The most recent win, in January, was the most impressive. Virginia (29-7) shot 56.8 percent from the field and connected on 65.4 percent (17-of-26) on two-point shots.
“They’ve got a lot of weapons,” said Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim, on the eve of the teams’ matchup in the Elite Eight on Sunday night in Chicago.
“They don’t depend on (Malcolm) 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,” Boeheim said.
Syracuse (22-13) was second in the ACC this season in field-goal percentage defense, allowing opponents to shoot just 40.8 percent from the floor, and was best in the conference in defending the three, with opponents connecting on just 30.6 percent of their shots from long-range.
It’s easier said than done, but Virginia coach Tony Bennett said the key to getting good shots against the Syracuse 2-3 is movement.
“The ball has to move, you have to dent it off the dribble, get on the glass, different kinds of things,” Bennett said. “I just think I have the guys that have the right spacing and the right mindset, and these are the guys who have made the shots and made the plays.
“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. We had a lot of trouble, I remember there last year early on and then picked it up.”
Ah, yes, that game last year. Virginia ended up winning at Syracuse, 59-47, but only after a harrowing start that saw the Cavs down 13-2 with 6:06 left in the first half.
UVA scored on its last nine possessions of the half to lead at the break, 23-20, then scored on six of its first seven possessions in the second half to take control.
But even in a double-digit win, Syracuse showed how it can confound you.
“Coach Boeheim recruits guys that fit the mold to play that zone, athletic, and they’re very active, so they challenge a lot of shots,” Brogdon said. “I think the trap that the zone presents is shooting quick shots, shooting your first open shot, not getting them moving and just settling. Not settling and getting the shots that you want later in the shot clock I think is the key.”
One thing that Virginia does well in particular against zones – Syracuse’s and others – is locating someone, either Brogdon or a big, in the middle of the zone, just below the foul line and attacking either off the dribble, with a high-low pass into the post or inside-out passes to the wings.
“Malcolm will be a huge part of getting into the middle of the zone,” point guard London Perrantes said. “Yeah, we may not be able to set as many screens, but we have some playmakers with and without the ball. I think we’ll be able to find a way to get them the ball.”
Brogdon had 21 points in Virginia’s 73-65 win over Syracuse on Jan. 24, hitting a string of foul-line extended jumpers in that soft spot.
Sophomore forward Isaiah Wilkins also had a nice, if not quiet, game against the Orange in January. In 19 minutes off the bench, Wilkins had five points, five rebounds and three assists, on a three by Brogdon that extended the UVA lead to seven with 5:17 to go, another three by Perrantes that pushed the lead back to six with 2:42 to go, and a dunk by Anthony Gill that put the Cavs up seven with 1:04 left.
“I really like to be in the high post area. I feel like that’s where I’m most comfortable and that’s usually where I am when we play against the zone,” Wilkins said. “When I get there I’m kind of looking for Anthony but it’s also going to be finding shooters on the outside and then taking my shot when it’s there.”
Boeheim said his team’s interior defense has improved dramatically since mid-January, though Gonzaga big man Domantas Sabonis had a top-flight game in the Orange’s 63-60 Sweet 16 win Friday night, scoring 19 points on 8-of-12 shooting with 17 rebounds, seven of them offensive rebounds.
Kyle Wiltjer also had a solid night for the ‘Zags, scoring 23 on 9-of-17 shooting from the field, 4-of-7 from three-point range.
Syracuse won because of what it was able to do to the guys not named Sabonis and Wiltjer: holding them to 7-of-26 shooting and forcing 17 Bulldogs turnovers.
“I think our defense has picked it up a little bit from our movement to activity, to getting out to shooters,” guard Trevor Cooney said. “I think defensively, rebounding, I think everything has just gone a little bit better, 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.”
Virginia has gotten better, too, since the teams’ last meeting. The game after the Syracuse win in January was the inexplicable comeback at Wake Forest, in a game in which the Cavs played about as bad as a team can play and come home with a road win in the ACC.
That was the days of giving up more than a point per possession to everybody and their brother. Syracuse hit 13 threes in the loss at Virginia and scored 1.03 points per possession against the Cavs that night; in their 17 games since, only five UVA opponents have bettered that mark, and seven have scored 53 points or less.
Both defenses force opponents to make good decisions and exercise patience. Bennett knows both decision-making and patience will be critical Sunday night.
“I think it’s just about getting a quality shot,” Bennett said. “Offensively you’ve got to work — good defenses are hard to break down. Their zone is hard to break down. You can’t just one pass, shot. I mean, if it’s a great shot, we take it, and we try to make it hard to get quick shots early, so it’s just getting a quality shot, and sometimes it takes a little longer to work to break it down.
“You just battle, and you don’t get caught up if it’s longer possessions. You know you’ve got to lock in and be ready for that offensively and defensively, or it’s quicker pace,” Bennett said.
Story by Chris Graham