March 26, 2016

By Jeff White (

CHICAGO — In the past 15 years, NCAA champions in men’s basketball have included four current members of the Atlantic Coast Conference: Duke, North Carolina, Louisville and Syracuse, all of which have Hall of Fame coaches.

Virginia plays each of those perennial powers at least once every regular season. And now, in its first Elite Eight appearance in 21 years, UVA will face Syracuse and its longtime leader, Jim Boeheim, in the Midwest Region final Sunday.

At 6:09 p.m. Eastern, in a game TBS will televise, top-seeded Virginia (29-7) meets 10th-seeded Syracuse (22-13) at the United Center. A win would send the Cavaliers to the Final Four for the first time since 1984.

“You hope you get chances,” UVA head coach Tony Bennett said Saturday afternoon. “We always talk about that. You hope you get chances to go against them and have a chance at, we always say, `title fights,’ to get in those and go toe to toe with the best.”

Earlier Saturday, during the Orange’s press conference, Boeheim lavished praise on Bennett, who’s in his seventh year at Virginia.

Tony Bennett has been the best [college coach] that I’ve seen the last three years in terms of the way they play, how they play,” Boeheim said.

Apprised of Boeheim’s comments, Bennett said, “That’s very kind of him and that’s humbling. Our program isn’t to where some of those programs are yet, but we’re knocking.”

Before every game, home or away, the Wahoos hang a door knocker on the wall in their locker room. Before the players and coaches head out to the court, Bennett said, they each knock on it to remind themselves to persevere.

“Sometimes the door gets slammed in your face, sometimes maybe you open it an inch or you get your foot in the door or your shoulder,” Bennett said, “but all we’re in charge of is continuing to knock, and maybe we can get that foot in the door.”

This is Boeheim’s 40th season as head coach at his alma mater, which he guided to the NCAA title in 2003.

“We always talk about simplicity with execution, and that’s what he does,” Bennett said. “He does things that he knows … and he’s mastered it with his defense and his offense, and it’s why they’ve been so good over the years.”

This was not a vintage Syracuse team during the regular season — the first nine games of which Boeheim missed while serving an NCAA suspension — and then the Orange lost their only game in the ACC tournament.

Many critics questioned whether the Orange deserved an invitation to the NCAA tournament, but that didn’t faze Boeheim or his players.

Syracuse defeated No. 7 seed Dayton in the first round, No. 15 seed Middle Tennessee State in the second and then, in the Sweet Sixteen, No. 11 seed Gonzaga in the Sweet Sixteen. The Orange trailed by five with 2:55 to play Friday night at the United Center.

“At Syracuse we’ve always believed we’re going to win,” Boeheim said. “It doesn’t matter who we play. We’ve had enough success that we feel we can win. I think our players feel that way.”

Against Virginia, however, success has eluded the Orange in recent years. Since joining the ACC, Syracuse has defeated every other team in the conference at least once — except UVA. The Orange are 0-3 against the Cavaliers.

The teams’ most recent meeting was Jan. 24 at John Paul Jones Arena, where the `Hoos prevailed 73-65 on a night when Malcolm Brogdon and London Perrantes combined for 37 points, 10 assists, six rebounds and five steals.

Syracuse, which was 13 of 30 from 3-point range, erased a 10-point deficit to pull even at 47-47 with 8:16 remaining, but Brogdon and Perrantes took over late to help the Cavaliers collect a hard-earned victory.

“We really made some nice plays down the stretch,” Bennett said afterward. “We had to, to answer the plays [Syracuse players] were making.”

The `Hoos shot 56.8 percent from the floor against Syracuse’s trademark 2-3 zone on Jan. 24, and they were particularly effective around the basket.

“They’ve got a lot of weapons,” Boeheim said. “They don’t depend on Brogdon, who’s really good, but if he has an off day, they’ve got other guys that can step up and play well. Again, that’s why they’ve been so difficult to play against the last three years for everybody. It’s not just us.”

To prepare for Syracuse’s zone, Virginia practiced at times against a six-man defense Saturday afternoon at the United Center.

“It’s always a challenge going up against [Syracuse],” senior center Mike Tobey said. “I wouldn’t say you’re ever confident going against their zone, just because of how deadly it is. But I think being able to see it before is definitely an advantage we have over teams that haven’t seen it before. One of the keys is to be aggressive against the zone, because if you play passively, it’ll eat you alive.”

Bennett said it’s important to attack the 2-3 “in different ways. You have to knock down some shots. The ball has to move, you have to dent it off the dribble, get on the glass, different kinds of things.

“It’s a challenging zone, no doubt, but I think some experience against it makes you respect it even more, knowing you have to be aggressive but you can’t be unsound, because they get live-ball turnovers and that hurts, but if you just are too hesitant or passive against it, you can have trouble [too].”

The `Hoos have become known for their Pack-Line defense, but they’re also gifted offensively. Iowa State will attest to that. Led by the 7-0 Tobey and 6-8 fifth-year senior Anthony Gill, who were a combined 16 for 22 from the floor, Virginia shot 56.1 percent Friday night in its 84-71 win over the fourth-seeded Cyclones at the United Center.

That triumph put UVA on the brink of a third straight 30-win season.

In today’s college game, the Cavaliers are an unusually experienced team, and “the fact that they’re veterans, they’ve been there, they’ve won big games, all that plays into it,” Boeheim said. “They have a very, very good defensive system, and they have a much-better-than-people-think offensive system, as well, and that’s why they’ve had the success they have.”

No conference has had more success in this NCAA tournament than the ACC, with six representatives in the Sweet Sixteen and, now, four in the Elite Eight. With Virginia playing Syracuse and North Carolina taking on Notre Dame, on the same side of the bracket, the ACC is assured not only of having two teams in the Final Four, but one in the NCAA title game in Houston.

“It’s something that we all know in the ACC, that we have really good teams,” Gill said, “and for us to still have four teams in it now is huge for us, and just speaks to how hard it is to be successful in the ACC.”

The disparity in their seeds notwithstanding, Virginia is not taking Syracuse lightly. The Cavaliers know the Orange have improved significantly since the Jan. 24 game in Charlottesville, especially 6-9 freshman Tyler Lydon, who had more fouls (three) than points (two) at JPJ.

In Syracuse’s comeback win over Gonzaga, Lydon blocked six shots.

Productive throughout the season have been the Orange’s top three scoring threats: graduate students Michael Gbinije (17.8 ppg) and Trevor Cooney (12.8) and freshman Malachi Richardson (13.0).

At JPJ, Cooney made only 3 of 13 shots from the floor. But Gbinije, who’s from Richmond, scored 24 points and Richardson added 23. Gbinije and Richardson hit 11 treys between them.

Since that game, Cooney said Saturday, “I think everything has just gone a little bit better [for the Orange], and I think that comes with the season going on. I mean, you’re supposed to get better towards the end of the year, and I think we can see that happening.”

The ‘Hoos have improved too. Five games into their ACC schedule, the Cavaliers were 2-3 in league play and struggling mightily at the defensive end. Since losing at Florida State on Jan. 17, however, Virginia has gone 16-3.

“We took a couple losses earlier in the year that we shouldn’t have, and that’s not what we do,” Gill said. “We don’t let teams get into our paint and outscore us like they were doing. We just wanted to get back to UVA basketball.”

Now, in the win-or-go-home NCAA tournament, the Cavaliers understand that “for us seniors, it’s the last go-around,” Gill said, “and for a lot of those younger guys, they want to play for us and play for the whole team and play for the city of Charlottesville, and we’re just hungry at this point.”

In 2000, Bennett was a volunteer assistant on the Wisconsin team that advanced to the Final Four. The Badgers’ head coach that season was his father, Dick Bennett, who was in the stands Friday night for Virginia’s game against Iowa State.

“For me,” the younger Bennett said, “the most gratifying thing was to see my father reach what was a dream of his, and that was the best. When you see people you love achieve a desire like that, that’s as good as it gets.

“That was special, and yeah, that would be great, I guess, to join him. I haven’t really thought about that, a father and son both getting to coach in [the Final Four]. But if we’re fortunate enough to get there, we’ll have some good conversations.”

For UVA’s players, the biggest game of their careers awaits them Sunday night, with a trip to Houston for the Final Four on the line. But if the pressure is getting to the Cavaliers, they’re hiding it well.

“We’re enjoying this moment,” said Brogdon, an All-American guard and the ACC player of the year. “We’re excited to play. We’re not really worried about the Final Four right now. We’re worried about tomorrow’s game and taking care of business.”

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