By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
SYRACUSE, N.Y. –– From a team that won the NCAA men’s basketball title in April, Virginia lost its top three scorers as well as its starting center, a defensive stalwart.
From a team that won 20 games and advanced to the NCAA tournament in 2018-19, Syracuse lost four starters.
What to expect tonight at the 35,012-seat Carrier Dome, where UVA meets Syracuse at 9 o’clock in the season opener for both teams? Good luck with that one.
In the preseason, Virginia played two closed scrimmages, against VCU and Georgetown. So Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim and his staff are uncertain what Tony Bennett’s 11th team at UVA will look like on the court.
The Cavaliers, at least, were able to study videotape of the Orange’s two preseason exhibition games: one-sided wins over Carleton University of Canada and Division II Daemen at the Carrier Dome.
“So we’ve got that much,” said assistant coach Brad Soderberg, who prepares the scouting reports on Virginia opponents.
“I guess if there’s any team you want to play without much prep, it is Syracuse, because Coach Boeheim has done the same thing for 45 years, pretty much. Now the pieces just change.”
The Orange’s roster includes five freshmen and no seniors, “so that part will be interesting,” said Soderberg, who’s in his fifth season on Virginia’s staff. “But the one thing I’ve noticed is, I think they shoot the ball from the perimeter maybe better than most of the [Syracuse] teams that I’ve seen since I’ve been here. They’ve got a bunch of guys that can really shoot that ball from the 3-point line, and that is going to be a big challenge right out of the gate.”
Bennett said: “We’re starting on the road against a good team that plays a unique style. You don’t get a lot of that when you scrimmage other teams. Not many people play similar to the way Syracuse does, so you try to emulate it to the best of your abilities in practice.”
Syracuse’s trademark under Boeheim has been a stifling 2-3 zone featuring tall players with big wingspans, and his 44th team at his alma mater has the necessary pieces.
“I don’t think they’ll ever be without height,” Soderberg said. “Height is never an issue for them. Length is never an issue for them, and that’s what makes their defense so stinkin’ good.”
UVA has won three straight over the Orange and leads the series 7-5. Still, Soderberg said, it’s “always hard to prep for Syracuse and try to figure out a way in practice to duplicate that zone, when we’re not exactly sure how they teach them to move and react to different passes going from one place to another. So we just do the best we can to simulate it with just trying to get as many long-armed guys as we can out there, and oftentimes go against more than five defenders in the halfcourt when we’re trying to run our offense.
“That’s about the best we can do. It’s no secret, though, that you have to make shots. You’ve got to find a way to get the ball in the bucket from the perimeter, and typically from maybe one or two steps deeper than you’re used to shooting, because that zone is so extended and they’re so long. The challenge is the same as it always is. It’s just a question of can we do it.”
In the Cavaliers’ most recent visit to the Carrier Dome, they hit 18 treys, matching the program record, in a 79-53 win over Syracuse. But the players who made those 3-pointers –– Kyle Guy (eight), De’Andre Hunter (five) and Ty Jerome (five) –– are now pursuing NBA careers.
Of Virginia’s returning players, only sophomore point guard Kihei Clark (29) made more than 20 treys in 2018-19. Senior Braxton Key made 18, redshirt junior Jay Huff made 14, and sophomore Kody Stattmann made four.
“We’re not where we’ve been shooting the 3-point shot,” Bennett said.
Moreover, that shot figures to be a little more difficult this season. In the men’s college game, the 3-point line has been pushed back from 20 feet, 9 inches, to the international distance of 22 feet, 1¾ inches.
Even so, Bennett said, when “you have open shots, you have to take them. And you’ll get tested right away. You’re going to have to stick some outside shots against [Syracuse’s] zone, work the areas that are important. We’re working at it hard … We’ve been spoiled for a lot of years to have excellent 3-point shooting, and it’ll be a little bit more balanced this year, but we’ll have to take them when they’re there.”
With players such as the 7-1 Huff, the 6-9 Diakite and the 6-8 Key, the Wahoos have excellent size in the frontcourt, “and hopefully we’ll be able to play at times differently and not just live and die by the 3,” Bennett said.
The Cavaliers’ rotation is likely to include freshmen Justin McKoy, a 6-8 forward, and Casey Morsell, a 6-3 guard. Another first-year player, 5-9 Chase Coleman, might spell Clark at point guard.
Morsell starred for St. John’s College High in the storied Washington Catholic Athletic Conference, whose other members include such schools as DeMatha, Paul VI, Gonzaga and Bishop O’Connell.
“Most players from that league have gone on and done pretty darn well early on [in college],” Bennett said, “because there’s nothing like that.”
The intensity that marks games between St. John’s and DeMatha, for example, is rare at the high school level, Bennett noted, and all “those are experiences and situations that I think you can lean on as a player when you step into the college game. But there is an adjustment still, no matter how much experience you have.”
How will that adjustment go for the Hoos’ newcomers? Tune in to ACC Network tonight to find out.