(1) Virginia vs. (10) Syracuse
Initial Thoughts: Virginia has been one of the best teams in the country all season and they’ve continued their dominance through the first three games of the Tourney upending the mid-major Hampton Pirates, former mid-major Butler Bulldogs, and never mid-major Iowa State Cyclones. Throughout the year I’ve expressed my love for Anthony Gill and Malcolm Brogdon’s respective games. Gill’s power and rebounding ability combined with Brogdon’s all-around greatness make for an intimidating dynamic duo. Add in London Perrantes, one of the best point guards in the country, and you have the makings of a championship caliber squad.
Syracuse, Virginia’s conference mate, has played the easiest schedule out of all Elite Eight teams. They first played Dayton, a team on the decline coming into the Tourney and one the Orange matched up extremely well with. Then Boeheim’s crew was fortunate enough to see the 15-seed Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders who couldn’t make lightning strike twice after their Earth-shattering win against Sparty. Cuse then upended Gonzaga in a game that at the one-minute mark, the Zags had a 75% probability of winning. A combination of good fortune and playing “just well enough” have propelled the Orange to this Elite Eight berth, but they’ll need to be on their best game to take down the Hoos of Hoo-ville.
Virginia on Offense: These two teams have played before back in the regular season in a game that ended in a UVA victory (73-65). In that game, Virginia did on offense what they’ve done all year, they took good shots and they hit good shots. UVA shot 65.4% from two against the Orange zone and also stroked it from deep to the tune of 44.4% (8/18). They were also able to get to the charity stripe 21 times, where they converted on 15 of those attempts. 72% of Virginia’s baskets against Cuse came off assists, a tribute to how well the Cavs move the ball, and it’s this fluid, smart ball movement that can spell doom for a defending zone. Virginia has excelled against zones this season, a defense they’ve seen a fair amount of. Brogdon and Perrantes have both been excellent shooting over the zone, scoring 1.211ppp and 1.44ppp, respectively. Big-man Gill has also found success wedging into the gaps of the zones and finding his shot amongst the second layer of defenders (1.123ppp overall against zone D). As I’ve discussed in two previews, Virginia is methodical and will not settle for just any jump shot – which the 2-3 zone is trying to force. Their patience and experience in the backcourt gives the Cavs a leg up against Cuse on the offensive end.
As stated in previous previews, Cuse’s zone, while susceptible to giving up a lot of three-point looks, doesn’t allow opposing teams to shoot a high percentage. Against their first three Tourney opponents, Cuse has allowed deep-ball chuckers to shoot 22/67 from outside (32.8%). Virginia had success earlier this year shooting against Cuse’s zone, but the Hoos only grabbed four offensive rebounds in the January game. This is good for the Orange as they’ve had tremendous trouble rebounding out of the zone this season; but also it’s a tribute to Virginia’s focus on not crashing the boards and getting back on D to quell transition opportunities. The Orange zone forces teams to turn the rock over; against Virginia this season, Cuse forced 13 Hoo turnovers (20.6% TO rate) which is higher than UVA’s 15% TO rate average over the course of the year. The key for Cuse will be being able to disrupt the normally calm, patient offensive mindset of the UVA guards.
Syracuse on Offense: I have to give Tyler Roberson a lot of credit. In my Syracuse vs. Gonzaga preview, I said that Sabonis would be able to neutralize the impact of Roberson’s elite rebounding ability. While Sabonis did grab 17 boards, including 10 D-boards, Roberson still hauled in 9 offensive rebounds and Cuse as a team grabbed 37.5% of their misses (a high rate). Usually the Orange are gunslingers looking to score from the outside, but against Gonzaga, Cuse attacked the rim constantly and shot a lot from inside the arc (granted they weren’t too successful). I would wager a hefty amount of cash that Cuse goes back to their gunslinging ways against the pack-line Virginia D. In the first meeting, Cuse shot 30 threes against the Virginia defense, and hit 13 of them (43.3%). Cuse has had issues with turnovers this year, but against Virginia they were able to limit their gaffes to 11 and against Gonzaga, the Orange only turned the rock over 9 times (a major key in the Elite Eight victory). Look for the Orange gunners, Malachi Richardson, Michael Gbinije, and Trevor Cooney, to be gunning in this one.
UVA has had one of the stoutest defenses all season, especially in the realm of not allowing opponents to score inside the arc. Virginia limited Syracuse to 33.3% shooting from inside in their January meeting, which turned out to be the difference maker in the contest as Cuse had success from deep and took care of the ball well. Cuse knows they’ll get looks from outside, but the key will be how the Orange do on attempts inside, both off put-backs (which will be limited due to UVA’s 15th best DR% in the land), and drives/cuts to the basket.
Key Factors: This one is going to be a slooowwwww game. Both squads play methodically on offense and both the 2-3 zone and pack-line D tend to slow opponents down. In addition, neither team really looks to get out and run, though Cuse will do it more than Virginia. For the Orange, the key will be shooting on O (both from deep and inside), and for the Hoos it’ll be taking care of the basketball and remaining patient against the zone.
Final Predictions: I’m kind of torn on this one. Virginia is clearly the superior team, but Cuse proved they could hang with the Hoos a bit in Charlottesville back in January (though UVA’s eventual victory was never really in turmoil). I think UVA will get what they want against the Cuse zone and I think the Orange will hit threes. The spread is a bit high in my opinion given the nature of the game and the experience of Boeheim. The O/U is very low, but I love how the masses have already bet it up three points – makes me love the under even more. I think Cuse covers in a game that’s closer than most people will expect, but I think Tony Bennett’s squad goes to the Final Four.
Straight-up Pick: Virginia
ATS Pick: Syracuse +8
Over/Under Pick: Under 124.5