The Virginia men’s basketball team begins its national title defense 491 miles from home on Wednesday night. The Cavaliers start ACC play early this season, opening in the Carrier Dome against a decent Syracuse squad.
For UVa to win its seventh consecutive season opener, the Cavaliers need to handle Coach Jim Boeheim and Syracuse’s vaunted 2-3 zone. Winning won’t be easy, but No. 11 UVa enters the game as the favorite against unranked Syracuse.
The Cavaliers need to do a few key things well to open the season 1-0 overall and 1-0 in the ACC.
Attack the zone
Beating Syracuse’s zone usually requires solid shooting, excellent passing and good cutting. Teams don’t beat Syracuse’s zone by lofting the ball around the perimeter and hoping to drain deep shots as the shot clock expires.
To conquer the 2-3 zone, UVa needs to be aggressive and make crisp passes.
Usually, teams place a small forward or elite passing forward near the free-throw line, which is a soft spot in the Orange’s zone.
In recent games against Syracuse, Virginia has used De’Andre Hunter in that role.
Given their size and ability to pass and shoot, Braxton Key and Kody Stattmann could both spend time at the free-throw line Wednesday night.
They’re capable of putting the ball on the deck and getting to the rim or passing it out to open guys. They’re also good enough shooters to turn and knock down that shot.
In addition to sticking a player at the free-throw line, Tony Bennett’s squad needs to utilize Jay Huff and Mamadi Diakite.
Both players can shoot and score in the post, which makes them potential zone killers. The baseline area is another potential weakness in the zone, and Diakite and Huff are two obvious candidates to attack the baseline.
Syracuse lacks a proven big man, and Diakite and Huff should have chances to excel on both ends of the court.
Most importantly, Virginia needs to make shots and pass the ball well.
In its win on the road at Syracuse last season, Kyle Guy caught fire in the second half and the Cavaliers cruised to an easy win.
The best way to beat a 2-3 zone is to make shots, and the Cavaliers have a handful of good shooters.
“When you have open shots, you have to take them,” Bennett said. “And you’ll get tested right away. You’re going to have to stick some outside shots against that zone, work the areas that are important. We’re working at it hard.”
Limit Syracuse’s wings
Elijah Hughes and Quincy Guerrier are two of Syracuse’s best players. Hughes, a redshirt junior, is the team’s leading returning scorer. Guerrier, a freshman, played well on the team’s trip to Italy during the offseason.
Both players rebound well for wing players, and they’re going to attack the glass Wednesday night. Virginia counters on the wing with Key, who’s one of the best rebounders on the team.
The matchup on the glass between Key, Hughes and Guerrier deserves attention. Key excels at offensive rebounding, and tallying second-chance points helps in a game against a solid defensive team. Virginia needs a strong defensive and rebounding outing from Key.
With a new team dynamic, it’s important for Virginia’s defense to lock in and keep the Cavaliers close as their offense develops a rhythm.
“Our defense is definitely gonna help us in all of our games,” Morsell said. “We’ve already lost three draft picks, so scoring, that’s gonna be challenging, but we’re gonna be at a high level on the defensive end.”
Embrace the environment
Playing at Syracuse won’t faze veteran players like Diakite or even Kihei Clark, but inexperienced players like freshman Casey Morsell and Stattmann need to embrace the raucous environment.
Considering it’s the season opener against the reigning national champions, Syracuse fans will be ready to go Wednesday night. It’s up to UVa’s players to block out the noise.
“I’m really excited,” Stattmann said. “That’s gonna be a tough game straight out of the gate. We’re definitely prepared for it and just ready to go up against them and beat them.”
Over the past three seasons, Syracuse is 44-15 at home. UVa is 2-1 at the Carrier Dome over that span, though. The Cavaliers have players on the roster like Diakite and Clark who know what it takes to win at Syracuse. That experience will be valuable for a team reliant on several inexperienced pieces.