Virginia leading scorer Malcolm Brogdon pondered the question carefully Wednesday night, not wanting to play down the potential accomplishment but also fearful of feeding No. 4 Syracuse any bulletin-board material.
What would this next win mean to him? Brogdon began to think about his coach.
“It would mean a lot. This program, I think, has come such a far way. We really want to win it for Coach Bennett,” he said. “He’s put in a lot of work, and the success would be his success, with what he’s done with us over the past couple years. But it’s a huge milestone for us.”
The game Virginia fans have been anticipating for weeks now has finally arrived. No. 12 Virginia hosts Syracuse at John Paul Jones Arena on Saturday, a sold-out showdown that, with a victory, would propel the Cavaliers to their first outright ACC regular season title since 1981.
As Miami Coach Jim Larranaga noted, it will be a matchup of teams with similar offensive approaches and completely defensive mind-sets. Judging from recent results, the final score won’t be very high, with every possession turning into a battle of wills.
For all its success this year, Virginia has yet to beat a team with a resume similar to Syracuse’s. The Cavaliers’ only win over an RPI top 25 team was against North Carolina last month.
“You have to play at a very high level. Not perfect, but a very high level to compete with a team like that,” Bennett said. “But to be in this spot is terrific. We’re in our place and we’ll have to do certain things well, but the formula doesn’t change for us. Just because there’s so much excitement around it, we’re not gonna be different. We’re just gonna have to be as good as we can.”
So how can Virginia secure a 13th straight win and grab hold of the top spot in the ACC? Here are three things to keep an eye on Saturday afternoon.
1) London Perrantes vs Tyler Ennis
Perrantes poured in a career-high 15 points in a win over Miami on Wednesday night, and he could be the key to how Virginia handles Syracuse’s vaunted 2-3 zone. The freshman point guard has hit eight of his past 11 three-pointers, proving to be a zone buster against both the Hurricanes and Virginia Tech to go along with a remarkable assist-to-turnover ratio.
The Cavaliers have senior Joe Harris and Brogdon, as well as forward Evan Nolte off the bench, to shoot from outside, but Perrantes will be a necessary weapon to combat Syracuse’s zone. He’ll also have to combat Ennis on the other end of the floor, although sophomore Justin Anderson could also see time covering the Canadian freshman.
Ennis has been one of the best players in the country this year, and helped fill the Orange’s scoring void when forward Jerami Grant left Monday’s game against Maryland with back issues. Grant is expected to be back in the lineup Saturday.
“Almost every game they play on TV I watch, to see how we can penetrate their defense,” Perrantes said of Syracuse. “I also watch Tyler Ennis because I like to watch other point guards and see what I can take from them. He’s a crafty point guard and I have the utmost respect for him.”
2) The High Post
Virginia associate head coach Ritchie McKay, who’s handling the scouting of Syracuse this week, said Boeheim’s 2-3 zone has become so difficult to prepare because “it’s almost three different defenses” that can shaped depending on personnel.
The key to breaking it down, outside of the Cavaliers’ accuracy from three-point range, will likely be how effective they are getting the ball into the middle of the zone. When Virginia struggled against Virginia Tech’s 2-3 zone two weeks ago, it broke open the game late with Brogdon and forward Anthony Gill both flashing to the free throw line and attacking the rim as part of a four-guard lineup.
Will Bennett try that again because, aside from Grant, most of Syracuse’s big men aren’t major offensive threats? Or will he need to use a more traditional approach to keep the Orange off the glass?
3) Keep Cooney Cold
Sophomore Trevor Cooney has proven to be a major surprise for Syracuse over the course of this season, and one of the best three-point shooters in the country. But he has been slumping ever since a 33-point outburst against Notre Dame on Feb. 3.
Since then, Cooney has shot just 16 of 54 from the field (29.6 percent) and he has missed 16 of his past 19 three-point attempts. It should come as no surprise he scored just nine points in Syracuse’s two losses last week, part of the reason the Orange have been held to 61 points or less in their last seven games.
Virginia currently leads the nation in scoring defense, but the best tactic to combat the Pack Line defense is to shoot over it. If Cooney finds his stroke, it could spell trouble for the Cavaliers. Expect Harris, Brogdon and Anderson to all take turns making sure he doesn’t get back on track Saturday.