Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Podcast Link

So Michael Pittman (@WahooBasketball) was nice enough to ask me to join his podcast with the famous (infamous?) Phony Bennett to recap the first week of the season. The plan is, according to Michael, is to record about every week or two so stay tuned for future shows.

Enjoy!

Friday, November 14, 2014

Let the Games Begin

Nearly eight months ago, I was surrounded by hundreds of utterly dejected Virginia fans, staring at the TV screen of Mustang Harry's, a bar in Midtown Manhattan, just a block away from Madison Square Garden, I was in the exact same place about 6 hours earlier, as the bar was one of a few designated Virginia bars for the weekend. Obviously, the mood was quite different at 1 AM than it was around 7 PM. Before the game, everyone was just so incredibly excited. You could tell just by looking at the number of people wearing blue and orange in this one bar that UVA was going to be well represented in the stands of the newly renovated Garden. I don't even remember people talking all that much about the game beforehand. It just seemed like everyone was so thrilled to be a part of something so "big." Seven hours later, those same people were at a loss for words.

Most of the people who made the trip to MSG, especially those from outside of the city, came into the weekend with a similar plan, which was to essentially "make a weekend" out of the game. I even know plenty of people who made the trip even though they didn't have tickets (which ended up costing a few hundred dollars just to get in the door). So, while the game was obviously the main attraction, I got the feeling that everyone was excited to just experience New York while Virginia was in town. I think this is why I will always remember that weekend as one of the best weekends of my life. A few weeks later back in Charlottesville, I talked with Joe Harris about that weekend and he felt the same way. It was clear that the loss stung, but he too mentioned how amazing the overall experience was. I think the reason why we look back on that weekend positively, despite the pain of such a loss, is because of how big the stage was. It doesn't get much bigger than playing Michigan State in the first NCAA Tournament game at MSG in 60 years. When I left New York on Sunday morning, all I was thinking was, "Man, I want to do this again."

It's easy to think about the "what ifs." What if Anthony Gill didn't hurt his ankle? What if Joe had hit that open three when UVA was building a lead in the second half? What if the refs had called Keith Appling for pushing off of Teven Jones?



This brings me back to Mustang Harry's. We had been in the bar for about 5 minutes when the UVA-MSU highlights started playing on SportsCenter. Some fans walked away from the TVs, some ordered a round of drinks, and others simply prepared to relive their agony. When the Appling pushoff played on the screen, one fan screamed "$%(#" Normally, this is when you'd try and get as far away from the person yelling expletives, but in this context, he was just saying what we were all feeling.

So we, as Virginia fans, could have spent this entire offseason asking "what if." And usually, I'm the first to think about these "what ifs," but for whatever reason, I haven't spent much time dwelling on them at all. Instead, my focus has been on how can we get back to this stage. How can we get to within a few plays of the Final Four? How can we win a National Championship?

These are the questions we are now asking of this program and it's awesome. I can get used to reading articles UVA basketball and seeing the phrase "legitimate national title contender" pop up frequently.

Keys to the Game:

This preview will be short and sweet for a few reasons. First, what I love to do and what I think I'm really good at is analyzing film. Well, there just isn't any film to analyze, at least not of JMU. With the suspensions of Andre Nation and Matt Vodanovich, the Dukes are a completely different team. I don't even think they know what to expect tonight. They only really have two guys that are even somewhat proven. Ron Curry is their biggest threat. The 6'4 Guard from NJ scored 9 pts on 3-7 shooting last year. He's a balanced guard in that he has a decent shot and has enough athleticism to drive to the bucket. I think he could very well have some success against UVA tonight, but the Dukes will need much more than that. The only other returning player who played more than 20 mpg last year is 6'7 wing Jackson Kent. The Sophomore Kent had 4 points against the Hoos last year. He'll obviously be asked to play a bigger role tonight. Personally, I'm not sure he's ready for it. While I haven't seen him since last year's game, I'm going to assume he's still quite skinny. That's a problem against guys like Malcolm Brogdon, Justin Anderson, and Marial Shayok. I have a feeling Kent will struggle unless he heats up from deep. Outside of those two, the other name to be familiar with is Yohanny Dalembert. The half-brother of Samuel Dalembert showed flashes of potential in last year's game. He's a 6'8 PF/C with solid athleticism and decent strength for a sophomore. I remember noticing him doing some nice things defensively and altering some shots. Still, he wasn't able to make any sort of an impact on the offensive end of the floor.

This brings me to my main point regarding this game. Look for Virginia to pound the ball inside. UVA has size, strength, and ability in the post that JMU just cannot match up with. Last year, Anthony Gill went 5-5 and never really broke a sweat. In fact, Virginia's three returning big men, GIll, Mike Tobey, and Darion Atkins, combined for 31 of the team's 61 points. None of JMU's returning post players scored a point. I expect all three of Gill, Tobey, and Atkins to have big games tonight. Also, JMU still has Malcolm Brogdon to deal with as well. I have read that Matt Brady has been tweaking his defenses often in the offseason. If players aren't certain what they're supposed to be doing on that end, you can be sure that Malcolm will take advantage of it.

The biggest area of concern for Virginia is clearly three point shooting. With London Perrantes and Evan Nolte sidelined, who is going to step up and knock down shots? Well, I'm sure Tony Bennett would like the answer to that question to be "No one, because we'll be able to score at will from close range." But if we struggle early and fail to knock down our shots, this one could be closer than it should be.

Still, Virginia just has too much talent, experience, size, and discipline to let the Dukes hang around for too long. This game will be a good experience for a team looking to replace two SR leaders. Opening with a road game in what should be a somewhat hostile arena will prepare the team for its biggest non-conference tests: trips to Maryland and VCU.

I'm looking forward to watching basketball again. I'm excited to see what Devon Hall can do as starting PG,  how Marial Shayok will factor into the rotation, whether guys like Mike Tobey and Justin Anderson have improved their games, and how we play as a team compared to what we looked like last March.

This was a fairly basic preview. As we learn more about the team and the opponents, I'll go into greater detail. Still, I'm excited to be writing about Virginia basketball again. It should be another incredible year.

I've got the Hoos winning 67-45.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

COMING SOON:

Once again, I set big goals for myself in the offseason and life got in the way. No worries. I will make sure to make up for it in the coming weeks. I probably wrote half a dozen drafts of posts trying to wrap up last season and transition it into this year, but honestly, nothing worked quite the way I wanted it to. It either ended up simplifying the emotions of last year or was just wayyyyyyy too long to read. So, I have decided to move forward into this season. In a way, I feel that this is kind of symbolic Last year was last year, this year is this year. Why try and segue one into the other?

Maybe I'm just making excuses, but whatever. I'll make sure to have some good content relating to the 2014-15 version of Virginia Basketball. Obviously, last year was special. Some moments were especially memorable. I'm not just thinking about the expressions on the faces of Coach Bennett's family members as the Syracuse game came to a close. Nor am I simply thinking about my amazing experience with my Dad in Greensboro, which included nearly breaking my ankle after jumping on my seat as Joe hit the ACC Championship sealing three pointer against Duke.

What really stands out in my memory from last season is my gut feeling after the heartbreaking loss at Cameron Indoor Stadium in January. I was understandably upset following the conclusion of that game. Yet, I was anything but discouraged. While on the whole, Virginia had played a pretty terrible game, I was just so utterly encouraged by the way they fought back at the end of the game and nearly stole a road win at probably the most difficult place to win in the country. Something in me (perhaps it was the beer) made me go out on a limb and say that we would win the ACC.

This is where I'd like to write, "I TOLD YOU SO," but I can't do that in good conscience. Yes, what I saw in that game made me feel confident that we had what it took to win the ACC. But what actually happened was so, so much better than I ever could have envisioned. That night, I looked at the scheduled analytically, and determined that Virginia had a good chance to take advantage of a favorable draw and win the ACC. But that's not what happened. I didn't think we could dominate the conference like we did. I didn't think we could beat a team like Syracuse by 19. I didn't think we could win the ACC Tournament in Greensboro. And I DEFINITELY didn't think we could earn a #1 Seed in the NCAA Tournament. Even as soon as a week before the Selection Sunday, I would have told you that Virginia earning a #1 seed was nothing more than a fantasy.

So, basically, what I learned from last year is to not use the past to limit the present and the future. My gut told me that we were really good, but history told me that "really good" meant being about the 20th best team in the country. I have since learned that, under Tony Bennett, in this system, if I get a gut feeling about a team...just go with it.


Thursday, March 27, 2014

The Next Step: Madison Square Garden

Scouting the Spartans:

Let's get this out of the way: Michigan State is better than any team Virginia has played this season. To some, that might not seem like that bold of a statement, as the Spartans are a hugely popular pick to win the National Championship and have been playing incredible basketball recently. However, I think there's a portion of fans who tend to roll their eyes when they hear people go on and on about how good Michigan State is. They are under the impression that MSU is a 4 seed for a reason, injuries or no injuries. They'll be the first ones to remind you that a healthy Spartan squad lost to North Carolina, a team Virginia had little trouble with, by double digits at home. Or that they lost to a mediocre Illinois team (also at home) this very month. While these results should not be ignored, they do not shed light on just how difficult tomorrow night's game will be. I've been watching and analyzing teams on film in write to do these posts and I cannot recall a team ever being more impressive than this Michigan State team, at least since the start of the Big Ten Tournament.

Okay now that I've made that clear, enough gushing over the Spartans. They are great, but nowhere near invincible. While I slightly discounted the Illinois loss above, as they're clearly playing much better basketball than at the start of the month, I have to admit that the outcome is interesting to say the least. Many fans correctly assume that one of the deciding factors in tomorrow's game will be how well Virginia imposes its will on Michigan State and makes them play "Bennett-Ball." It makes one wonder what teams has MSU faced that play a similar style to Virginia's and what did that game look like...

Well, if you take a peek at the KenPom Ratings and focus primarily on Adjusted Tempo and Adjusted Defensive Efficiency, you'll notice that Illinois is pretty darn comparable to UVA in those aspects of the game.

Adjusted Tempo:
Illinois- 329
Virginia- 346

Adjusted Defensive Efficiency:
Illinois- 11
Virginia- 5

So when you look at those numbers and consider that Illinois won a 53-46 game in East Lansing, it makes you feel pretty confident that win or lose, Virginia should be able to make the Spartans play its brand of basketball. Now this is not to say that, "Illinois' style worked and beat MSU. Therefore, Virginia's style will work and beat MSU." The result in the first matchup between the two Big Ten schools, a 78-62 Spartan victory in Champaign, shows how you can not simply look at that March 1 matchup in isolation. However, when you add to it the fact that Columbia and Northwestern were also able to make Michigan State slow it down (though they still lost), you start to feel pretty confident that Tony Bennett's team will be able to dictate the pace of the game.

Illinois was not just similar to Virginia in terms of tempo, but also in terms of defense. Everyone and their mother knows about Virginia's defense. While it is ranked only 5th in KenPom's efficiency, I have absolutely no problem saying UVA is the best defensive team in the country. The closest comparison to Virginia defensively out of Michigan State's opponents would be Ohio State. While the Buckeyes play a more physical, aggressive style of defense than UVA, they're still make it difficult as tough to score. MSU and OSU split their two meetings, which were both extremely close games. In both contests, Ohio State prevented the Spartans from scoring 70 points in regulation. This season, Michigan State played 9 games against top 30 defenses and only broke 70 once, and that was the second game of the year against the youngest team in the country, Kentucky. Interestingly, the Spartans only managed 65 points (and more shockingly allowed 79 when Leslie Mcdonald was still ineligible) points in a home loss to North Carolina, 11 points fewer than Virginia scored against the Tarheels.

The elephant in the room here is that Virginia's offense is SIGNIFICANTLY better than Illinois, Ohio State, Northwestern, and North Carolina. You hear many people compare this team to those of the Dick Bennett days in Wisconsin. While I understand the temptation to make such a comparison, Virginia is simply different from those squads. They're not trying to play slowly and defend hard to keep themselves in games, but rather they're doing it to keep the opponent out of games. Those former teams who tried to dribble the air out of the ball or required that every player touch the ball before anyone could shoot a la Hoosiers did so because they knew they didn't have the talent or offensive firepower to play otherwise. If UVA really wanted to, they could play exactly like Michigan State. Bennett chooses not to because when you insert talent and athletes into his system, it just makes it that much better. When you're facing the best defense in the country, you're already worried about whether you can score. But when you add in the fact that Virginia has incredible offensive efficiency, it makes you task twice as hard. With other Bennett teams, you're thinking about whether you're going to run out of possessions and look up at the scoreboard just to see you lost 53-51. With this team, you're worried that if you go a couple of possessions without a score, you're going to get run out of the gym. In this manner, this UVA team reminds me of some of the recent Alabama football teams. Everyone knows their defense will be great, but they tend to overlook their offense. In 2012-2013, when they beat Notre Dame for the National Championship, their offense was actually pretty damn good. But like this UVA team, its strength was in efficiency not explosiveness. If they got a stop, they'd then slowly march down the field and score. Another stop, same thing. One more, same thing. It got to the point where you had better find a way to score on them early, because once they get 10-14 on the board in the first half, the game becomes out of reach.

In terms of basketball, I actually can't really think of a team that is genuinely similar to Virginia. I think Pittsburgh is the closest, which is why it makes sense that they played UVA tough twice even though I think they are not really near the same level as them, but Virginia is more talented, athletic, and deeper than the Panthers. I mention all of this to point out that if Michigan State assumes that Virginia is just another Ohio State, they're in for a rude awakening.

So now that I have laid out one of the most important factors of the game, how Virginia's style of play will affect Michigan State, let us now turn to the individual matchups.

Backcourt:

At point guard, we will see London Perrantes vs. Keith Appling. Following his wrist injury, Appling just has not been the same player as the one that looked like an All American early in the year. It's sad to say this, but he's just a shadow of his former self. While he is still a talented player with great experience and athleticism, I do not expect him to be a big factor in the game, especially offensively. Expect Perrantes to play off him like Virginia did to Jontel Evans for so many years. Appling, who when healthy was a great three point shooter, has made just 2 from behind the arc since his return 11 games ago. By comparison, Perrantes has hit 23 threes in the past 10 games, shooting 64% from behind the arc during that stretch. The key for London is to keep Appling out of the lane and from getting to the rim. If Keith is going to score, it will most likely be close to the basket. Perrantes needs to make sure he limits his opportunities and essentially eliminates him as an offensive threat. On the other end of the floor, London will just need to do exactly what he has been doing: play steady basketball, protect the ball, and knock down shots. Appling is a solid defender, probably slightly above average. Again, I don't think this matchup will decide the game unless something uncharacteristic happens.

While everyone is excited for the main matchup in the post, the one at SG might be just as intriguing. In Malcolm Brogdon and Gary Harris, you have two pretty similar guards that score in a variety of ways. When you watch the two play, it's hard to discern many real difference in their games. They both can get to the rim and finish in traffic, they both have excellent midrange games, and they can both knock down threes. As far as their differences, I would say that Brogdon is bigger and stronger whereas Harris is a bit quicker and a little more skilled. Both are fine defenders, though Brogdon is the better of the two. He will have his work cut out for him, though, as Harris is a really tough cover. He has nice range and gets his shots up quickly, so the most important job Malcolm has will be making sure to contest his jumpers. Harris will have to prevent Brogdon from using his size to get to the rim, as Michigan State tends to be a little slow in help. This should be a really fun matchup. Whichever guy gets the better of the other might be moving onto the Elite 8.

At the wing is really the only place that I see a mismatch in this game. Joe Harris will likely be matched up with State's Denzel Valentine. Valentine is someone that has not really impressed me much on film. Offensively, he doesn't add much other than a made three here or there or an easy dunk/layup. Against Joe and the Pack-Line, I just can't see him being a factor offensively. You could actually compare his offensive game to Justin Anderson's at the moment, except Valentine doesn't have the wildcard of Justin's dynamic athleticism. And on defense, the mismatch might be even worse. Valentine is big and strong, but also pretty damn slow. He also has a tendency to take plays off and doesn't always go his hardest. Look to see Joe Harris be aggressive from the beginning, running all over the floor without the ball, coming off screens left and right. Valentine won't want to chase him and will likely call for a switch. Ultimately, Izzo might realize that this is indeed a mismatch and put Valentine on Brogdon (which is still a mismatch, though not as bad as one) and Harris on, well, Harris. If not, Joe could be in for a very big night.

Neither team is particularly deep off the bench in the backcourt, though both do have great 6th men. Justin Anderson will play early and often for the Wahoos and will likely matchup with Valentine or even Dawson in the post. As for the Spartans, their 6th man, Travis Trice, is a tiny guard who can really shoot it from deep (45%). Trice isn't a huge threat to drive, so whoever is guarding him has to make sure to stay close to him and contest his shots. One thing to watch with regards to Trice is how he deals with Virginia's size in the backcourt. Even London Perrantes has a good couple of inches on him, so he might find it difficult to shoot over the bigger defenders.


Frontcourt:

Fans who love good post play are in for a treat with this game. Both teams have talent and depth in the frontcourt and try to use that to wear the opponent down. The most talented player of the bunch is Adreian Payne. Payne is pretty much the poster-child of a Tom Izzo player. He's versatile, experienced, tough, etc. As a neutral fan of the game, I love to watch him play. He can do a little bit of everything with the ball. He has a nice low post game where he uses his big body to back defenders down for easy hook shots near the rim. But where he's really unique is how he shoots the ball like a guard. A lot of bigs can step out and hit deep shots when the defender gives them to him, but Payne actually creates shots for himself as a guard or wing would. This is why it's crucial to be disciplined when guarding Payne, because at any time he can pop out to the three point line and bury it. I expect Payne to play with great passion, as he knows how good of a defender is waiting for him and he does NOT want to be Izzo's first class to miss out on a Final Four appearance. That said, I expect Akil Mitchell will make things difficult for him, at the very least. Mitchell has elite quickness and footwork, which is something Payne probably hasn't seen before and may catch him off guard, on both ends of the floor. I expect Payne to reach double figures, but Mitchell can still claim a win if he makes sure Payne is inefficient. In the ACC Championship Game, Jabari Parker score 20+ yet all anyone could talk about was how Akil's defense won Virginia the game. Another outing like that one and Virginia could be moving on.

The other matchup in the post will likely come between Anthony Gill and Branden Dawson. While Mike Tobey has started every game for a while now, I think there's a chance we will see Gill on the floor to start the game. For one, Gill has been on fire as of late and has pretty much played starter's minutes regardless.  Additionally, rumors are swirling that Tobey broke his thumb in practice sometime. While apparently the injury is a non-story, it might be the perfect cover to slide Gill into the starting lineup and play a bit of gamesmanship by making it seem like Mike is more hurt than he really is. Anyways, AG is going to play a lot, no matter what, and for most of the time, he'll be matched up with MSU's Dawson. For all intents and purposes, you can pretty much call Dawson a clone of Justin Anderson. They're both freak athletes, have great strength, and can defend multiple positions. Oddly enough, despite their similarities, I don't think we'll actually see them guarding each other all that much. Instead, Dawson should be tasked to go against the bigger Anthony Gill, but don't think he's intimidated by AG's size in the least. Dawson is used to being the shorter guy down low and his strength and athleticism makes his height more or less irrelevant. In all honesty, I don't know how this matchup will play out. Dawson has the strength to stand up to AG's aggressive drives, but is that enough from him finishing anyways? I wouldn't be surprised if the pair went for double digits or had relatively quiet games. The key to the matchup, though, will be AG making sure he limits Dawson on the offensive glass. He's one of the best offensive rebounders around and this is not a game where UVA can afford to give the other team second chances.

The rest of Virginia's froncourt includes Atkins, Nolte, and, obviously, Tobey. I think that Tobey will try and do his work on the MSU reserves, as neither Dawson nor Payne is a good matchup for him. I don't necessarily think he'd get abused by Payne or anything, but I don't want to see him matched up on AP for longer than necessary. Offensively, Tobey could do some damage against those reserves. However, Mike has not strung together back to back double digit outings since November. He had 11 on Sunday, will he break the streak?

As for those MSU reserves, they include Kenny Kaminski, Matt Costello, and Gavin Schilling. Schilling does not play all that much and I doubt that changes tomorrow night. Kaminski and Costello will see time, as both average about 15 points and 5 rebounds per game. Kaminski is more skilled and has range out to the three point line, whereas Costello is more of a "post presence" type of player and is a solid rebounder. Overall, I don't expect either to make any sort of a significant impact.

As for Atkins and Nolte, it pointless to predict what kind of role they will have because it really changes from game to game. They'll both play at least some, but how long that is depends how well they fit into the flow of the game and how the matchups play out on the floor.

Conclusion:

This is going to be a great basketball game. It's been said a lot lately, but it really feels much more like a Final Four game than a Sweet Sixteen game. Just look at the ticket prices. You can get tickets to both Final Four games AND the National Championship Game for less money than the cheapest ticket to tomorrow night's games. Yeah, UConn. Yeah, MSG. But still, this is an enormous game.

Strictly on paper, this one is as they say, "too close to call." Both teams are really good at what they do, so it's hard to either bending to the other's will. You're tempted to say "UVA will impose their will" but then you remember Izzo and how adaptable his teams have been. You're tempted to say "MSU will be too tough in transition and simply has more talent" but then you remember that you've heard that said about countless of UVA's opponents, including the last one, who proved no match for the Hoos. For this reason, I think this one simply comes down to execution. If the teams played 10 times, they might split 5-5, so this game will just be one of those five where the winning team does enough good things to come out on top.

Still, I must admit that the storyline, or rather storylines are a bit intimidating. They've got Tom Izzo, who has certainly has the resume of a champion. They've got Adreian Payne and Keith Appling, who are looking to avoid becoming Izzo's first class to miss out on the Final Four. They're finally healthy and playing like the team they were supposed to be a few months ago. The list goes on...

And yet, why should I turn back now? This team has not just met my expectations for them, but has far surpassed them. After my prediction that UVA would win the regular season title came true, I desperately wanted to show others that "I was right." But I wasn't right. Yeah, I thought we'd win the ACC, but with a record of 14-4 thanks a very favorable schedule. I didn't really believe that this team would be the consensus best team in the ACC. But they were. I was rewarded for my optimism and then some. Why should I throw in the towel now?

As I left the bookstore to walk back across Grounds to my apartment, I thought about the Sweet 16 T-Shirts on display around the store. I had absolutely no desire to purchase one. Not because of the cost. Not because of the design. Rather, there was something terminal about them. Don't get me wrong. I am not trying to diminish the feat of making it this far. If this is as far as we go, I might reconsider and ultimate buy one. But buying the shirt now reminded me of a feeling I had during a golf match in high school. It was the league championships and I was having the round of my life. I had NEVER played like this before. I had always thought I was capable of such a round and even perhaps that I should expect myself to play like that more often. Through the first nine, I was at the right balance between focused and relaxed, not too stressed, not too casual. As I got closer and closer towards the finish, and the rain became steadier and steadier, I began to think about the final score, and about how it would guarantee me All League. That kind of thinking was actually okay, as it made me work harder, realizing how badly I wanted it. But the worst thought that came across my mind was one of satisfaction. Somewhere in the midst of my focus on the finish, I thought to myself, "Man, even if things went south in these last couple of holes, I can still look back on this as the best I've ever played." I don't have to explain to you what happened, but I will point out that my thought couldn't have been further from the truth. The only thing I care about that round is what happened towards the end.

I am confident that Virginia is not satisfied. They will not make the same mistake I did. If someone beats them, it will be because they played better and nothing else. This team has a goal. This weekend is just another step.

Two feet at a time.




Friday, February 28, 2014

Virginia-Syracuse Game Preview:

This is what I tweeted out in my alcohol induced frustration following the loss to Duke. At the time, Virginia was 12-4, 3-0 in the ACC. As I mentioned in my Pittsburgh Preview, it would be a lie to say that I was 100% confident in this prediction. I knew this team was good, and was certainly capable of proving me right, but I also had memories of getting my hopes up, just to be let down in the end. So for this reason, I was hesitant. But still, I felt that there was something that made this team from other Virginia teams. So, I decide that this team would be the one to break the pattern of disappointment, and tweeted out my bold prediction.

So now I'm one game away from finally being rewarded for my naive optimism. How has it happened? Well, for one, we've been able to take advantage of the easiest conference schedule in the ACC. Is it our fault that we have such an easy draw? Obviously not. We can't help having to play Virginia Tech twice. We can't help it that Notre Dame is a vastly different team without Jerian Grant. We can't help it that Mark Turgeon is a miserable basketball coach. We can't help it that Florida State isn't as good as they were supposed to be. You get the point. Because of all of these factors, we really did luck out with whom we had to face. But why does that even matter? It'd be one thing if we were barely scraping by the mediocre teams in our schedule or if we dropped an easy one or two. If that was the case, then yeah, you could call us fortunate to be in first place. But since we've been dominant pretty much from start to finish, you can no longer call our rise to the top "lucky." If you're Duke or Syracuse, you forfeit your right to complain about SOS when you lose to teams like Clemson, Notre Dame, and Boston College. And I won't even get into how fortunate Syracuse is to even still have a chance to win the league given all of their struggles against mediocre opponents.

Anyways, yes, taking advantage of a favorable draw is one reason why we are where we are. But the other reason is more significant. Virginia is playing for an ACC title tomorrow because they finally found an identity and embraced it. Prior to ACC play, UVA's inconsistency came primarily from a lack of identity. We didn't know what type of team we were and we didn't know what type of team we wanted to be. We turned the ball over at an alarming rate, we had no rhythm on offense, and we were uncharacteristically poor on defense. What we really needed was a game like Tennessee so that we could take everything apart in order to build it back up. That humbling defeat showed us that we did not have enough raw talent to simply show up and win. We still had to play team basketball. This necessarily meant shortening the rotation and guys embracing different role. And as we've seen in ACC play, that's exactly what they've done.

Syracuse on Offense:


The Orange are 22nd in the nation in Adjusted Offense according to KenPom.com's rankings. Much like Virginia, they are a good but not great offensive team. Their biggest weapon is ACC Preseason Player of the Year, CJ Fair. For some reason, Fair has flown somewhat under the radar this season, despite playing very well all year long. He has only scored in single figures twice all season (against St. Francis and Notre Dame). Fair is very aggressive with the ball in his hands and is constantly looking to get himself a shot. Only TJ Warren takes more shots than Fair's 14.7 per game. CJ is most deadly in the midrange game. I'd be willing to bet that over half of his scoring comes from his one dribble midrange pull up shots. The only real downside to his game is that he can be a little to aggressive at times. He turns the ball over 2.5 times per game and has shot the 2nd most three pointers on the team despite only shooting around 25%.


Their next weapon for the Orange is Freshman PG Tyler Ennis. A few weeks ago in my Pittsburgh game preview, instead of writing a paragraph to describe James Robinson's game, I simply wrote "London Perrantes." I probably could have done something similar here, but there are a few differences to point out. First of all, Syracuse relies much more heavily on Ennis to score than Virginia does on Perrantes. For this reason, Ennis shoots the ball twice as much as London does. While Ennis will make you pay if you give him open looks from deep, he primarily does his damage in the lane. He has elite vision like London and makes good decisions with the ball. What separates him from Perrantes, at least for now, is his ability to finish. He has a nifty little floater that he loves to use in the lane. He also is surprisingly good at finishing at the rim for a guy his size. His one vulnerability, which has only really become an issue the past few games, is turnovers. Ennis is averaging over 2 turnovers a game in ACC play, and has committed 11 turnovers in the past 4 games. Against Maryland, he was a bit too lackadaisical with some of his passes. He will not be able to be that casual against Virginia.

Jerami Grant might be the Orange's most talented player. Grant is an elite wing with post size. Even though he's not really a post player, he gets most of his points at the rim. Grant is extremely aggressive and loves to attack the basket. He plays very well alongside Ennis, who feeds him for easy finishes. The biggest question concerning Grant is his health. He has been struggling with back pain and played sparingly in the game against Maryland. If he's fully healthy, Grant will be a problem for Virginia, especially on the glass. Syracuse is one of the best offensive rebound teams around and Grant is a big reason why.

The other main weapon for Syracuse is Trevor Cooney. Simply put, Cooney is a shooter. 72% of his FG attempts this season are from behind the arc. Like most shooters, Cooney is very hot-cold. He's had games where he's been 7-8, 5-6, 5-11, 5-8, 5-9, and 9-12. Those were his "hot" games. His cold ones have been 0-4, 1-5, 2-12, 2-8, 1-6, 2-10. The most interesting thing to note is that he seems to be is a sort of slump. Since his 33 pt 9-12 outing against Notre Dame, Cooney has shot just 11-40 (27%) from three. He isn't much of a threat to score outside of his shot, so if he continues his cold streak or Virginia does a good job closing out on him, the Orange will be in trouble. But if he starts feeling it, there likely won't be anything UVA can do about it.

Those four players make up around 80% of the Orange's scoring. The other 20% is split among Rakeem Christmas, Michael Gbinije, Baye Mousa Keita, and Tyler Roberson. Christmas, Syracuse's starting Center, scores just under six points per game. He isn't the type of guy who's going to take over a game, but you can count on him getting at least a couple buckets around the rim each game. He's a good finisher down low and uses his length and athleticism to create a presence in the paint. Keita is similar to Christmas, but a little less polished. If he's going to score, it's likely going to be on an easy one around the basket. Gbinije is the only backcourt reserve for the Orange. The Petersburg native is active and can give Syracuse some good minutes, but having seen him play for around 7 years now, I don't think he's someone Virginia has to worry about offensively. Roberson has a frame similar to Grant's, but hasn't really be able to establish a role for himself. I don't think we'll see too much of him unless Christmas/Keita/Grant get in foul trouble (more on that below).

As far as matchups go, I think we'll see Virginia start with: Perrantes on Ennis Harris on Cooney Brogdon on Fair Mitchell on Grant Tobey on Christmas When Anderson checks in, I think he'll rotate between Ennis and Fair. Harris will probably see some time on Fair, but I expect Brogdon to check him for most of the game. I know this worries some people, but you have to remember that Brogdon did a great job on TJ Warren earlier in the year (as did Joe). Since Joe is much better at closing out and staying with shooters, I like him on Cooney. When Gill and Atkins check in, they will likely be paired with Christmas or Keita. I really like the matchup of Mitchell on Grant. He can prevent Grant from getting good looks near the rim and can keep him off the glass as well.

Syracuse on Defense:

As everyone knows, Syracuse runs a 2-3 zone. Boeheim recruits specifically for this zone, as he always has smart guards that know how to get in the passing lanes and long, athletic bigs who alter shots inside and grab rebounds. That's true of this year's team, as Ennis and Cooney frequently cut off passing lanes to get steals, and Fair, Grant, and Christmas use their length to affect shots inside. There's no one way to beating Syracuse's zone, or any zone for that matter. The easiest way is to simply shoot over top of it, but it's also the most predictable and high risk option. The most effective way is to move the ball like hell around the perimeter and get touches at the high and low post. UVA has used a number of different looks against the zone this season.

Against Notre Dame in South Bend, UVA had Perrantes at the top of the key, Brogdon and Harris on the wings, Tobey/Gill at the high post, and Mitchell running the baseline. This is pretty much what Duke did at the Carrier Dome, putting Parker in Mitchell's role on the baseline. In my opinion, this is the best way to attack Syracuse, especially with Gill at the high post. Feed Gill the ball, have him drive and draw 1-2 of the bottom three and there will be a lane to get Akil the ball. Another way we can play the zone is by starting with two bigs in the high post. We did this against ND in the second game. This allows us to aggressively screen the top of the zone and force the entire zone to over-rotate. For example, say Perrantes feeds the ball from the top of the key to Brogdon on the right wing. As soon as the pass is made, Mitchell dives to the low post/baseline. Gill either sets a ball screen or delays and screens the far side of the zone. The latter strategy is my favorite, as it allows for a swing pass. This pass is risky, but if it gets through, the defense is in a really poor spot.

It's hard to describe this in words, but basically this strategy is all about forcing the top of the zone towards one end of the floor then skipping it across to make them recover. The more the ball moves the more the zone has to work. UVA has the right personnel to attack a zone. A steady PG at the top of the key, two wings who can drive and shoot, bigs who are threats to shoot from the elbow, and athletic guys who can finish down low. It will be tough, but if Virginia can be aggressive without turning the ball over, they will have some success offensively.


Conclusion:

As a Virginia fan, I'm weirdly confident about this game. I don't see a scenario where we play well and lose. That said, UVA must go out and put together a good game of basketball. While both defenses will have the advantage over the opposing offenses, I think Syracuse will have a bit more trouble scoring than Virginia will. Also, I think Syracuse will struggle to stay out of foul trouble. Virginia is a fairly big and aggressive team in the post, and Syracuse really on has two natural post players, both of whom struggle with fouls. If Christmas and/or Keita pick up some early ones, the Orange will be in trouble.

Ultimately, I think the combination of Virginia's defense, the home crowd, and Syracuse's lack of depth will tip UVA over the edge. If UVA hits shots and protects the ball, it will likely win the ACC.

That sounds pretty cool, doesn't it?

Thank You Seniors:

In Joe Harris' first two starts as a Virginia Cavalier, his team was outscored 187-123. Joe's two good individual performances, 12-20 shooting from the floor and 6-11 from three, were overshadowed by the team's complete inability to play the kind of basketball Tony Bennett demands. After losing the first game of its daunting road trip to Stanford, Virginia traveled to Maui and prepared to face the 13th ranked Washington Huskies. I remember sitting in my first year dorm room getting ready to watch this game. I had always been a Virginia basketball fan, but now that I was actually a student at UVA, it was different. I felt a kind of bond with the team, especially with the first year players. Two of my good friends from high school lived on the same hall as the first year's on the basketball team, and I remember thinking how cool it was hearing them talk about playing Fifa with them, getting late night food, etc. When you're younger, you tend to idolize the players of you favorite college team the same way you would with your favorite professional athletes. But once you actually step foot onto a college campus, you realize that it's much more like cheering for your high school team. These guys go to the same classes, eat at the same places, and go to the same parties as you do. It's completely cliché to say this, but the players really are just your typical college kids. 

Anyways, a few minutes before the start of the Washington game, I left my room at Humphreys and crossed the quad towards the Castle to grab some food. As I waited in line for my Cyclops burger, I saw on the television across the room that the game had just tipped off. When I checked out, things were looking good. We seemed to be trading baskets with the highly ranked and highly favored Huskies. However, by the time I had finished eating my burger in my dorm room, that was no longer the case. After the first TV timeout, Washington blew the doors open. To this day, that game remains the most dominating performance I have ever seen in a Virginia game. The worst part about it was that it wasn't that we were just having an off night. Rather, it looked like we didn't belong on the same court as Washington. Granted, we were a young a young team, but still, Washington just looked to be on a completely different level of talent, athleticism, and physicality. The final score was 106-63.

Somehow we were able to respond from that performance and blow out a decent Oklahoma team, as well as play competitively against a solid Wichita State squad. Still, as Virginia left Maui and headed for Minnesota on the next stop of the road trip, hopes weren't exactly high. While I was optimistic heading into the Washington game, I fully expected a beatdown at Minnesota. However, thanks to a 24 point night from Joe Harris (a number that he would top until February of last year), Virginia left the Barn with what would be its best win of the year. 

Looking back, I think that the Washington and Minnesota games were crucial to Joe's development as a player. That road trip essentially established his role as a starter for the rest of the season. You could look at his game and tell that he was likely going to be "the guy" for the next four years.

Akil Mitchell's ascension to his position as a team leader took a bit longer. I can remember going to an open practice at JPJ my first year, a few weeks before the start of the season. Around that time, rumors had been going around that one of the six freshmen would redshirt. Nearly all Virginia fans assumed that Akil Mitchell was the clear redshirt candidate on the roster. He was an essentially unknown recruit with an extremely raw offensive game and a lanky frame, thus, giving him an extra year to develop seemed to make sense. However, after watching that practice, I posted on The Sabre that it wouldn't surprise me if James Johnson was that rumored redshirt candidate. Johnson looked lost on both ends and seemed nowhere close to contributing. Mitchell, on the other hand, looked relatively comfortable. Though he was indeed raw, he was active on both ends of the floor and looked to have great potential as a rebounder and defender. Still, during the early parts of his first year, while I admired his hustle, I never really imagined him to be anything other than an energy guy off the bench. That changed during the Carolina game. While he didn't make much of an impact on the box score, Akil was still able to stand out. I remember being extremely impressed with his defense and rebounding against what was without question the best frontcourt in the country, featuring Tyler Zeller, John Henson, and Harrison Barnes. It was this game that made me wonder whether Mitchell's potential was higher than I had initially imagined. 

The next year, Mitchell erased any doubts as to whether he would ever develop into an ACC starter. While he still wasn't exactly prominent on offense, his role was essential to the team's success. Perhaps the play I will remember and admire the most of Akil's entire career was his crucial putback dunk at Cameron Indoor. You can always see how Akil plays with an little bit of a chip on his shoulder against the Carolina schools and I think this play is a fantastic example of that. It was the type of purely athletic play Duke and UNC fans expect their guys to make, so it was extra special to see it happen to them for a change. While Virginia ultimately lost the game, that play seemed to signify how that performance was not a fluke, and that teams like Duke should count on Virginia being around for the long haul. 

Obviously, Akil showed his potential to everyone last season. We all knew that he could be one of the best defenders and rebounders in the league, but still few thought that he would ever develop into a reliable offensive weapon, but that's exactly what he did. Mitchell scored in double figures in 14 of 18 ACC games, earning himself a spot on the 3rd team All ACC. The biggest travesty was that he was left off of the ACC All Defensive team. With the emergence of KJ McDaniels, it looks like Akil will graduate without a Defensive Player of the Year award (though he's a lock for All Defensive Team). Still, he will go down as one of the best defenders in Virginia basketball history.

Perhaps the thing that stands out the most about our three seniors is that I am just incredibly proud to be a part of the same graduating class as them. I have friends at other schools who are fans of their players on the court, but aren't exactly proud of them off it. That isn't the case with these three guys. Joe, Thomas, and Akil and three guys who have really embraced UVA. They're not isolated from the rest of the community, but rather they're immersed in it. As I said earlier, they're essentially the same as the rest of the students, except for the fact that they're tall and good at basketball. While what they have done to the program in terms of taking it from a team that lose by 43 to Washington to one that will play for an ACC Championship tomorrow is amazing. But I think when we look back at their time here, we'll say that their biggest impact was their ability to unite the team with the rest of the school, fans, and community. Yeah, you could say that fans flock to winning teams. But there's just something special about this team that I first noticed last year. The bond between those on the court and those in the stands is palpably real. 

We don't love this team because of it's dunks, blocks, made threes, or even its wins. We love this team simply because it is this team. And for that, we can thank Joe Harris, Akil Mitchell, and Thomas Rogers.