Friday, February 28, 2014
game preview: Syracuse
Date/Time: Saturday, March 1; 4:00
Record against the Orange: 1-3
Last meeting: SU 73, UVA 70; 11/28/08, Syracuse
Last game: UVA 65, Mia. 40 (2/26); SU 57, Md. 55 (2/24)
UVA: 61.6 (#344)
SU: 61.0 (#345)
UVA: 112.4 (#41)
SU: 114.4 (#22)
UVA: 88.9 (#3)
SU: 92.5 (#9)
UVA: .9366 (#4)
SU: .9206 (#10)
PG: London Perrantes (4.8 ppg, 2.2 rpg, 3.7 apg)
SG: Malcolm Brogdon (12.4 ppg, 5.7 rpg, 2.4 apg)
SF: Joe Harris (11.5 ppg, 2.9 rpg, 2.4 apg)
PF: Akil Mitchell (7.0 ppg, 6.9 rpg, 1.4 apg)
C: Mike Tobey (6.7 ppg, 4.0 rpg, 0.4 apg)
PG: Tyler Ennis (12.0 ppg, 3.5 rpg, 5.6 apg)
SG: Trevor Cooney (12.8 ppg, 2.0 rpg, 1.3 apg)
SF: C.J. Fair (16.5 ppg, 6.1 rpg, 1.3 apg)
PF: Jerami Grant (12.3 ppg, 6.9 rpg, 1.4 apg)
PF: Rakeem Christmas (5.8 ppg, 4.8 rpg, 0.7 apg)
Finally. The moment you've all been waiting for. Fortunately, the basketball team we root for is better at staying in the moment than the fans are, or this game might have fizzled before it even began. No disappointment here, however. It's the biggest game of the weekend across the whole college hoops landscape. Tickets are going on the secondary market for more than the price of buying that seat for the whole season. Dickie V is in town. Big, big time college basketball is coming to the JPJA.
It's also Senior Night for Joe Harris and Akil Mitchell. Only two of Tony Bennett's heralded six-man class remain with the team. Two of its least-hyped members, too. These guys came in at the bottom and rode to the top - or more accurately, brought the team there themselves. "Buying in" is such a hackneyed phrase, but if you want to know what it actually looks like, you can't do better than to trace the careers of these two.
Add it all up and it's the most can't-miss event that ever took place on the JPJA floor. No wonder it costs a cool G to get in.
-- UVA on offense
The 2-3 zone is all anyone talks about when talking Syracuse defense. They're one of the very few teams whose KenPom defensive fingerprint is "mostly zone." Other teams deploy the 2-3 to try and take back control of the pace and the game on the defensive end; Syracuse uses it as their base defense.
Because of that, you can bet they don't play it the same every time down the court. There will be different looks - Cuse will change the level of pressure on the ballhandler, their spacing, the amount of ball denial to certain places on the court. They'll change help assignments on screens. They'll throw out a lot of different looks, much the same way a spread offense team in football will line up in the same formation every play on the same drive and then change the playcall.
UVA's answer will generally come from the experience they've got in playing against 2-3 zones in the recent past, some of which have required large adjustments. They've used four-guard lineups, multiple different players in the high post, and various approaches to force the zone to space out more than it wants to. Moreover, I suspect the second half will be higher-scoring than the first, for the simple reason that's when the teams shoot at the end where their bench is. I expect Tony to be pretty heavily involved; the coaches will help London Perrantes and all the ballhandlers out as much as possible by being more involved than usual in trying to pick the best approach for the defensive approach they're seeing. Probably the first 10-15 seconds or so of the possession will be used to feel out the defensive call.
I don't have to tell you that three-point shooting is huge. It doesn't matter who gets hot, but someone has to. Perrantes's explosion against Miami had to cause a little bit of an oh-shit moment in the Syracuse coaches' meetings; it was clear that the Canes had been told to deny Harris and Brogdon and take their chances with Perrantes bombing away, and it cost them. It wouldn't surprise me if Jim Boeheim had been planning a similar tactic. That alone might've loosened up the zone just a little.
Personnel-wise, Syracuse has two thoroughly deadly shot-blockers in Rakeem Christmas and Baye Moussa Keita - the fortunate provenance here is that they don't ever play together. The defense is designed to let one or the other patrol the middle and have them swat any stray layup attemps that might've gotten past the very long, lanky, and athletic wings and forwards. C.J. Fair, Jerami Grant, and the very little-used Tyler Roberson all measure in around 6'8", 210, and play a lot of denial in the zone, discouraging both entry passes and drives to the rim. Michael Gbinije is built much the same, and two and sometimes three of these players are in at all times.
Because of these guys, don't be fooled; the 2-3 is the most conservative of all defenses, except in the hands of Syracuse; they're as good at getting steals as any team in the country. If I didn't know London Perrantes better, I'd say we were in real trouble with a freshman point guard. He'll still have to play with care and realize the defenders between him and the pass recipient are bouncier and more athletic than what he's used to. Despite the heralded abilities of Syracuse's scorers, it's their defense that worries me the most.
-- UVA on defense
First thing to understand: Cuse is not a very deep team. Right or wrong, primary scoring is limited to four players. I say "right or wrong" because a couple of those guys not on that list are in fact pretty dangerous and maybe should be more involved. Michael Gbinije is a .400+ three-point shooter, and Rakeem Christmas only scores like six points a game but is in fact the team's second-most efficient offensive player, just a hair behind Trevor Cooney.
Yes, Cooney, not Tyler Ennis or C.J. Fair. Fair is - wait for the surprise here - actually somewhat of a volume scorer. UVA will defend him much the same way they defended Lamar Patterson, as Fair is a very similar player. Like Patterson, his efficiency drops off a cliff if he can't get to the rim, which is exactly what Tony's defense will try to make happen. Even though he's Cuse's leading scorer, he needs to shoot almost 29% of Cuse's shots while he's on the court to make it happen.
It's Cooney's three-point shooting that's probably the most dangerous thing here. Even more so against a pack-line defense that prefers that you shoot over top. Cooney launches threes at an astounding clip and will probably shoot his 200th attempt on the season in this game. He lands them at a 40% pace, too.
At point, Tyler Ennis is all he's cracked up to be. His ratio of a 32.5% assist rate to a 14.2% TO rate is among the very best in the country. The scoring facets of his game demand respect, too. And if Cuse misses a shot, they will crash the boards extremely hard to try and gather up another chance; UVA's stellar defensive rebounders will get a strong test from Grant, Christmas, and Keita.
All this said, offense has been SU's Achilles heel lately. They actually have not shot the ball well; this is a team that will do absolutely everything right on offense and then clank the shot, which is why pace (Syracuse's is as slow as ours) is only part of the explanation as to why they haven't gotten any higher than 60 points since February 3.
UVA will have one other advantage, which I think is miniscule but worth mentioning: while the Hoos have faced a number of different 2-3 zone looks in the past month, Syracuse has not seen the pack-line except on film. And then finally, there's the fatigue question; lots of folks are wondering if Syracuse is hitting a wall, a fair query given that four players play over 30 minutes a game, where UVA has only one such player (Brogdon) and he still lags behind all of Syracuse's big four in average minutes. In terms of numbers, UVA isn't actually a great deal deeper than Cuse given that Darion Atkins and Evan Nolte are only half members of the rotation, but there's a hell of a lot more substitution.
Still, these are by no means game-breaking advantages. They just tilt the field a tiny bit our way. There are lots of ways Syracuse can tilt it back. Lots of talent. UVA should be able to defend this team, but that is the least given of all things.
Could Syracuse win this game? Easily. They're the #4 team in the land for a reason; they reeled off a 25-game win streak for a reason; they scored 91 points in 68 possessions against Duke for a reason. Talent abounds, and going through a rough patch doesn't mean you'll stay in a rough patch.
However, that's quite the rough patch. The Syracuse offense is struggling hardcore. Failing to score a point a possession against Boston College, which is not even a top 300 defense in the country, at home, should be a five-alarm bell. C.J. Fair ballhogged and shot 7-for-23 while being guarded by such defensive luminaries as Eddie Odio. While the complaint that UVA has benefitted from an unbalanced schedule is a fair one (I can hardly complain about this since I pointed out at the very beginning that we had the easiest schedule in the league by far) it's also true that Syracuse has not faced a defense like ours.
Objectively speaking, then, how can one pick the Cuse? UVA is at home and playing elite defense, rolls more bodies on the floor, with the further intangible boost of trying to send the seniors off in style. Syracuse is on the road, playing poor offense by the standards of an aspirational #1 seed, and looking for all the world like they're doing a slow dive into a brick wall. No, I wouldn't be awfully surprised to see Cuse win - but if they do, it'll be close. A lot of trends would have to suddenly reverse themselves for the Orange to walk out of the JPJA with a win, though. I haven't picked against UVA in a long time. I read these same tea leaves when UNC came to town, and was not disappointed. Now is not the time to buck the trends.
Final score: UVA 55, SU 48
Bonus! It's a very Cusey weekend, and I would hate to omit lacrosse from the festivities. UVA is 5-0, which is very nice and a better start than they had last year. But we're also 0-0 against all the teams which we measure ourselves against. One of them is coming to town this weekend. Time constraints don't permit me to write a full-blown preview, but some bullet points and a prediction would be handy.
-- Syracuse was the #1 team in the country, but relinquished that distinction after being blown out at home by Maryland last week, 16-8. The Cuse is now #8 with a 2-1 record; UVA is ranked #4, which is kind of scary high for a team that doesn't look like they've got it all figured out right now.
-- The Orange attack is a two-headed monster of Kevin Rice (2 goals, 11 assists) and Dylan Donahue (12 goals, 2 assists.) You can see how this combo works out. Midfielder Henry Schoonmaker also has a nice shot, and Randy Staats has been a good all-around guy with 7 goals and 5 assists. Pretty much most of the names you hear when Syracuse has the ball will be unfamiliar.
-- Both teams need a lot more out of their goalies than they've been getting; Matt Barrett is at a .480 save percentage and Cuse's Dominic Lamolinara isn't much better at .488.
-- Faceoffs are a problem, as with always. Mick Parks and Jeff Kratky are combining to go .434. A surprise bright spot is on the roster in the form of defenseman Nate Menninger, a D-III transfer who got his first action against Rutgers and went 9-for-15. His 18 total faceoffs are an itty-bitty sample size, though, and last season at Hamilton College his win percentage was only .468. Syracuse still has excellent face-off guy Chris Daddio, who is at .557 right now, so a long day at the X seems likely.
-- Expect a high-scoring affair here. Both teams' defenses have disappointed. UVA had a really nice start for two quarters against Loyola and then fell off like a rock. Syracuse had to squeak by Albany, 17-16, and gave up another 16 goals to Maryland.
Being 5-0 is nice, but UVA has yet to put together a full four quarters. You can get away with that against Rutgers and Richmond. Syracuse might struggle to stay out of the ACC basement this year but they're still a notch above anyone UVA's seen this year. I'm in show-me mode right now, so....
Final score: SU 16, UVA 13
Double bonus! ACC sims are updated, with one small wrinkle. Go see.