the last few years. Can Syracuse decipher Virginia's gifted defense and keep them off the boards? Or will Tony Bennett and the Cavaliers continue their perennial success over the Orange? The game tips off at 4:00 on Saturday, January 11. It can be seen on ESPN and heard on WAER, 88.3 FM.