It’s an ACC world, the rest of us are just watching it. Sunday’s NCAA tournament slate features a pair of regional finals comprised of two ACC teams facing off against one another. In the Midwest Region, the top-seeded Virginia Cavaliers will play No. 10 Syracuse Orange.
The two teams met earlier this season, with the Cavaliers winning 73-65 in a game that was close until the final minute. Of course, that game was played in Charlottesville, where it’s been nearly impossible to beat the Cavaliers in recent years. But the fact that Syracuse played a tight and competitive game there means they will fully believe themselves capable of beating Virginia this time around, just in case their tournament run up to this point wasn’t enough.
Obviously, the biggest key in this game will be the Syracuse 2-3 zone, which is once again the catalyst for their success in March, as the Orange will play in the Elite Eight for the third time in the last five years. The fact that Virginia plays in the same conference as Syracuse gives the Cavs more familiarity with the zone than most teams the Orange face come tournament time, but the Syracuse zone has played far better during the tournament than when the two teams met in January.
In that matchup, Virginia made 44 percent of its three-point attempts, far and above what teams average against the Syracuse defense, even good shooting teams. Repeating that shooting performance against the Syracuse zone in its current form will be a tall task for Virginia. That being said, the Cavaliers have two players in Malcolm Brogdon and Anthony Gill who are near-perfect candidates to position themselves in the high post against a 2-3 zone. The high-post is generally considered the so-called “sweet spot” in the zone, and Brogdon and Gill receiving the ball there will allow them to be both scorers and facilitators for the Virginia offense. Preventing those two players from catching the ball in that area will be a priority for the Syracuse defense.
On the other side of the ball, the Virginia defense has been the team’s bread and butter all season. However, even on the road against Virginia’s stout defense, the Orange managed to make 13 of 30 three-point attempts during their first meeting. The Orange have four capable outside shooters in Michael Gbinije, Trevor Cooney, Malachi Richardson and Tyler Lydon, with Gbinije and Richardson lighting up the scoreboard against the Cavaliers earlier this season. Of course, any of the four are capable of getting hot from the outside, and if two or three of them get shots to fall, the Orange will be able to spread the ball and find holes in Virginia’s defense. Gbinije, in particular, has been difficult for anybody to stop, scoring 20 or more points in four of his last five games as he willed Syracuse to victory in the Sweet 16.
This game figures to be a defensive struggle for much of the 40 minutes, as both teams are strong defensively and are prone to long droughts on offense. There will be runs, but neither team is likely to run away with the game early. Expect things to be close into the final minutes, and the team that is better able to execute in crunch time will be the one to advance to the Final Four.