Tale of the Tape: No. 11 Virginia at Syracuse

Reigning national champion Virginia begins its 2019-20 season with an uncommon ACC road game tonight, as the 11th-ranked Cavaliers travel to Syracuse for a 9 p.m. tip on ACC Network.

The ‘Hoos have taken the last three meetings against the Orange, and both teams will have a much different look than the last time they squared off, nearly eight months ago to the day on the same floor.

Behind a 24-3 second-half spurt and a school-record tying 3-point barrage at the Carrier Dome on March 4, UVA blasted Syracuse by 26 points — the largest margin of victory for either side in the 12-game, all-time series.

The Wahoo “Big Three” of De’Andre Hunter (21 points, with a career-high five 3-pointers), Ty Jerome (16 points, 14 assists) and Kyle Guy (25 points, 8-10 3PT) went off against the Orange, combining for 18 triples in the blowout win, which longtime Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim called one of the best shooting performances he’s ever seen. That’s saying a lot from NCAA’s second-winningest coach of all time.

With the trio of Hunter , Jerome and Guy all turning pro in the summer along with the departure of senior big man Jack Salt, Tony Bennett’s squad will have a few new faces — along with some familiar ones stepping into much larger roles — when the new season commences this evening in Upstate New York.

The Cavaliers lost 68 percent of their scoring from last year’s championship team, including 77 percent of the 3-point production, but Bennett has capable perimeter scorers that can also do damage in the paint.

Redshirt-senior Mamadi Diakite, senior Braxton Key, sophomore Kihei Clark and redshirt-junior Jay Huff will lead Bennett’s new-look ‘Hoos into battle with several newcomers sprinkled into the rotation.

Diakite was recently named one of 50 players on the Naismith Trophy (NCAA Player of the Year) watch list, and the 6-foot-9, 220-pounder is also an All-ACC first-team preseason selection and is ready to step up into a leadership role after testing the NBA Draft waters in the offseason.

Diakite, who’s also on the Karl Malone Award watch list for the country’s top power forward, was a key contributor down the stretch of last year’s unforgettable postseason run, and says he’s got a lot more in store for his final season in Charlottesville.

Clark, the gritty, 5-9 floor general, is the only other returning starter, and will again be the primary ball handler for the Cavaliers. Key and Huff are expected to see a lot more playing time this season, along with sophomore guard Kody Stattmann and 7-foot, redshirt-freshman Francisco Caffaro.

Also expected to see significant minutes are true freshmen Casey Morsell, a talented, tough combo guard, and Justin McKoy, a 6-8, 220-pound big who is known for his scoring and rebounding. Junior-college transfer Tomas Woldetensae is a sharpshooting guard who can also help fill the void from long range.

The Orange, picked to finish eighth in the ACC preseason voting, will also have to replace a ton of production from last season’s roster, including leading scorer Tyus Battle (17.2 ppg). Also gone are Oshae Brissett (12.4 ppg), Frank Howard (8.9 ppg) and big man Paschal Chukwu. Those four combined to start 123 games in 2018-19.

The lone returning starter is 6-6 junior forward Elijah Hughes, who led the Orange in scoring in their preseason scrimmages. Sophomore guard Buddy Boeheim has drawn rave reviews of his offseason improvements from his father/head coach, and 6-10 junior forward Marek Dolezaj was a steady contributor who will likely come off the bench to pace the team’s second unit.

Sophomore guard Jalen Carey and junior center Bourama Sidibe are expected to jump into the starting lineup, and Coach Boeheim believes he has something special when it comes to his group of incoming freshmen. Joseph Girard III, a 6-1 guard, is New York State’s all-time leading scorer at the high-school level, and is expected to provide immediate offense off the bench, while expected starter Quincy Guerrier and Brycen Goodine could also provide help from the get-go on both ends of the floor.

The ‘Hoos are a slight favorite in this important season opener with immediate conference implications as the league moves to a 20-game schedule. A big road  win could give the Cavaliers a much-needed early boost of confidence heading into the more traditional non-conference remaining month of November and beyond.

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