Virginia Syracuse Basketball

Virginia’s Kihei Clark plays defense during the second half against Syracuse on Wednesday.

For the first time since winning the 2018-19 national championship, the Virginia men’s basketball team returns to John Paul Jones Arena for a game Sunday.

Tony Bennett’s team comes to town fresh off an historic defense performance that saw the Cavaliers (1-0, 1-0 ACC) hold Syracuse to just 34 points, its lowest scoring total in more than 70 years and its lowest ever in the Carrier Dome.

“We just are not ready to play against that defense,” Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim said after the game. “I thought we were going to be a little better, but we just didn’t do the things we needed to offensively. They are very difficult to play against. They’re in the top two or three defensive teams every year.”

It was a vintage performance from the Cavaliers, who return home to face James Madison (1-0) after opening the season with an ACC opponent.

“It’ll be huge, hopefully all the fans come out and pack JPJ,” Virginia guard Braxton Key said after the Syracuse win. “We need ‘em. [I’m] ready for Sunday. JMU is an in-state rival, 50 minutes down the road, so hopefully they have some fans, too.”

While JMU and UVa are in close proximity in terms of location, the two basketball programs are far apart when it comes to on-court success. The Dukes haven’t made the NCAA Tournament since 2012-13, and they’re coming off their third consecutive losing season. UVa won the national title last season, and the Cavaliers have more NCAA Tournament appearances (six) since 2013-14 than the Dukes have in program history (five).

While Key called JMU an in-state rival, the Dukes are winless against Virginia, losing all 10 matchups in the series, which dates back to the 1977-78 season. In the two matchups this decade, Virginia won 61-41 in 2013 and 79-51 in 2014.

UVa will have a massive size advantage against JMU. Power forward Dwight Wilson is one of the Dukes’ top players, and the 6-foot-8 junior missed JMU’s season opener with an ankle injury. If Wilson doesn’t suit up, the Dukes will rely on three additional 6-8 players to guard Mamadi Diakite, Jay Huff and Braxton Key, who all check in at 6-8 or taller.

Unfortunately for JMU, two of its tallest players — Devon Flowers and Julien Wooden — have combined for just 35 minutes of collegiate game action. Flowers didn’t play in the season opener.

The Dukes’ guards are the strength of the team. Matt Lewis and Deshon Parker combined for 39 points, 20 rebounds and 10 assists in their season-opening 79-74 win over Charlotte, which is coached by former UVa assistant Ron Sanchez. Lewis enters the season as a preseason first team All-CAA selection after averaging 16.4 points per game a year ago.

With limited options in the paint, the Dukes will have their hands full containing Diakite, Huff and Key. The UVa trio combined for 30 points, 28 rebounds, three steals and two blocked shots in Wednesday’s 48-34 victory over Syracuse. All three players are NBA prospects, and they’re the best frontcourt JMU will face this season.

The three Cavaliers go up against each other as well as Marquette transfer Sam Hauser regularly at practice. With the effort required on both ends in practice, games feel simple.

“I feel like practice is actually harder than games,” Diakite said. “Way harder. So that makes it easier for us.”

The win at Syracuse looked easy at times for Virginia’s frontcourt. Diakite, Huff and Key shot 14-of-26 from the floor and 14-of-21 on two-point shots. With an undersized JMU team coming to town, Sunday’s matchup could feature a similar scoring display from the Virginia big men.

For JMU to pick up its first win in the series, it’s going to need an electric performance from its backcourt. That’s a challenge, especially with the way Kihei Clark and Casey Morsell defended in the opener at Syracuse. They’re both elite perimeter defenders, and the entire team thrives on the defensive end.

The team values defense above almost all other aspects of the game. That showed when the Cavaliers held Syracuse to fewer than 20 points in each half Wednesday night.

While the offensive ability of Virginia’s frontcourt certainly creates matchup nightmares for opposing teams, it’s the UVa defense that makes the Cavaliers one of the nation’s top programs. All five players on the court for Virginia can defend at a high level.

“I think we can pride ourselves on the defensive end,” Clark said after the Syracuse win. “We’ve got new guys on the guard position that can stop the 1s and 2s, and Mamadi and Jay bring that veteran [presence] and I think they can stop [opponents] inside, so I think we could be a good defensive team.”

After limiting Syracuse to its fewest points since 1945, it certainly looks that way.

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